The fall is a season characterized by the shedding of leaves from deciduous trees, and the transition of colors from green to light yellow, deep gold, orange, crimson, and dark red is part of the inspirational natural process. The color dynamics of the falling leaves in this season is not only fascinating for our eyes but entices many natural processes including the migration of animals.
Photos courtesy of Dana Scheffler
A fall in Phobjikha, Bhutan is special for number of reasons. The environment changes from cool to cold, inviting frosts at night, and as a result there is a noticeable change in the floral communities’ physio-chemistry as well as their availability. The fallen leaves and frostbitten part of the plants pile up over winter, decompose eventually, and become nutrients for the plant communities in the following season. This pile of detritus also serves as food sources for annelids, arthropods, mollusks, and other invertebrates which are essential protein sources for higher predators. The seasonal dynamics and moist ground of the valley provides a conducive environment and serves as important habitat to migrant blank-necked cranes in winter. The valley becomes active and vibrant with the arrival of cranes from the Tibetan highlands towards the end of October; these cranes call the valley home until mid-spring.
This endangered bird species had been revered as a symbol for peace and prosperity in local and as well as national Bhutanese traditions for ages. The relationship between cranes and local residents is not only symbolic but also of conservation importance; since 2012, the Phobjikha-Gangtey valley has been declared as one of the Ramsar Convention sites for conservation in the country. The farming practices of local people offer food for the birds and this relationship has been a compatible combination of conservation of cranes and sustainable livelihoods of the resident communities. This conservation model adopted at Phobjikha is considered to be one of the best in the country.
The valley also sees an inflow of highland yaks as temperature and forages becomes limiting factors in higher mountains. The local cattle from the valley migrate towards warmer sub-tropical regions, leaving grazing resources and space for arriving yaks from the higher region. The course of migration reverses as the temperature becomes warmer starting in the spring.
The valley is culturally and religiously revered, particularly because of Gantey Goenpa, and is considered sacred in the Nyingmapa Sect of Buddhism and an important seat of the Pema Lingpa tradition. There are also many other state owned and privately owned monasteries in the valley. Recently the valley has seen the rise of many hotels and retail businesses. The valley is dotted with many farm houses, some of which had been designated as “commercial” farm houses to host tourists and guests. Every semester SFS students are brought into the valley to learn and experience some of those aspects of conservation and sustainable development in the valley.
Every season the valley is in different a mode and mood, therefore any single visit may offer new possibilities to understand the socio-cultural and natural dynamics. Therefore, we will continue to uncover with future SFS students, truth and knowledge about the cranes, yaks, and the livelihoods of local people of this special valley, which explodes with cry of the cranes throughout the winter when most of the higher elevation valleys in Bhutan are virtually in retreat for meditation mode.