The Siberian Crane (Grus leucogeranus) is now the rarest non-vagrant species in the Western Palearctic. Especially for birders who adhere to the area known as the ‘old WP’, defined in BWP, the species is now virtually off-limits. Only a single individual from the former western population remains, which migrates between Western Siberia in summer and wetlands in northern Iran, on the southern coast of the Caspian Sea, in winter. No one has seen it in summer or even precisely knows where it spends the summer but data from a satellite tagging study in 1996 (Kanai et al. 2002 Bird Conservation International 12:327–333) suggest it must be in the huge area of lakes between the cities of Tobolsk and Mortka, along the border between the Tioumen Oblast and the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug. While this area is probably extremely challenging to reach, northern Iran is reasonably easy to visit and most people who have seen Omid (as this lone bird has been named) have visited its Iranian wintering grounds.
Siberian Crane Grus leucogeranus, Iran, 27 February 2020 (Pegah Mirzaei)
Crucially, both western Siberia and northern Iran are outside the ‘old WP’ limits, so hard-core WP listers have had zero opportunity for a long time. The western population of Siberian Crane used to stop at traditional staging areas in the Volga Delta, so we assume Omid stops there every spring and autumn. However, the Volga Delta is a vast expanse of wetlands included in a national reserve (Astrakhan Nature Reserve) that can only be fully explored by boat using the local rangers, after obtaining permit from the military authorities and most important of all, without clear information on this last wild Siberian Crane's whereabouts. The delta is huge.
How did it end up like this? There used to be three populations, of which the ‘central’ population is already extinct. There is still a population of around 3250-3750 individuals in eastern Siberia. The western population is the one that used to migrate within WP-borders but is now functionally extinct. Mainly due to hunting during migration and at the wintering grounds, but also as a result of transformation of their beloved wetlands to agriculture, the population collapsed somewhere during the first half of the 20th century. The last sightings of single birds (presumably all involving Omid) were obtained in the Volga delta in 2013 and 2014 (both in October) and in Azerbaijan in winter 2010. Several well-meant, but perhaps ill-devised, reintroduction projects have failed to reinforce the western population. More than 100 birds raised and hatched in captivity were released at various stop-over, breeding and wintering areas but many died shortly after release or during attempted migration and none has paired with Omid (which would be crucial as migration roads are learned and not innate in cranes). More detailed information on Siberian Cranes in the WP can be read in DB 40:4 (247-252), where Ławicki &Tizrooyan wrote a status report.
Siberian Crane Grus leucogeranus, Bharatpur, Rajasthan, India, 18 February 1976 (Arnoud van den Berg)
Siberian Crane Grus leucogeranus, Bharatpur, Rajasthan, India, 18 February 1976 (Arnoud van den Berg)
Now, Pierre-André Crochet tells his story of the amazing find in Azerbaijan, with a group of likeminded/crazy friends.
« Humid is here !!! ».
When Rami’s message (slightly enhanced by the autocorrect on his phone) arrived, Peter and I were on duty in the Kizil Agash area, so we were just an hour of driving away from the last Siberian Crane of the WP! Only problem is that we were being held at a police station because our car had lost one of its license plates and the police wanted to hold the car until the rental company would send someone from Bakou to pick it up. I don't need to describe the state of mind we were in: our dream about to come true but meanwhile in the hands of the Azeri road police and unable to move. Not exactly a comfortable situation...
I started to dream of seeing Siberian Crane in the WP in 2001, when a company advertised a tour in the Volga delta in October to look for it. I was in post-doc at the time, without a permanent position and no big salary, so I decided to postpone it as it was quite an expensive trip. Christian Leth did the trip and saw the cranes... See his photo here.
When I finally got a position and a bit more money, the cranes were pretty much gone and the company had stopped doing this tour. I thought I had missed my last opportunity to see that myth of a WP-species and to complete the trio of absolute ultimate WP-stars made of the crane, the hemipode and the fish owl (the last two being considered extinct in the WP when I started to list its species).
Then year after year Omid kept returning to Iran every winter, presumably stopping in the Volga delta every spring and autumn. For years I did not seriously consider trying to see it: I made a few enquiries with Russian ornithologists in 2010 but the answers were not very encouraging and I had no contact in the Volga Delta, which is a huge area to prospect. Moreover,there are apparently tens of captive-bred Siberian Cranes there (so you have to look for the unringed one!!!). It all seemed a bit of a lost cause and Corvo and Shetland were always there in the autumn, plus my other trips in spring.
I finally got to see Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler in Shetland in autumn, I went to Mauritania, Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan... in spring, and Omid was still migrating alone, a lonely soul, the last member of the Western population of Siberian Crane. Having done most of the trips I needed, to see almost all of the regular WP species, I started to think of Omid again. For years it remained a daydream, a mad plan I discussed with a few others (I remember a few vivid discussions with Josh Jones...).
A bit of research had unearthed a paper reporting the tracking of a family of Siberian Cranes from Iran to Siberia in 1996 with satellite tags and this provided the basis for some preliminary planning. Based on the sat tag data, the best chance seemed to be the Volga delta, where the family spent several weeks in spring 1996.
Fast forward to 2019, I contacted Tatiana Kalishevskaya of Ecological Travel Centre in Moscow to try and arrange a trip in spring 2019. I thought spring was less risky as the best time in autumn is around the 20th of October, which is in Corvo peak time. It turned out to become an expensive trip and I needed a small crew. I did not manage to drag enough people then and the project collapsed. I tried again in autumn 2019 but again, could not convince enough people that it was a good idea to burry for a week in mid-October in a place where twitching would not be an option.
Spring 2020, I had learned from my mistakes. I had spread the news during the autumn on Corvo that I was preparing a trip for Omid in the WP and I started to contact Tatiana early. It looked like it was going to work this time! Seven keen WP-birders were ready to lose a week (and a fair amount of cash) to spend 5 days on boats in the delta to look for Omid. We knew Omid was in Iran, Tatiana had done a great job organizing the tour, what could go wrong? Well, something went wrong, and the trip was cancelled at the very last minute... Omid was playing hard to get...
The 1996 tracking suggested a couple of other options to try and find Omid on its way north though: the family had stopped in Azerbaijan (in Shirvan NP) and in Russia (in Dagestan). So, while Dagestan is not really an option currently (check your foreign affairs service "advice for travellers" section if you want to see what I mean), Azerbaijan is a lovely place to travel to, and is quite cheap. That sounded like a sensible plan B (although quite a few of my birding friends did argue with the "sensible" characters of the plan at the time).
I will never thank the four keen, enthusiastic (naive?) friends enough, who did believe in than plan B and agreed to join me to Azerbaijan: Peter Stronach, Bob Swann, Rami Mizrachi and Ernst Albegger, it all would have been impossible without you. Ernst and Peter rapidly took the lead on the planning, with the help of Kai Gauger, and before I knew it we had a plan of action: 3 teams would check every day the suitable locations between Shirvan NP and Kizil Agash NP, along the Caspian coast.
Crew dining in Azerbaijan. From left to right: Pierre-André Crochet, Rami Mizrachi, Bob Swann, Peter Stronach & Ernst Albegger , Azerbaijan, 1 March 2020 (Ernst Albegger)
I must have believed there was a small chance of success, otherwise I would not have spent a week of vacation and a few hundred euros on the plan. However, I think I was seeing it more as a long term investment, the first of many attempts here and in Russia to reach that finale, years later, perhaps. So, when Rami's message appeared on our WhatsApp conversation, I was taken by surprise. I had never dared to hope that we actually would receive that message during our week there. But here it was: on the 1st of March, exactly 3 days after leaving its wintering ground in Iran in the morning of the 27th of February, Omid had stopped in Shirvan NP, on the main lake, and Rami had found it sleeping on the water edge!!!!!!!!
Omid Grus leucogeranus, Azerbaijan, 1 March 2020 (Pierre-André Crochet)
Well, the police finally let us go after a few phone calls with Europcar (very helpful guys!), we picked up Ernst and Bob (who were also driving a car with a missing plate and thus needed a lift to avoid further problems) and after an agonizing two hours, we were all contemplating the massive reality of it: Omid was here, sleeping and feeding on the lake’s edge, dwarfing the Great White Egret next to it, red face showing from time to time, a bit far away, but here, showing to us! We had done it, we had found Omid on its way north, without doubt the most exhilarating moment of my birding career.
Thanks again Ernst, Rami, Peter and Bob for making this possible!
Omid Grus leucogeranus, Azerbaijan, 01 March 2020 (Ernst Albegger)
Crew after Omid , Azerbaijan, 1 March 2020 (Ernst Albegger)
The success of the 2020 crew will undoubtedly lead to many birders attempting to repeat this trip in the future, provided Omid comes back to Iran next winter. Only time will tell if we have been extraordinarily lucky or if Omid will prove to be easy to see in Azerbaijan on his northbound journey in spring. What we do know for the moment is that in 1996, the family party whose male was satellite-tagged left its wintering ground on the mid-morning of 6 March and stopped in Azerbaijan in Shirvan NP on 10 March. Because the tagged bird was metal-ringed, we are pretty certain that it was not Omid itself, but Omid could have been the juvenile of this family party. In 2020 Omid left Iran on 27 February by mid-morning and stopped in Shirvan NP on 1 March. This suggests a pattern where Omid stops in Shirvan 3-4 days after leaving Iran. In 1996 the cranes were in Russia on the 12 March and in 2020 Omid had gone the next day (2 March, where it was looked for most of the day).
Omid disappeared out of view while feeding for more than one hour while Rami was watching it on March 1st, so it is entirely conceivable that it had already been present the previous day (February 29), but that we missed it during our visit to Shirvan main lake. Nevertheless, it seems clear that cranes did not stay long in Shirvan NP in 2020 nor in 1996. Twitching Omid from Europe once it has been located in Shirvan therefore seems difficult, if possible at all. The best way thus seems to plan a visit to Azerbaijan at the right time and visit Shirvan on a daily basis, keeping in mind that even if present, Omid can remain out of view for a long time. Omid left Iran between 26 February and 4 March from 2017 to 2020. This is why we timed our visit from 28 February to 7 March, but if you want to be on the safe side you might want to target 26-27 February to 10 March. The main question is whether Omid uses Shirvan NP every year, or if it sometimes stops in other wetlands along the Caspian Sea coast.
The main complex of wetlands along the coast is Kizil Agash NP, which extends west of the town of Masali. According to rangers there, Omid occasionally stops in KANP but apparently in autumn. Given the low amount of coverage by local rangers and the lack of local ornithologists, the lack of spring records might not mean very much (and indeed Omid had never been seen in Shirvan at all before). The conclusion is that, in order to be on the safe side, future attempts at seeing Omid in spring in Azerbaijan should probably aim at covering as much of KANP as possible on a daily basis while visiting Shirvan as well. Given the distances involved, this cannot be done by a single team. It is entirely possible that the coming years will show that Omid stops in Shirvan every spring, but that cannot be taken for granted now. People interested in repeating our trip next year can read Bob Swann’s detailed trip report on CloudBirders or contact Pierre-André directly if needed. Potential teams and/or team members can also contact Diedert, who is looking to set up a trip for 2021.
Pierre-André Crochet & Diedert Koppenol