Where to see Sarus Cranes

Sarus Cranes have a very limited distribution in Australia compared with the more common Brolga (see maps in Ozcranes Crane Introduction), and vary their habitats between the wet (breeding) season and the dry (non-breeding or flocking) season. Knowing more about their preferred habitats and movements can help birdwatchers and researchers locate cranes for viewing and study. On this page Ozcranes looks at the seasonal ecology of Sarus in the Gulf Plains and the Atherton Tablelands in northern Queensland, with some suggestions for trip planning.

One-off sightings are valuable data and can be contributed to a number of databases». Counts rather than presence-absence records are best, and at dry season communal roosts the most useful counts are of both crane species from late afternoon till dark.


Wet season – Gulf Plains

Grassy woodland

↑ Grassy eucalypt woodland, Gulf Plains: Sarus breeding habitat (K.S. Gopi Sundar)

Breeding cranes defend their territories until after the young fledge, so in theory this is a good period for observation as the birds are sedentary. However the Gulf Plains Sarus Crane breeding grounds have been regarded as too inaccessible for visitors due to wet season flooding of roads and properties, with visibility limited by tall savannah grasses on the plains and in woodlands. There are a few Australian historical records of Sarus nests or downy young near Gulf roadsides, and one study of multiple nests on Morr Morr (now Delta Downs) Station [1].

Recent research has shown that while many Gulf cranes undoubtedly nest in more remote sites, many hundreds nest close to roads in small artificial wetlands like cattle dams and borrow pits [2]. Sarus families can be seen foraging along roadsides, crossing roads and are sometimes killed by collisions even on little-frequented Gulf roads [2]. As in India [3], it's possible some breeding territories straddle roads.

Gulf wetland

↑ Wetland near Normanton, Gulf Plains, Qld (K.S. Gopi Sundar)

Breeding Sarus are most common in the Mitchell floodplain, and to a lesser extent the Gilbert floodplain, especially in eucalyptus-dominated woodlands [2]. (In the Flinders catchment, and in open plains, breeding cranes are mostly Brolgas). Nesting is initiated by rainfall [2], so combined with knowledge of chick development the most likely weeks to view Sarus in the Gulf can be calculated within the period April to mid-June. By this time most chicks are tall enough to be visible above grass height. Other wildlife is abundant during the late Wet season and with careful planning a memorable trip is certain.

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Dry season – Atherton Tablelands

In the dry season a significant portion of Australia's Sarus Crane population leaves the breeding grounds and gathers in flocks on the Atherton Tablelands where they feed in fields by day, and share communal roosts at night. Pairs without young and unpaired birds start arriving in May and the number of families with current year's young builds up during July. In November the proportion of immatures in flocks dramatically increases, as adult pairs leave for the breeding grounds [4]. The Tablelands is the only known dry season flocking site for Australian Sarus Cranes, recognised in the Atherton Tablelands Key Biodiversity Area. Atherton is a popular winter tourist destination and there are many websites giving options for accommodation and travel.

Feeding

Sarus Cranes and maize stubble

↑ Sarus Cranes on the Atherton Tablelands, far north Queensland (Sandy Carroll)

Feeding sites shift from year to year depending on crop types and stage. Studies show that Tablelands Sarus prefer maize stubble over pasture, and pasture over sugar cane trash [5] and (in order of preference) post-harvest grain fields, ploughed land, sown maize and peanuts [6]. Recent sightings can be checked in eBird Australia (select species Sarus Crane and set to Current Year). Tablelands Sarus may feed up to 15 km away from the nearest roost [6] so it can be worthwhile to explore along rural roads regardless of wetland locations.

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Roosts

Bromfield Swamp aerial view

↑ Sarus Cranes at Bromfield Swamp, aerial view (John Grant)

The spectacular sight of tens or hundreds of Australian Sarus flying into roosts can be viewed from several locations accessible to the public, all provide good views of the roosting cranes and all are long term survey sites for annual Crane Counts». Most other roosts are on private land and roost positions change from year, but public viewing points along roadsides can be located by following cranes flying to roost in the late afternoon, especially close to sunset.

L: Bromfield Swamp viewing platform, Malanda; C: Hasties Swamp, Atherton; R: Pandanus Lagoon, Forever Wild, Biboohra. Bromfield and Hasties are open to birdwatchers at any time. Forever Wild Shared Earth Reserve (formerly Mareeba Wetlands) is now only open for groups doing research and occasional community activities, for details see Forever Wild. (all images by cranesnorth)

Bromfield Swamp sign Hasties Swamp Hide Pandanus Lagoon hide

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References

[1] For details of the historical records and references see Sarus FAQ2»
[2] KSG Gopi Sundar, John DA. Grant, Inka Veltheim, Swati Kittur, Kate Brandis, Michael A. McCarthy and Elinor C. Scambler (2019). Sympatric cranes in northern Australia: abundance, breeding success, habitat preference and diet, Emu-Austral Ornithology, 119:1, 79-89
[3] KSG Sundar personal comm.
[4] Grant, John DA. Recruitment rate of Sarus Cranes (Grus antigone) in northern Queensland. Emu 105, no. 4 (2006): 311-315.
[5] Grant, John DA. (2002). Demographic and ecological studies of Sarus Cranes on the Tablelands. Cranes Newsletter 5. BirdLife Northern Queensland, Cairns
[6] Nevard Timothy D., Franklin Donald C., Leiper Ian, Archibald George, Garnett Stephen T. (2019). Agriculture, brolgas and Australian sarus cranes on the Atherton Tablelands, Australia. Pacific Conservation Biology.


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