A return to brooding over Cranes and the fate of the world

Brolga statues

This project has barely smoldered since the middle of the year, buried under the pressures of the main project and a health scare. But it keeps popping up in front of me. In the Geelong Botanic Gardens, I came across an installation with three Brolgas on the backs of dragons. Why dragons? No clue. Geelong won’t have seen a Brolga for a century or more.

I’m listening to the audiobook of The Insect Crisis by Oliver Milman … deeply, deeply troubling. If Cranes are bellwether species for climate change issues to do with wetlands, insects are the foundational species for many ecological chains.

I considered going to Bhutan to see the Black-Necked Cranes. Too expensive, underprepared.

I keep reading about the Anthropocene, about the world’s deteriorating food systems, about biodiversity losses accelerating. Sigh.

This project lives on.

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.

Megafires are not academic

Forbes reporter/columnist Ariel Cohen had me back down a rabbit hole with his article “The age of the ‘megafire’ is upon us.” Recent news had reprised the grief I experienced at our 2020 megafires here in Australia, which Cohen aptly says “killed more than 30 people, destroyed 6,000 homes and businesses, and burned 20% of the country’s forest.” Cohen is an analyst, not prone to hyperbole, but he quotes scientists saying we’ll look back at 2020’s fires as a fond memory, and even he concludes with the same message: “What we are seeing on the West Coast and around the world will soon shift from an anomaly to the new normal. The age of the megafire is upon us.”

I’m also observing with pulsing dismay the irrational push to view all these megafires as just a target for better forest management, while discounting any global warming footprint. The rationalist in me, the actuary, combines with the writer to foretell slow inevitable cycles of people resisting the science, then getting burnt out and killed, before, before eventually (too late, too late) the reality sinks in. Right now, in my mourning state of mind, humanity might not respond/adapt to the age of the megafire for another decade. How can this be so?

Defiance 12

Hope Jahren

Lockdown shows us how brilliant our world is without them. From Hope Jahren’s brilliant The Story of More: How We Got to Climate Change and Where to Go from Here

I’d never heard of attribution science

Anthroposphere article

I had never heard of what is being called “attribution science” until I read “How Weather Lost Its Innocence: An Illustrated History of Extreme Weather Attribution” by Kai Kornhuber and Amy Howden-Chapman, which came out on August 12. Paraphrasing, probably blithely, until recently it’s been impossible to numerically (rather than broadly quantitatively) ascribe climate change risks to … well, climate change. But now modelling is reliable enough, and events are crystal clear enough, to allow comparison of what happens now, with wildfire or a heatwave or a hurricane or flood, with what would have occurred (the “counterfactual state”) had emissions stayed low.

This kind of scientific work properly began after Europe’s 2003 heatwave. “Now,” write the authors, “fifteen years and 30 ppm of additional carbon dioxide later, the number of attribution studies has sharply increased, alongside the frequency of record-breaking extreme weather events due to largely unmitigated emissions. Today, climate attribution analysis exists in various forms … Thus, the question repeatedly posed to scientists during an extreme event – ‘Was this heat wave fuelled by climate change?’ – can be answered with increasing confidence. With extreme weather attribution, weather has lost its innocence.”

At first after 2003, attribution science papers took over a year to emerge after any big event. Now, attribution is being done almost in real time. TV weather presenters will increasingly be challenged to use such numbers on their shows! Legal actions are already being initiated.

Why aren’t my friends talking about this, I mused over the couple of hours I accorded the well-written overview by these authors? I closed my eyes and pictured an accelerating wave. Once we do begin to accord attribution science a place in regular discussion, surely political action will follow? Surely?