There’s a lot made on the television about the fantastic migrations that occur in Africa in particular, but there’s plenty of huge distances covered by species in Europe and on our own doorsteps as well, and the scale on which this takes place is probably at it’s most dramatic when it comes to the Common Crane.
Having wintered in Spain and other Mediterranean warmer spots, they head north in vast numbers in the Spring to breed on wetland areas throughout Northern Europe. The UK was once a stronghold of these beautiful birds but drainage of our wetlands has reduced them now to re-introduction programme led groups in Cambridgeshire and Somerset principally, and a small group of recently returned birds in Norfolk. If there’s a Cran… in your town or village name there’s a clue that it was a hotspot for Cranes in years past.
Lake Hornborga in Sweden is such a hotspot at this time of year though and I enjoyed a few days there last week to catch up with the birds, along with the coachloads of locals that seemed to be dropping in throughout every day.
The birds have visited the area for hundreds of years en masse – historically because it was an area of potato growing (for the manufacture of schnapps) but more recently beecause the Swedes have restored the wetland area around the lake and feed corn and other grain on a nightly basis. It’s a national event and last week there were around 15,000 birds all gathered in one area so it’s understandable why: the ground was full of them, the sky too at the beginning and end of the days with several sorties throughout as well.
For me though with Cranes it’s all about the noise. They are one of the most vocal birds I know, especially at this time of the year when they are celebrating a long journey north and getting ready for the breeding season.
The best place to really experience the noise and interaction of the birds though was to spend a full day in one of the small individual hides (well large coffins with sliding windows really) that are strategically placed away from view and we had booked last year. Entering the hide at 4.30 am with camera gear, food, stool and bucket (yes…for that) and waiting for the birds to arrive, enjoying their noisy presence all day (along with good numbers of Whooper Swans and other wildfowl) and not leaving until 8.30 pm when they too have left for their roost, is certainly a long day but what an opportunity to get up close and personal with these fabulous birds and enjoy their grooming, feeding and interactive antics.
The intensity of it all around me for such a long time meant that I needed the occasional break to recharge the creative batteries: most of the time in a hide I’m waiting for things to happen or arrive, here it’s full on all day! The birds too needed the odd rest after the slightly more frantic feedings of the morning were over, and this fellow even managed a yawn as he awoke from his slumbers!
At times I was convinced a head was going to appear in a window beside me so as well as portraits, grooming and profile shots I also enjoyed looking for smaller details to highlight some of the details of the birds – they really were that close!
My abiding memory of the day and the whole experience though has to be the noise – when you’re sat blind to most of what’s around you and a Crane’s lungs fill up and emit the loudest of calls directly behind you (as happened on several occasions) it’s a good job the hide was small as it made me jump nearly every time!
The numbers here will fall over the next week or so as they split back up again into their breeding pairs, find some wetland to raise a family and then begin their journey south again this autumn. It may not be the Masai Mara but it’s certainly a great migration.