Friday, 17 March 2023


So despite the best efforts of over 35 participants over a 12 day stake out at Shirvan National Park and beyond in Azerbaijan we failed to locate Omid, the last wild 'Western Siberian Crane' in the world as it migrated from it's wintering ground in coastal Northern Iran to it's staging posts in Azerbaijan after which it would have migrated north to the Volga delta where it stages for several weeks before continuing into Russia to it's traditional breeding area. 

Historically there were two populations of Siberian Crane across Siberia, one population in the east that winters in China and the Western population that through a migratory divide partly wintered in India and partly in the Southern Caspian sea area (see Fig 1 below). The Eastern population numbers approximately 3000 birds and there are no genetic differences between the east and west populations. The Western population has been slowly decreasing and Omid has been surviving as the last individual of 'Western Siberian Crane' for 17 years, honouring the tradition of it's population by migrating to Russia every year, alone. 
(Zadegan et al 2009)  

   There have been numerous reintroduction projects in an attempt to conserve the Western population (see Zadegan et al 2009). This winter another attempt was made and a female (named Roya) from a Belgium zoo was introduced to Omid in Northern Iran. The birds quickly started displaying to each other (see below) and started bonding. Following a period of migratory restlessness (and various practise flights) the birds started migrating in the morning of 5th March. We (a team of European birders organised by Diedert Koppenel) received notice from our Iranian and Azeri contacts by 10am on 5th March and quickly scrambled to Azerbaijan in an attempt to see Omid and Roya as they migrated through a traditional staging post at Shirvan National Park (we can't get to Iran to see them due to access problems and also many people would like to see them in the Western Palearctic (sensu BWP). 
Omid and Roya bonding in mid-February 2023

In the past Omid has taken between 3 and 9 days to migrate from Northern Iran to Shirvan NP. The date of departure is between the last week of February and the first week of March. The journey duration is dependent on weather. Last year we made a similar attempt here and the bird took 6 days to reach Shirvan. Nearly all the European birders missed it last year as the bird was much later than average and most of us had gone home already. So this year we tried to time our visit more precisely by waiting for Omid to migrate and then going to Az and staying for the maximum time it could take him to arrive. It seemed like a flawless plan.

However there was a twist to the plot- Roya. 

News breaking of Roya being discovered alone approx 100 miles away from wintering area

On 10th March Roya was discovered alone about 100 miles west of the wintering area. Presumably she was not fit enough to complete the epic migration to Russia. Omid was nowhere to be seen and we didn't know how long he had stayed with her before he continued alone or whether any delay or disruption created by Roya would affect the journey route including any variation in stop over sites. A similar reintroduction attempt in the past had ended in a similar way with the female holding Omid back by 5 days. If Omid had waited 4 or 5 days (we only know he wasn't with her at some point on 10th March) it could mean he still had 8 or 9 days at most to reach Shirvan, although in good weather Omid could get to Shirvan in a minimum of 3 days.  We waited at Shirvan until Wednesday 15th March (the longest any of us could extend for) but there was no sign of Omid despite plenty of windows of good weather for migration. He could still be on his way to Shirvan now, theoretically he is still in the 9 day window from leaving Roya (until this Sunday) but he might have also used the good weather (there was ideal migrating weather for most days since 10th March) to make up for lost time and he could have overshot Shirvan and be north of the park. We simply don't know whether he is north or south of Shirvan still and unfortunately there is nobody now looking to find out. The next news we might get on Omid will be in late October/early November if and when he arrives back in Iran. 

Meanwhile Roya was re-captured and taken back into captivity. Overall it has been a twisted tale with a cliff hanger end- Omid has gone AWOL after deserting Roya and nobody knows where he is and if he is even still alive.  An Azeri film-making crew was also with us and it is hoped that the film will highlight the plight of Omid and create more awareness about the importance of wetland conservation along Omid's migration route (the Western Siberian Crane population is believed to have declined due to hunting pressure and habitat loss) and also support any future reintroduction programs (there are several hundred birds in captivity in Europe). So it's good to be a little part of that and hopefully justifies all the high cost, time and carbon from everyone involved. 

So another year another dip. This really is a mega-dip, 10,000 miles and nearly three weeks clocked up by myself alone in the last two years. Too deep in now to give up so we either try again next year or try and make arrangements to see Omid in Iran. Will see what happens next. 

Despite the mega-dip, Az is a great place to be in early Spring and also great to spend time with a great team. More on all that in the next few days on this blog. 

No comments: