To behold a flock of endangered black-necked cranes in flight can only be described as sublime. The birds’ aerial displays are so beautiful, and their preening dances so balletic, that the Bhutanese people have long believed them to be the souls of reincarnated Buddhist monks returned to earth in avian form.
Regardless of your religious beliefs, it’s easy to see why some three hundred black-necked cranes return to Bhutan’s Phobjikha Valley every autumn after emigrating from the Tibetan Plateau. For centuries, local villagers and subsistence farmers living in this glacial wetland valley, tucked within the inner Himalayas, have lived in harmony with the wintering cranes, welcoming the sacred birds as harbingers (and fertilizers) of healthy crops. Grus nigricollis is so revered here, in fact, that one local village even famously opted to live without electricity rather than install electrical wires that could cause harm to the cranes.
Human pilgrimages to the Phobjikha Valley are best made in November to coincide with the annual Black-Necked Crane Festival—a highlight of our 21-day overland Nepal & Bhutan adventure. Held in the courtyard of the Gangtey Monastery, the daylong cultural event includes crane-themed dancing and folk singing, along with archery events and plays centered on ecological themes. Organized in part by local Buddhist monks, business leaders, and Bhutan’s Royal Society for the Protection of Nature (RSPN), the festival serves to raise awareness about the endangered bird and the importance of maintaining sustainable livelihoods for residents of Phobjikha. Funds garnered from the event directly benefit local communities and also help preserve black-necked crane populations and feeding grounds.
Our journey to the Phobjikha Valley also travels to RSPN’s Black-Necked Crane Information Center, which provides views of the rare birds via high-powered telescopes and spotting scopes. Additional highlights include horse-riding adventures, hot stone baths, and heavenly panoramas of the valley’s grasslands during a two-night stay at Dewachen Hotel.