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.

Report on collapsing ecosystems

Australian ecosystems

38 Australian scientists have done a huge survey and characterized the continent in terms of 19 different ecosystems, and then assessed each of the 19 under a range of survivorship criteria. Adam Morton of the Guardian has done his usual sterling service by summarizing the scholarship, if an article suits you better. Me, I decided to focus on Australia’s Cranes. The southern population of Brolgas is tiny, threatened, and doesn’t really live in an ecosystem; it just survives courtesy of private farmers. The much larger and thriving population of Brolgas, and the smaller but apparently coping population of Sarus Cranes, inhabit, if I understand the research paper correctly, just one of the nineteen Australian ecosystems, namely the “Australian tropical savannah” across the Far North to northern Queensland. Quite substantial numbers of Brolgas and Sarus Cranes also migrate annually to the Atherton Tablelands inland from Cairns, which looks like it falls under another ecosystem, the “wet tropical rainforest,” but mostly these Cranes come for farmers’ leftover grains and probably are not dependent on forest. Anyway, Ecosystem #2, the tropical savannah, is vulnerable to 10 of the 17 possible climate change pressures, and is vulnerable to abrupt, smooth, and fluctuating collapse profiles. That doesn’t inform me about exactly what will happen to our Cranes, but hey, it does say the Anthropocene will test the two species. No surprises, then.

I dream of Brolgas

Brolgas, photo by Ern Reeders, Jan. 28, 2020

On a recent five-day trip to southwestern Victoria, we saw Brolgas, in pairs and in a flock, a combined memory that can spark me to tears. My own photos are mediocre but for solace, I turn to a shot taken by the brilliant Ern Reeders (in the Victorian Birders group) (shot reproduced with permission, thanks Ern!) on January 28. Alert, resplendent, and immaculately non-human. I rejoice.

Knowledge disparities

Map of Eastern Migratory Whooping Cranes

I’ve just returned from my first genuine expedition to track down and witness Cranes, an exhilarating five days in western Victoria. Here roam the Brolgas, more specifically the southern population. This population is classified as Vulnerable. My desk research had made it clear that we don’t know how many southern Brolgas there are, with estimates ranging from 500 to 1,000. My trip brought home to me that we don’t really know where they are at any one moment.

Contrast that with the map above (from the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership website), which shows that America’s Whooping Cranes, even more precarious with a classification of Endangered, are tracked minutely. The table reveals that there are, to a great deal of precision, 826 Whooping Cranes. Moreover, the map shows that the Eastern Migratory subsection of those 826, exactly 85 birds, is tracked (via various means) almost exactly. The map gives the locations, logged in the last two months, of about 80 birds (I manually counted them).

What a difference in exactitude and, therefore, in human focus on one species versus another! My mind whirls with the implications.

The divine grace of a Wayne Suffield photograph

Brolga by Wayne Suffield

Amongst bird photographers in the state of Victoria, Australia, Ararat-based Wayne Suffield shines out. So many enthusiasts with cameras or smartphones take bird shots these days! Amongst them is a category at the apex, folks who end up commissioned by National Geographic and making a decent living out of their craft. I don’t know if Wayne earns money from his devotion to photography but amongst the community of birders in a very large and active Facebook group, Victorian Birders, his creative works are of luminous quality. If you’re after beauty in nature, check out his photographs, including joining Victorian Birders.

Amongst Wayne’s regular “subjects” are some Brolgas in his local area. I have an impression, probably incorrect, that it’s the same returning pair (as usual, I have more research to do). I’d written a few times to Wayne about my fascination with the fifteen Crane species, our own Brolga being a logical investigative target, and a number of months back I asked him if I could pay closer attention to any of his photographs, including featuring one in this fledgling blog. Wayne graciously granted me permission to take on board one of his photographs and what you see featured today (I haven’t resized his photograph at all but have added my own background to image size requirements) is one stunning work of art.

This glorious image has been at hand for a long time but only today, buried in my cafe amidst redrafting work, did I step aside to examine it with full attention. What did I find? Wayne has caught a mighty Brolga striding effortlessly, huge wings fanned up, every white-grey feather seemingly visible, into flight mode. That outstretched neck, the sinuous horizontal line between tail and fearsome bill, its red neck brace, the ancient eye … it takes my breath away. Thank you so much, Wayne.

Credit: Wayne Suffield. On the runway at Warrayatkin Swamp. July 30, 2019. At Greenhill Lake Reserve Camping Area. Find Wayne on various sites, the easiest method perhaps being to search for @wayne.suffield on Facebook.

Where are the 15 Crane species?

Location maps of Brolga and Sarus Crane

How lucky can a neophyte be? I had expected to have to dig through books, new and old, and websites, and to then master map making to come up with simple motivational location maps. Maps impel. Maps document. Maps communicate.

Well, it turns out that the International Crane Foundation, in putting together its astonishing Crane Conservation Strategy, released less than three months ago, also commissioned fifteen maps that suit my purposes exactly. You can find the maps here.

From the composite image above, I note that only the Brolga is Australia-specific. A larger, wide-ranging population can be found in northern and northeastern Australia. A small, locally endangered population (listed as threatened by both Victorian and NSW authorities) lives in pockets in the bottom south of NSW (and into Victoria’s north) and in Victoria’s west (into South Australia, also, apparently). By contrast, the Sarus Crane’s only Australian range is the Gulf of Carpentaria up to “the tip” (Cape York). A distinct population mostly lives in India/Pakistan.

So … 2020 is the year to head west from Melbourne in April to attempt to see flocking or breeding Brolgas. In June we’ll do an exciting road trip up the red centre to Darwin and then in July make our way east, with some chance of seeing breeding Sarus Crane couples on the way, ending up in the Atherton Tablelands, where a sizable Sarus Crane cohort flocks together in the dry season.

Around the world’s cranes, the warming world burns

Birdlife Australia funding appeal

What a jolt. A funding appeal received yesterday from Birdlife Australia features a horrific modern scene of five Brolgas in their grassland habitat, their horizon in flames, indistinct black birds wheeling desperately away. What, I’m pondering, will the fate of the world’s fifteen crane species be in the Anthropocene era? Is this photo a portent? No, it must not be so.