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?

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.

Stunning posters of the 9 Cranes on the East Asian flyway

EAAFW poster of some East Asia Flyway cranes

EAAFP’s Story #5, “Do you know all the crane species in East Asian – Australasian Flyway?” sends the imagination soaring. Quirky, pithy notes on the 9 species (besides these 9, 4 reside in Africa, one is solely in USA, and one lives in Australia) are a pleasure to read. I bask, doing my best to picture how I might see each of the nine on location. The glorious Siberian Crane (you only see its black wingtips in flight) – I think Poyang Lake is where I’d go, and I’ve seen photos of that sumptuous wetland reserve in China. I’m unsure where the Red-crowned Crane, “tall and elegant” with a black neck and tail feathers, and I will intersect. Bhutan is my best place to view the shorter Black-necked Crane with a white eye ring that gives it a glaring visage. The Hooded Crane with its mini frontal grey-and-red hood, and its brown-grey bustle – who knows where? The blue-and-grey White-naped Crane is drawn with splashes of shades of grey – again, where? The tallest flying bird on Earth, the Sarus Crane, with its red head and neck, has a subspecies way up north in Australia, where I’ll travel when Covid-19 is beaten or finally peters out. The voluminous Eurasian Crane (“has no beautiful features or cultural background but has the best adaptive capacity”) is, for me, best viewed in Estonia, my now-deceased parents’ homeland. I have a dream to see the Demoiselle Crane, the tiny one of the fifteen, soaring over the Himalayas. And Nebraska is the spot to witness tens of thousands of grey-brown Sandhill Cranes. Lockdown … sigh.

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.

Stuffed cranes

Three stuffed cranes in a store

In Amsterdam we stumbled across a store, shut at the time, that features stuffed animals and birds. To my amazement, I saw what I believe are a Sarus Crane, a Black Crowned Crane, and a Grey Crowned Crane, one from Asia or Australia, two from Africa. Two of the species are vulnerable, one endangered. I suppose the only saving grace that sprung to my mind is that these three threatened species must have some front-of-mind awareness in the Western world. But immediately I was seized by repugnance. The three birds must surely have been killed in situ and smuggled into Europe. To do that, then stuff them, then sell them … they’re under threat, hey! As to the buyers…

A desperate sadness seized me.

Misplaced cranes?

Rijksmuseum painting

At the Rijksmuseum three days ago, before the main crush of crowd arrived, I spotted a couple of cranes in a 1680 painting, “The Floating Feather,” by Melchior d’Hondecoeter. The unmistakable spectacular Black Crowned Crane in the centre, which I’ve never seen, is found only in Africa. The other crane below and to the right of the big one seems to be a Sarus Crane (again, not yet sighted by me), which I understand is found only in Asia or northeast Australia. Why were these included? Did the artist see them live or just paint from specimens brought back from overseas? Fascinating.