Posted 5th Jan 2018
The mournful bugling of the common crane can once again be heard in Britain after a 400 year absence
The prospect of standing on a chilly bank in the flatlands of Norfolk on a winter's day, with the sun dropping towards the horizon may not sound like much fun - but then, the cranes arrive.
A family group of two vast adults and their ginger-headed youngster flying low and slow over a field, bugling as they come, before dropping on the edge of a patch of reeds. The adults will throw their heads back, flapping their wings at each other with their curly tail covert feathers fluffed up, before stamping their feet as they reinforce their pair bonds. The dance of the cranes makes the wait in the cold worth it.
Once, the common crane was just that - common. They were such a frequent sight that at a banquet for the investiture of the Archbishop of York in 1465, the gathered bigwigs ate 204 roast cranes. Clearly, they went down well, as overhunting along with the draining of the great marshlands led to their disappearance as a breeding bird around 400 years ago.
However, this changed in 1979. A trio of birds were blown off course from their migration across mainland Europe, ending up in Norfolk. There, they and their descendants have stayed ever since. Due to careful protection of these first nesting birds and some landscape-scale habitat restoration projects, there are now believed to be 75 cranes in Britain, with the birds taking up territories at several wetlands in the east of the country, while a reintroduction project is currently underway in the Somerset Levels. Things are starting to look up for the common crane.
How to do it
It's a chilly business to wait for the cranes to come in to their winter roost. Therefore, be sure to wrap up warm, with thick socks, gloves and a hat. During the day, the birds will be quietly feeding in the fields, so keep your eyes peeled as you drive along country lanes. During late winter, the pairs are increasingly likely to indulge in a little pair bonding, meaning you have a better chance of catching their courtship dance.
Your best chance of seeing and hearing a crane will be at their winter roost at Norfolk Wildlife Trust's Hickling Broad reserve - simply head to the Stubb Mill raptor roost viewpoint. Up to 20 cranes will gather on a good night, sometimes more. Arrive an hour before dusk, and keep your eyes peeled for marsh harrier, hen harrier, barn owl and bittern, while you could also see Chinese water deer grazing in the fields.
Cambridgeshire, The Great Fen
Text and information courtesy of The Wildlife Trusts - photo courtesy of Neil Aldridge