Poyang Lake Nature Reserve
Most of the world’s tall, graceful, endangered Siberian cranes—snow-white with scarlet faces, black wing-tips, and ancient lineage going back 40 million years—may spend part or all winter here in central China. Viewing them from bluffs overlooking the lake can be breathtaking as they gather to feed with perhaps a half-million other water-oriented birds on eelgrass and crustaceans in and around China’s largest freshwater lake.
Poyang was discovered as the cranes’ winter home in 1984 by scientists and ornithologists seeking to trace their hazardous 3,000-mile (4,800-km) migration from summer breeding grounds in wilderness 1,200 miles (1,930 km) north of Siberia’s Ob River. The route is hazardous, winding over war-torn Afghanistan and six other countries where the birds are shot for food or feathers or ensnared to serve as winged watchdogs, their clarion calls through trumpetlike windpipes audible for miles. Many former wetland stopovers have been drained for development, and some birds are known to end up in distant KEOLADEO RESERVE in Bharatpur, India (see p.207). The reserve was set aside in large part because of untiring efforts of one man, He Xuguang, angered at the senseless shooting of cranes and other beautiful birds seeking safety here.
It now occupies 86 square miles (224 km2) on and around Lake Poyang in the vast Yangtze watershed/floodplain in Jiangxi Province in southeast China, and affords protection to many other species as well. At times more than a quarter-million waterfowl—more than 300 species altogether—may gather in this ideal habitat, especially when dramatic seasonal changes cause lake water levels to shrink from about 1,100 square miles (2,849 km2) in summer to a tenth that, creating a complex of shallow lakes, mudflats, and wet grasslands around the edges. There can be over 2,000 white-naped cranes, threatened Dalmatian pelicans, black-faced spoonbills, mandarin ducks, white and black storks, and perhaps a good part of the world population of swan geese—up to 40,000. In dry grasslands along the shore, hooded cranes, great bustards, grass owls, and Japanese marsh warblers forage observed overhead by white-tailed marsh and hen harriers.
Common in the area are ring-necked pheasants, Kentish plovers, spotted redshanks, oriental skylarks, magpies, and crested mynahs. Goosanders, smews, and pied kingfishers feed at nearby Gan and Xiu rivers.
Threats continue. Changes brought by the huge Three Gorges Dam upriver increasingly will affect the entire watershed and its wildlife, including waters and food plants on which the cranes and others rely. Rapid population growth and economic development have brought industrial waste along with use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers, further damaging bird habitat. International organizations have offered to help, especially with Siberian cranes whose survival is regarded as precarious. Captive breeding programs have been started with assistance from the International Crane Foundation, based in Baraboo, Wisconsin, to back up wild populations. Scientists and conservationists also are working to develop a Waterbird Conservation Plan for the entire Poyang Basin.
Best times are dry season October–March. The reserve is in easy driving distance of Nanching where there is lodging and tour information.