Remote Western Australia


Came across this wonderful image on an information board while on a nine-day bouncy tour from Darwin to Broome. The Gibb River Road is a 4WDer’s dream: rattly but rather good quality, yet subject to swiftly emerging flooded sections. I was here in June, the start of the dry season. The photo is dated February, in the middle of the wet season.

Imagine seeing this display through your windscreen. The Brolga, one of Australia’s two Crane species, is not a household name, but all those who see one, never forget.

Omid still flies

Siberian Crane in Iran by Hossein Khademi

The western population of Siberian Cranes is on its last legs. Every year one of them, Omid, flies 6,000 kms to the north of Iran, on the southern banks of the Caspian Sea. It’s the only Siberian Crane left that makes this particular journey (he has missed two years of the last 16). He winters in Iran for about a third of each year. He is carefully tracked. “Locals are very much fond of him,” says this Tehran Times article.

I’ve only followed news of him, courtesy of the International Crane Foundation, for the last couple of years. Omid means hope. Does he symbolize hope to me, in line with each year’s bubbly article? Not at all. I’ve dreamt of witnessing this critically endangered species. But I shudder at the thought of journeying to Iran, raising my binoculars, and gazing upon this beautiful bird, destined to arrive here each year, all alone, until it too dies.


Cranes in Mongolia

I guess we all have images in our heads of the barren steppes of Mongolia, squarish yurts in the distance, but I’ve never hankered to go there. When we did the long train trip from Moscow to Beijing, we opted for the route that swung into China before a Mongolian traverse. I enjoy seeing random photos of Mongolia but that’s the extent of my interest in it.

In particular, when I’ve mused over where I might travel to see the fifteen global Crane species, Mongolia hasn’t been on my radar. Well, now I’ve watched a recent five-minute video from the International Crane Foundation, part of their Magic Moments snippets. This one is titled Coexisting in Mongolia. Take a look—I’m sure you’ll be beguiled.

The video is interesting in terms of the work ICF is doing in Mongolia (I especially like that the voiceovers are by the Mongolian conservationists on the ground), trying to retain the easygoing relationships between nomadic people, grazing beasts, and the various species of Cranes. I hadn’t realized that Mongolia sees six of the world’s fifteen Crane species either fly through or reside. Perhaps, I hypothesize, it would be none too difficult to fly to Ulaanbaatar and hire a guide to take me to the newly protected wetlands described in the video. Initial Googling doesn’t really tell me where the Khurkh and Khuiten Rivers Valleys nature reserve is, but one of the places mentioned in a Mongolian government nature reserve decree in 2019 (see this) suggests a four- to five-hour drive might be involved.

The video’s brief graphic about the six Crane species found in Mongolia also tantalizes me from another angle. I’m no naturalist. Basic migration concepts don’t come easily to me but I’ve grown accustomed to the idea of Crane breeding grounds in one place, usually inhospitable and far from humans, and overwintering grounds elsewhere. But there’s another category in the photo, showing the Hooded Crane and Siberian Crane “summering” in Mongolia. Glancing at the ICF’s excellent compendium web page on the fifteen species, I see that the Siberian Crane winters southward into China, breeds in northeast China, but also “summers” in Mongolia. What have I missed?

Hello, Sarus Crane

Sarus Cranes

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?

Cranes Number One and Two

Crane species

This 15 Cranes project has just about died in the arse. With nearly two thirds of Australia in lockdown and swathes of the globe ravaged by the pandemic, it would be quixotic indeed to want to “see” all fifteen Crane species, having as yet seen only one. The new IPCC science report, dropped a week ago, reinforces general project gloom: shouldn’t we all be reassessing flying at all, in order to cut emissions?

Nonetheless, more as an act of faith in the power of obsessions than for any cogent reason, we leave Darwin today and drive east to “find” Brolga and Sarus Crane, Australis’s two Cranes. We expect to see them in family groups or small flocks across the Gulf of Carpentaria, and, a fortnight later, in larger flocks in the Atherton Tablelands. I’m thrilled and worried. Will three weeks of immersion in this project enhance it or diminish it?


Bromfield Swamp by David Stowe

The Brolga, which used to be called the Australian Crane, is quite well known amongst Australian birders and rural residents, if only because it is so noticeable either on land or in the air. It is almost unheard of within the general population because it’s been almost eliminated everywhere except the Top End, where it thrives simply because its breeding wetlands are in crocodile-infested sections impassable in the wet season. What astounded me when I first looked into the situation is how few “experts” on Brolgas we have. Our Sarus Crane is even less known.

The global Crane Specialist Group has 247 experts in 56 countries. The Australian chapter lists four experts. A website of terrific information, Australian Crane Network, rounds out much of what there is on Australia’s cranes.

Yesterday I had the privilege of Zoom-interviewing one of the nation’s four Crane experts. I was amazed by the level of cogent knowledge, born of a lifetime’s dedication, imparted to me in less than an hour. I found myself shaking my head in admiration. Humility was also clear: very little tracking of Australia’s cranes has been done (for such a bird-rich country, governmental funding of bird research is a pittance) and even numerical estimates of numbers is most uncertain.

As fascinating as yesterday’s new information was, the greater boost to my project was the boost to my own self-confidence. While very much a novice on the subject, during the interview, I found my analytical and writerly brains full engaged and capable. Perhaps, after all, this project has legs!

(The top photo by David Stowe is from the Australian Cranes Network website, showing two Brolgas and two Sarus Cranes coming down to a roost at Bromfield Swamp, where we hope to be in a fortnight!)

Eastward ho

Car in outback

In a few days we drive east from Darwin. We’ll take the main highway but make trips up to Borroloola and Karumba. eBird has a recent sighting at Karumba (or is it Normanton, I can’t recall) of over a hundred Brolgas and over a dozen Sarus Cranes. I’ll swoon. We’ll keep going to the Atherton Tablelands, where we’ll spend a week looking at both species in winter flocking mode.

Great anxiety accompanies this step. There’s no concrete reason for any concerns. The trip will be a tad uncomfortable – unlike most grey nomads, we’re just carrying a tent and an esky, and I can’t say I’m looking forward to the longish drives and the heat – but discomfort shouldn’t worry me. No, there are two sources of worry. Firstly, the notion of dodging pandemic lockdowns to get home afterwards fills me with exasperation. I even expressed to P the notion of abandoning ship now to head southward home and returning next year; thankfully her saner perspective held sway. More importantly, what is the point of a writing project revolving around fifteen species of birds, of which this trip will only encompass two? The prospect of travelling to catch the other thirteen species, in China, Bhutan, Nepal, Africa, USA, Northern Europe, and Japan … maybe I’m too old to countenance waiting out the pandemic to hit the road?

But of course the adventure is the fear, isn’t it? Inchoate terrors, glimpsed in the depths of the night, can only be a positive. I’m not ready to vegetate in suburbia.

Oh Poyang Lake

Poyang Lake

I’m sheltering in Darwin at the moment, rarely sparing a thought to Cranes, but an ICF five-minute overview of Poyang Lake, wintering home of four Crane species, swept me away. I’ve clipped an opening scene from the video, a scene that doesn’t do the rest of it justice at all. Do yourself a favor and spend the five minutes. For me, Poyang Lake is likely the only place I’ll ever see the critically endangered Siberian Crane.

In a fortnight, P and I will head across the Gulf of Carpentaria to find Brolgas (which I have seen in Victoria) and Sarus Cranes (new for us). This road trip was intended to kick off a global odyssey to see all fifteen species. Lately, I’ve begun to think the whole project will be ditched, courtesy of Covid-19, but seeing Lake Poyang and hearing about it ignites my heart. Who knows, perhaps I can still make this work in my ember years.

How they see us

Janine Burke My Forests

In The Age newspaper, James Bradley has an excellent review (his reviews are always welcome to me) of Janine Burke’s My Forests: Travels with Trees. I put this book on my bedside reading list but in the meantime am struck by a Burke line quoted by Bradley: “We humans are like flickers to the Sugar Gum, who is deep in tree time. We appear and disappear from view … like watching a speeded-up film or blips on radar.”

This revelatory disjunction between how we view an aspect of “nature” and nature’s “view” of us is also central to the brilliant book by Richard Smyth, An Indifference of Birds.

I hope to convey (somehow!) the same notion in my book on the Cranes.

Jun 9, 2021

Time to get cracking

This project creaks to life…

I watched the wonderful Greta Thunberg documentary, Greta Thunberg: A Year to Change the World on one of our free-to-air streaming channels. In the first episode, she accompanies a glaciologist on a vigorous hike up to a glacier and, hearing of its steady retreat destined to become a rout to nonexistence, plaintively says: “I knew things were bad and I have read about these kind of things a lot, but to really be here and to stand on the glacier and to hear from you, who has so much experience about glaciers … it makes you realize it’s for real.” My heart pangs. I’ve been ignoring the local Extinction Rebellion bulletins, ignoring the brave handful of friends I worked with for a year.

A tweet by Corey Callaghan on a fresh look, by him and colleagues (via a paper here) at the global number of birds, allowing for many forms of data uncertainty, suggests 9,700 species and 50 billion birds. Call it six or seven birds for each human, which for some reason strikes me as low. The distribution of bird numbers in a species is, as the tweet shows, log-left skewered; Callaghan says, “Mother nature loves rare species.”

On the right of the distribution chart, four species have more than a billion birds each. Could I have guessed them? Probably: sparrow, starling, gull, swallow.

1,180 species, however, have less than 5,000 birds. I make a mental note to compare this numerical cutoff

He ends by saying their total estimate is in line with 1997 estimates by Tim Blackburn and Kevin Gaston.

IUCN’s three “threatened” categories range from Critically Endangered, i.e. more likely than not to go extinct soon; to Endangered: 20% chance of disappearing in two decades; to Vulnerable, literally vulnerable and not healthy as a population. Oversimplifying, these three categories equate to numbers of birds: Vulnerable means under 10,000, while Endangered means under 2,500 birds. Again oversimplifying, it seems Callaghan’s left-of-the-graph group of 1,180 small species fall between the the two “bad” IUCN categories and the less scary IUCN category of Vulnerable.

What will happen in the Anthropocene?