This magnificent bird is a true conservation success story and the fabulous flocks they form are one of winter’s finest sights.
Cranes returned to the UK in 1979, following hundreds of years of extinction as a breeding bird here, when three pioneering birds spent winter in the Norfolk Broads. I've always been fascinated by cranes and I wonder if the fact they they returned to the UK in the year I was born has something to do with that.
Cranes returned to nest at RSPB Lakenheath Fen in 2007 (Andy Hay rspb-images.com)
A closely-guarded secretA pair bred and slowly but surely the secret population increased, very slowly as Cranes take several years to reach breeding age and only raise a maximum of two young per pair. One of my most exciting birding moments was being taken to a then secret Broadland location by my birding mentor, Colin Kirtland, to search for cranes one January in the early 1990s when I was still at school. I couldn't sleep the night before, such was the excitement of a chance to see these birds. I’ll never forget my first sighting of these wonderful birds as a pair “bugled” in and landed in field right in front of us. We saw all nine birds in all – every crane in the UK at the time. That wouldn't be possible now!
Since then, the Broadland population has continued to grow, cranes started to nest at RSPB Lakenheath Fen, the Great Crane project has returned them to the south-west and they have become a resident in the Fens and Washlands of Cambridgeshire – where I grew up and still live close to. They have also settled in Scotland, Yorkshire and a few other places as the population expands.
With huge wingspans, outstretched necks and bugling calls, cranes in the air are a fabulous sight (Nick Upton rspb-images.com)
The crane policeOn Saturday, I was lucky to see a flock of 48 of them just up the road from where I grew up. It was an astonishing sight in the flat lands of the Fens and was a new county high. I've heard the Fens described in many ways over the years, but later that day I heard someone say, "You can lose your dog here and still see it running two days later!" I counted nine young cranes in the flock which was a sign of the good productivity cranes are now having.
What was even better was when a police car pulled up and I fully expected to be told to “move along”, or that I hadn’t parked safely, but the beaming officer leaned out of his window to say: “Have you seen all those cranes?!”
On the day I finished my last GCSE exam 24 years ago, I cycled through the searing summer heat that afternoon for 40 miles in total to see a young crane that has turned up on the Ouse Washes - such was their rarity back then. A flock of cranes just a few miles away would have seemed an impossible thing, but such is the power of conservation when people work together to share their expertise and enthusiasm for a common goal.
Cranes fly in to safe night time roosts at dusk, making a spectacular finale to any day out (Nick Upton rspb-images.com)
Variations on a themeWhen you see a large flock of the same species, it’s a good chance to not just look out for the young birds among the adults, but also to see the subtle differences between the birds. One of the cranes was very large and was a much paler silver colour than the others. Another was a colour-ringed female called “Beatrice” that originated form the Great Crane Project. I’ve seen both of these birds before, so it’s like seeing old friends. There is also a lot of variation in the colour and pattern of their drooping black “bushels” extending beyond their tail.
Young cranes are brown headed and lack the black, red and white head pattern of the adults (Nick Upton rspb-images.com)
Taking flightThe birds all took to the air at one point which was an incredible sight above all the fields of whooper swans that come to the Fens from Iceland for winter in their thousands.
There has never been a better chance to see cranes so whether you’re in the south-west in the area of the Somerset Levels, the Cambridgeshire Fens or Broadland in winter, keep an eye out for those magnificent grey bodied, black-busheled, bugling beauties. And if they haven't returned to your area yet, it might not be too long before they do if things keep going so well.
A big welcome back to the magnificent crane! Let us know if you've had a great experience with cranes by leaving a comment below, or emailing email@example.com
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