I’m always on the lookout for things to visit and see close to where I am, especially places that can be reached relatively easily by public transport. So when there was a feature in the BBC Wildlife last month on the Great Crane Project in Somerset I thought I’d have a look in to it.
A little bit about cranes…
There are 15 crane species around the world today, 11 of which are endangered according to the IUCN. Despite looking very much like herons, their closest relatives are the much smaller rails (its order Gruiformes is mostly an amalgamation of birds who had no other place within bird taxonomy). The group includes the tallest flying bird (the sarus crane, found in India and further east), and are found all around the world with the exception of South America, strangely enough. These birds establish long-term pair bonds that form after 2-3 years, but they won’t successfully breed until several years later. The males and females do not vary much in appearance, meaning that unless they are being examined medically, or their dance is observed, it is often difficult to determine which bird is which in the pair. Most have elaborate courtship displays, otherwise known as dances, which are not solely for courtship but research suggest they are also part of muscle motor development, tension release and pair-bond strengthening.
The common crane, Grus grus, is one of the few that isn’t endangered, but hasn’t been seen in the UK for around 400 years, when they died out here due to hunting (I can’t imagine eating a crane!) and loss of wetland habitat. In 2010 the first 20 birds, which were carefully collected wild eggs from Germany, were transported to the UK and then raised. At around 16 weeks of age they were subsequently transported to a secret location in the Somerset Moors and Levels, and released. Monitoring has shown that the cranes are settling in nicely, and so they plan to continue releasing around 20 cranes raised at Slimbridge Wetland Centre every year. As mentioned above, it takes some time before the birds successfully breed, so the full success of the reintroduction process won’t be known until 2015 or so.
The RSPB organise awareness events and trips to their secret hide throughout January, but all dates have had to be cancelled this year as there is too much flooding and the birds aren’t returning to the fields they should return to.
The iconic red-crowned crane
This crane is the only one I’ve attempted to photograph in the wild, and even then I went out to visit them during the summer. The red-crowned crane (Grus japonesis) is also known as the Japanese crane, and is historically an important bird – often portrayed on kimonos or woodblock painings with its elegant long neck and red head. It is said to live for a thousand years, and people wishing for good health and long life also make a thousand origami cranes. Even though they are typically shot ‘high key’ against a white, snowy background, they are found here all year round. Actually, they were thought to be completely gone from Hokkaido until they were rediscovered in 1924. Their native habitat, the Kushiro marshland, has been protected since 1952 as the largest wetland in Japan. Intensive programmes to provide supplementary feeding for the birds, which flock down to Japan in the winter from northern Siberia, has brought the numbers up to an estimate of 2,750 individuals. An estimated 90% of all birds are dependent of these supplementary provisions. When temperatures rise, most birds will migrate back to Russia but some will stay, which makes them the only resident population in the world, around 40 breeding pairs.
If you wish to see these birds in the winter, there are plenty of feeding stations around the Kushiro wetland, either to the north in Tsurui (30km from Kushiro city), or just north of Kushiro airport. They have specific feeding times, and many birds of prey will also come down to steal food, such as white-tailed sea eagles.
If you wish to see them in the summer, don’t fret. There’s either the Tancho centre, near the airport, which houses injured birds that come back here all year round, despite the cages being open-topped. If you want to see them in the wild it takes a car and patience, as they can be found around any of the agricultural fields around south-east. Best to go with a local guide who knows their whereabouts, but I spotted some around Lake Onneto bits of Lake Furen, and even in a field close to Tsurui. We drove for about 4 hours, and probably saw 19 birds (some chicks) but it wasn’t until just before we had to leave that we found some that were close enough to photograph (I was driven around for free by a man who runs a B&B and bird trips, such a lovely and positive guy – let me know if you want his details).