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Cold brings photographer, feathered friends together

Updated : 2024-05-14

By ( China Daily )

Yang Wei operates a drone to observe two Oriental white storks along the Songhua River in Harbin, Heilongjiang province. CHINA DAILY
Despite being reluctant to see them go, Yang Wei still felt quite happy watching the two young birds she had cared for soar into the sky with their migratory flock that had returned for spring.
Yang, a 51-year-old photographer, had helped an injured Oriental white stork and its companion safely endure the extremely cold winter in Harbin, Northeast China's Heilongjiang province.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature has classified the Oriental white stork as critically endangered, with only about 9,000 remaining.
On Dec 2, Yang was taking photos of the sunrise near the Binbei Bridge of the Songhua River.
"There is a wastewater discharge outlet near this water area, and the treated wastewater maintains a relatively high temperature, so it does not freeze in winter," she said. "Wild ducks and other birds are always found on the unfrozen water surface, so I went there twice a week to capture photos of the birds."
As she was shooting, Yang saw a large bird fly out of the mist and land on the riverbank. Another bird arrived a moment later.
"I failed to take clear photos of them before they flew away," she said. "From that day on, I went to the area every day to search for them, but I only found some bird footprints on the shore."
It wasn't until Dec 10 that Yang and her photography friends finally got a clear view of the birds using a drone. "I determined that they were Oriental white storks because I had photographed some that were migrating before," she said. "Then I asked experts for further confirmation, and they agreed with me, which made us very excited. We had never seen Oriental white storks that should have migrated south wintering in Harbin."
Yang soon discovered that the smaller of the two storks had a gash on its right wing, and she reasoned that the injury, coupled with exhaustion, were why the birds were stranded in Harbin. Experts told Yang that the two birds were probably born only several months before and had likely just learned to fly.
As temperatures continued to drop, the water surface grew increasingly smaller, with no fish visible. "I thought it must be very difficult for the storks to survive the cold winter, so we decided to help them," Yang said.
The two storks feed on fish in the Songhua River in Harbin. CHINA DAILY
Feeding troubles
After doing research on the internet and consulting with experts, she learned a lot about the birds.
"Each stork needs about 2 to 4 kilograms of fish every day, and for young storks, the length of fish should be shorter than 10 centimeters," she said. "They don't eat sea fish, so we chose crucian carp to feed them."
However, during winter in Harbin, it's not easy to buy a large quantity of specific types of fish with the right length. Yang and her friends had to visit different markets across the city. "We would scatter the fish at the edge of the flowing water, but I fell into the icy water three times because the thin ice suddenly broke," she said. "Furthermore, when the area with flowing water grew too large, we couldn't get close to the storks."
Yang used devices to help her throw the fish near the storks, and on the occasions when they were further away, she used a drone to carry fish to them.
Because the drone could only carry 0.4 kg of fish at a time, Yang had to repeat the process more than 10 times to feed the birds. The task was especially difficult because of the frigid cold. "Temperatures could drop to nearly — 30 C near the river, and even five batteries weren't enough for the drone to fly back and forth," she said.
Yang also tried other methods, including hiring a boat to get near the storks. "The villager who rowed the boat refused to take money when he found out we wanted to feed the Oriental white storks," she said. "We also received help from the Blue Sky Rescue Team, who used a kayak to scatter over a dozen kilograms of fish along the river."
Staff members from the city's forestry and grassland bureau brought live loaches, which the birds enjoyed. "We reached an agreement to take turns feeding to ensure that the stork babies had sufficient food every day," said Yang. "When the storks discovered that there was an abundant food supply, they settled down peacefully."
A bond of trust was gradually established between the storks and Yang. "Initially, they were skeptical, but eventually, they treated the drone as a dinner bell," she said. "As soon as the drone approached them, they would actively fly over to eat. Later, I could feed them from a distance of 4 or 5 meters, and they were no longer afraid of me."
Saying goodbye
Thanks to Yang and her friends, the two birds survived the severe winter and welcomed the arrival of March, when the ice and snow began to melt and the migratory birds returned from the south.
After disappearing for nearly two weeks, the two birds returned to the river area on March 15, accompanied by an even larger Oriental white stork. On the afternoon of March 19, Yang was astonished to find around 50 Oriental white storks soaring and circling above the river.
Two hours later, the flock departed, along with the two birds. "I was crying and searching for them among the stork flock, forgetting even to take photos," she said. "Despite coming there every day the following week, I haven't seen them again."
On March 23, China News Service reported that the first group of Oriental white storks of the year had arrived at the Honghe National Nature Reserve in Heilongjiang.
"I believe that they must be there," Yang said. "After spending 109 days together, I felt very reluctant to part ways, but more than that, I am happy. This has been a remarkable encounter in my life."
Wu Bingyi, an expert from the city's forestry and grassland bureau, said Yang's experience marked the first time Oriental white storks were found to have successfully wintered in Harbin. "The city experienced a week of extreme cold, with temperatures continuously dropping to — 31 C," Wu said.
"During the coldest days when their activities decreased, we also considered intervening, but we found that there was abundant food, and the citizens protected them very well," he said. "In recent years, the water area has continuously seen teal, pochard and mandarin ducks spending the winter there due to the suitable environment."
With the arrival of spring, Yang also has new hopes. "I want to hold a photo exhibition to tell the story between me and the two birds," she said. "I also want to tell everyone that Harbin is not only blessed with natural beauty, but also with sincere and kind-hearted people."

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