Desert Brolgas

by Elinor Scambler

The Lake Eyre Basin covers some 15% of Australia including its driest region, with an annual rainfall of less than 150mm and high evaporation rates. When heavier rain falls in the outer catchments of the main river systems that drain into Lake Eyre (the Georgina and Diamantina Rivers and Cooper Creek) they can flood usually-dry channels across vast areas. Brolgas Antigone rubicunda in this region are probably the least known, and least studied, of any populations apart from the Brolgas in New Guinea». Some are resident, but at times hundreds or even thousands more gather in the Basin when river channels flood. On this page Ozcranes looks at habitats and some survey numbers for the Brolgas of Australia's arid lands.

For an introduction to Brolgas see Australia/New Guinea Cranes Introduction», and Ozcranes Brolga FAQs».

Brolgas foraging

Brolgas foraging for tubers, Callanna, South Australia by Nick (Area 3 on map; habitat view and licence, in Sidebar)


It's not clear who first recorded Brolgas from the Lake Eyre catchments. It may have been Major Warburton in August 1866, at Lake Howitt, 30km N of Mungerannie (Area 3 in map below) [1]. He wrote:

August 31. Examined Lake Howitt, as far as time permitted. It cannot, I think, be less than thirty-five miles round; it may be nearly as much again. There was plenty of water, but it was exceedingly muddy; the bottom where I rode into it was quite sound. The surface of the water was in many places black with waterfowl, and on the margin of the lake we saw several native companions, birds I have never before seen so far north.

In 1901-2, JW Gregory [2] encountered Brolgas 60km south of Mungerannie in a ‘dust fog’:

As we travelled eastward, the flood-plain of the Cooper contracted; the sand-hills on the northern and southern banks were nearer to us, and the haze became still thicker. After a journey of a couple of hours we suddenly came upon the shore of Lake Kopperamanna, where we surprised a party of ‘native-companions’ (Antigone australasiana), the only time during the journey that we saw these large dancing cranes; and, thanks to the fog, we found ourselves close to them before they noticed us.

Pastoralists establishing properties in the area found little surface water, but bores produced reliable artesian supplies. From 1907 into the 1920s pastoralist JN McGilp [3] noted birds (and collected eggs) in the Lake Frome district. He recorded small parties of Brolgas when lakes filled, and a flock of 23 on a bore drain. He once found a nest amongst cane grass on a lake island.

Habitats and movements

↓ Cooper Creek channels after 2011 rains by A Arch (licence in Sidebar)

Cooper Creek Desert waterhole

↑ Waterhole on the Birdsville Track, central Australia by R Smith (licence in Sidebar)

Brolgas are probably thinly distributed across the region, although absent from some areas except after rains. Fresh artesian water in pastoral tanks, turkey-nest dams and bore drains undoubtedly increased habitat, including breeding habitat, for Brolgas. But they also use samphire claypans (salt marshes), semi-permanent waterholes in sandy or claypan country, arid shrublands with only ephemeral water after rains, and drainage channels and adjacent floodplains [4]. Even where waters are fresh, soils are often saline. Brolgas have a unique gland enabling them to drink brackish or salt water, and can feed on saline foods [5].

Pairs are believed to return to traditional breeding sites year after year, but movements of Lake Eyre Basin Brolgas between breeding seasons are not known [6], [7]. When flooded, the channels and plains attract hundreds and even thousands more Brolgas. It is not yet understood how many Brolgas are normally located in the Basin or where these large flocks originate. Very little is known about Brolga movements in response to changing conditions in arid and semi-arid Australia, including major weather events.

The Brolgas in the topmost image above are foraging for tubers in a dry sandy creekbed, while those at Mungerannie use a permanent waterhole fed by pumped bore water. Mungerannie is the only provision stop on the Birdsville track so attracts numbers of tourists including birdwatchers.

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Sites and numbers

Map showing some Brolga sites in the Lake Eyre Basin. Area 1: King Creek, King Creek Anabranch, Flooded Trees and Mumbleberry Salt Lakes; Area 2: Lake Goyder, Lake Arndowarna, Diamantina waterholes, Appamurna Waterhole; Area 3: Lake Eyre, Callanna (S) and Mungerannie (N), see images on this page. Lake Frome is south-east of Lake Eyre.

Brolga map

The National Waterbird Survey in 2008 recorded 253 Brolgas in the Lake Eyre Basin, mostly in the far north-east of the Basin, with 40 in Area 2 of the map above (the far NE corner of South Australia). It was a particularly dry period in southern Australia and only 56 of 50,669 cranes recorded in national aerial surveys were found south of 23.34 S, the Tropic of Capricorn [8] .

The Eastern Australian Waterbird Survey has been held every year since 1983, covering the eastern third of the continent. In five of the years 1983 to 2018 the Basin recorded more than 1% of the national (and global) population of Brolgas (500 of an estimated 50,000). The highest numbers ever recorded for the whole EAWS survey area to 2018 were in Area 1, in 1984 (7,015 Brolgas) [9].

Birdwatchers visiting Area 3 near Lake Eyre and along the Birdsville track regularly report pairs of Brolgas, and occasionally flocks of 5 to 10.

Eastern Australian Waterbird Surveys 1983-2018

Sites in the Lake Eyre Basin with 500 Brolgas (1% of the estimated global population)

1984 7,015 Almost all on King Ck Anabranch, Georgina R. Map Area 1
2000 1,547 All but 7 at King Creek, Georgina R. Map Area 1
1997 1,147 12 sites, highest Mumbleberry Salt Lake, Georgina R. Map Area 1
1991 814 13 sites, highest Moongarra Waterhole, Diamantina R. Map Area 2
2001 635 11 sites, highest Flooded Trees North, Georgina R. Map Area 1
1995 499 11 sites, highest Zuta Waterhole, Georgina R. 200km N of Area 1.

We thank Dr Kate Brandis, University of New South Wales Center for Ecosystem Science, for assistance with national waterbird data

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Comparison with Sarus Cranes

Most Australian cranes, both Brolgas and Sarus Cranes, occupy areas north of the Tropic of Capricorn in tropical savannahs and wetter tropical habitats (see Ozcranes Crane Intro» and FAQs). Sarus Crane breeding areas in the Gulf Plains» have annual average rainfall from about 850mm at Normanton to 2000mm near Weipa on Cape York Peninsula. Wintering Sarus Cranes remain in the same areas, except for significant numbers that flock to the Atherton Tablelands (annual rainfall 1600-2000mm).

Brolgas are clearly adapated to occupy far drier regions, both permanently or intermittently depending on wetland extent. There are only two records of Australian Sarus in drier regions. In 2013 W and W Cooper (pers. comm.) identified some 37 Sarus (not 100 Sarus, as stated on eBird) in a flock of about 100 cranes near Clermont, Queensland (-22.442, 147.599: annual rainfall 663mm). Flocks of over 1000 Brolgas were recorded nearby around the same time, on sorghum fields. In 2014 a single Sarus Crane (Gillanders pers. comm.) was recorded with a second unidentified crane near Hughenden, Queensland (-20.817, 144.228: annual rainfall 480mm), just 20km N of the NE boundary of the Lake Eyre Basin.

In India, by contrast, some 3000 Sarus Cranes occupy Gujarat and Rajasthan states, including semi-arid areas with around 600mm of annual rainfall [10].

Other arid Brolga sites

Congregations of Brolgas can also be found in some large arid zone wetland complexes (north of the Tropic of Capricorn) when filled with water. The most significant sites, with at times over 1000 Brolgas, are Lake Gregory-Paraku (Northern Territory) and Mandorah Marsh and Lake Eda-Roebuck Bay in Western Australia. When these sites are dry, no Brolgas are present. Brolga movements between these and other areas as they cycle between wet and dry times, are not known. For more see Ozcranes Key Biodiversity Areas» and BirdLife Datazone.

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[1] Warburton PE. 1866. An expedition North-East and North-West of Lake Eyre: The diary and despatches of Major Warburton 1866. See link above
[2] Gregory JW. 1906. The dead heart of Australia. See link above
[3] McGilp JN. 1923. Birds of Lake Frome district, South Australia. Emu 23: 274-287
[4] Wyndham E. 1978. Birds of the Milparinka District and Cooper Creek Basin. Emu 78: 179-187.
[5] Hughes MR, Blackman JG. 1973. Cation content of salt gland secretion and tears in the brolga, Grus rubicundus (Perry) (Aves: Gruidae). Australian Journal of Zoology 21: 515-518.
[6] Badman FJ. 1979. Birds of the southern and western Lake Eyre drainage. South Australian Ornithologist 28: 29-81
[7] Reid J, Gillen J. 1988. The Coonjie Lakes Study. Department of Environment and Planning, Adelaide.
[8] National Waterbird Survey: see link above
[9] Eastern Australian Waterbird Survey: see link above
[10] Mirande CM, Harris JT (eds) 2019. Crane Conservation Strategy. International Crane Foundation, Baraboo, WI.

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