Hello, Sarus Crane

Very few Australians realize the continent is home to two distinct Crane species. Indeed, among the great unwashed of the population who barely know birds exist, most don’t know the Brolga, but at least the Brolga is known and admired by even the most casual birder. The Sarus Crane is far less prolific and is only found in far north Queensland. It is slightly larger than the Brolga and varies from it in a few subtle ways, but the only real means of telling one species from the other at a distance in the wild is to look at the red coloring on top. In the Brolga, the red is a cap, in the Sarus, it’s a hood extending down the neck.

Our recent road trip proceeded up the center to Darwin, then east under the Gulf of Carpentaria to the Atherton Tablelands just west of Cairns, then back down through Queensland, then a 24-hour dash through locked-down New South Wales, finally emerging in Victoria and on towards Melbourne. The 14,000 kilometer driving portion took about seven weeks. Besides being a fun thing to do, the trip’s point for me was to “see” and observe our two Cranes.

I’d seen Brolgas in Victoria (even though humans have almost wiped them out in that State over a century and a half) but never a Sarus Crane, and as we ventured from Darwin along flat curveless roads through the baking outback desert, I began to doubt I ever would. Northern Territory yielded none. Four days after we crossed the border into Queensland, we hit the sun-seared junction town of Normanton and then headed north for our only contact with the Gulf sea. I experienced a wave of anxiety after we saw families of Brolgas, in small flocks, by the roadside. But no Sarus Cranes. A dull ache occluded me. Then … a cry from Pam. There they were.

Quite what emotions should have been anticipated, was not and is not clear to me. After that initial sighting, more appeared, some amongst Brolgas, sometimes in large numbers. By the time we reached Karumba, a holiday and fishing town up on the Gulf, later that day, we had recorded about 450 cranes on eBird. What I recall now is a general sense of elation and a growing curiosity about both species. Why were the cranes really only up in the Top End? How come we haven’t wiped them out? How distinct are the two species? Why are Sarus Crane numbers only about ten percent of Brolga numbers? Underneath it all: why are these impressive but by no means classically beautiful birds so resonant in my mind and heart?