On a sunny, windy day we hire a taxi in the heart of Kushiro, Japan – still on the big island of Hokkaido – heading for its outskirts, to see first-hand the setting of one of wildlife’s great recovery stories.
In the 1920s there were thought to be only ten to twenty red-crowned Japanese cranes (tancho) in the world. Today, on a pair of reserves near here, there are more than 1,200. Another 1,500 live on the borders of China and Russia. Though the birds are still highly endangered and among the rarest of birds on the planet, that they are here at all is a remarkable story of luck and preservation.
They are elegant, more than four feet tall, with bright red crowns. You have probably seen video of them dancing in pairs in the snow, signified by their slender long legs, giant feet and distinctive red heads. They are simultaneously mesmerizing and intimidating, gliding just off the ground, appearing truly to dance in front of you as they tease each other. Simultaneously, you would not want one of the big guys chasing you down, by foot or on wing.
At the perfectly named Japanese Crane Reserve we find nineteen of them, plus two chicks. They walk, stalk, hop and fly, stopping to feed on small bugs pulled from the grass or skinny fish pulled from the slowly running waters that criss cross the swampy marshes.
The red crowned cranes have long been a favorite in Japanese myths and legends and you see the evidence in illustrations all over the country, used as symbols of longevity, immortality and nobility. In art and literature immortals are often depicted riding on cranes. The man showing me around the reserve reminds me that a common theme in Chinese art is the reclusive scholar who cultivates bamboo and keeps cranes. While I’m more familiar with big sea creatures, sitting on a bench under a warm spring sun watching the big birds prowl and occasionally lift off and fly is hypnotizing, rewarding.