A very uncommon crane - volunteer Phil recounts a day with an unusual but welcome addition to his sightings list.

On Friday 12 November I arrived on a damp and dismal morning and, with a strong south westerly blowing, and resolved to seek shelter from the rain and wind in Nettley’s Hide until the weather faired up. First however I dropped by the Hanger for a brief check on the presence of a peregrine in the willow tree where it had been several times over the previous week.  

There was no sign of a peregrine, so I did a very quick scan of the North Brooks to see if there was anything unusual about. Apart from noticing that there seemed to be a lot more wildfowl than on the WeBS Count 4 days previously my eye was drawn to what I initially assumed to be a solitary grey heron to the west of the main pools. However something looked wrong. It was the wrong shape, rather like an ostrich with a bustle of feathers sticking out at its rear end and above all it was too big. On closer inspection to my great surprise this proved to be a common crane.

Belying its name, this is a scarce species in the UK and one that I’d not seen before on the reserve. At the cost of getting rather more damp than I’d expected, over the next 15 minutes I managed to take a few photos including this one which happily is still recognisable despite the poor visibility.

With the weather rapidly closing in even more I beat a hasty retreat to Nettley’s Hide from where I managed to pick up the crane again closer to the village, its body hidden behind vegetation but its long neck showing prominently. It stayed in the same place for some time, and I was able to point it out to some hardy visitors who arrived, but after a while it flew south east, appearing to land in the fields just off the reserve and was not seen again.

This is by no means the first time cranes have been seen here and the last RSPB record of a crane was in April 2016. Also, and my Birds of Sussex (2014 edition) refers to a period of a few years starting in 2007 when cranes were seen annually at Pulborough Brooks in springtime. Typically up to 3 birds would arrive in late afternoon, spend the night on the reserve, and fly away in mid-morning. Sometimes displaying and mating behaviour was observed giving rise to hopes that birds would stay to breed, but this has not happened.

The UK breeding population of cranes is small and mainly sedentary. Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) reports that in 2019 the UK had 56 pairs of cranes of which 47 pairs attempted to breed and raised 26 chicks. The overall population in the UK is thought to be more than 200 birds.

The main breeding area for cranes is Northern Europe including Scandinavia and Russia. This population migrates south in autumn and each year a few of these birds pass through the UK, but cranes tend to be seen more often on the spring migration. Most birds head for northern Africa but some stay in Spain France and Portugal and others, presumably from Russia and Eastern Europe, head for the Indian subcontinent.

Cranes were once much more common but became extinct in Britain about 400 years ago and the story of their decline is very typical story of human exploitation. They were killed for food and gradually lost much of their preferred habitat as wetlands were drained to create farmland. However, with hunting banned and wetland being restored thanks to conservation charities like WWT and RSPB, cranes returned and established a small breeding population in the Norfolk Broads in the late 1970s.

A reintroduction initiative, The Great Crane Project, started in 2009 as a collaboration between a number of conservation charities including WWT and RSPB.  Over the course of 5 years between 2010 and 2015 chicks were hand raised from eggs taken from Germany in specially controlled conditions at the WWT Slimbridge reserve in Gloucestershire prior to release on the Somerset Levels. This has gone well and the population has become established there and has spread out with a wild population of adult cranes now back at Slimbridge. Visiting there in 2015 I was able to observe these birds in much better weather than at Pulborough Brooks.  

There is some evidence that the Norfolk and Somerset populations have made contact.  Breeding has occurred at other sites in East Anglia and it seems that cranes are spreading from Norfolk up the East coast and have now reached Scotland. There has been a breeding attempt in Wales. Earlier this year a pair was seen in Ireland raising hopes of a recolonisation there.

I have examined my 2 photos closely and can see coloured leg rings on the Slimbridge crane but none on the Pulborough one, so my suspicion is that this one e Pulborough bird is one of the few passage migrants mentioned earlier. With the UK population being monitored very closely it seems likely that most if not all these birds will be ringed.

All things considered it seems that UK conservation efforts are paying off and cranes are starting to thrive once again in the country. Maybe we will see more of these very striking birds at Pulborough Brooks in years to come.

More information can be found on The Great Crane Project website at this link.

Home | The Great Crane Project

WWT has more useful information here.

Common cranes in the UK | WWT