Secrets of the Sarus Crane

This article was published in a special Wetlands edition of Wingspan, former membership magazine of Birds Australia (now BirdLife), Vol. 14:4 December 2004. The original text is reproduced by permission, edited for web by Ozcranes. John is a member of the the Crane Specialist Group in Australia and other articles on his long term work with Sarus Cranes can be read on Ozcranes.

Throughout a typical Tableland winter day, John follows Sarus Cranes from a misty swamp at dawn to their farmland feeding grounds, and finally experiences the exciting yet peaceful twilight scene as hundreds fly in to roost at a large crater wetland. On the way, he outlines some of the mysteries surrounding the origins, history and life cycle of Sarus Cranes in northern Australia.

Secrets of the Sarus Crane

by John Grant

Is the Brolga's increasingly observed larger cousin a recent arrival from Asia or an overlooked, longtime resident on the move?

Part 1: Morning scene

A cool breeze begins to stir the thick blanket of mist. It is just after dawn but with no sign yet of the watery sunrise that comes on most mornings at this time of year. The bleak scene is far removed from the more familiar, balmy images of north Queensland winters. Here on the Atherton Tableland, a passable winter marks the annual cycle, in addition to the more widespread wet and dry seasons. At an elevation of 700-800m, mid-year frosts strengthen the feeling that this is a world quite different from the humid lowlands of the Cairns area, a short drive down the escarpment.

The foggy depression is quiet, just the odd squeal of a swamphen hints at the waking wetland within. A muffled flapping arises and a group of ibis breaks through the mist, departing to forage for the day. No sooner has the silence resumed than the air is rent by a violent trumpeting: wild and startling. The sound is unmistakably that of a Sarus Crane: deeper and more rolling than the gentler voice of the Bolga. The two Australian cranes often share feeding and roosting areas on the tablelands, but at at this site, close to my home, Sarus Crane have dominion. The call is quickly answered by another, then by two or three more birds in a brief, jangling chorus.

The sun begins to break through and the deep crimson heads of two cranes appear above the carpet of mist. As the birds advance uphill from the marsh, their necks come into view, showing the characteristic Sarus Crane features – bare red skin extending about a foot down the neck, and a smoothly concave throat, with no sign of the dark wattle or ‘dewlap’ of the Brolga. The height and bulk of the birds becomes apparent as their shoulders emerge – the Sarus Crane is the tallest flying bird on earth, a giant even amongst its lanky family. It is the race from India that claims this title for the species, while the distinctly smaller Australian race gilliae, though no midget at up to 1.5m, can be outstripped by the Black-necked Stork (Jabiru), with which it shares the swamps.

Despite its imposing stature and the high conservation profile of most crane species (11 of the world's 15 species are listed as threatened or endangered), the Sarus Crane remains one of Australia's most poorly known birds – at present we have only the vaguest idea of its population size and status, ecology and distribution. While this may be true of many Australian birds, it is unusual for one that spends half the year in such a densely settled and easily accessible region. Indeed, the Tableland's population is the only significant wintering concentration known.

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Next: Part 2 | From small beginnings»

Part 3 | Invasion or expansion?»

Part 4 | A craterful of cranes»

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