Secrets of the Sarus Crane

Part 4 of an article originally 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. Some correspondence followed in the next issue of Wingspan, attached at the end (pdf 200kb).

John's day-long journey with cranes on the Atherton Tableland ends at Bromfield Crater, where up to 1,000 cranes, mainly Sarus, fly in to roost during winter. The site is on private property but the local authority has built a simple public viewing platform on the roadside, where visitors can quietly watch as skein after skein of cranes fly in, calling across the sunset sky, and descend into the swamp to drink, bathe, dance and finally settle down for the night.

Secrets of the Sarus Crane

By John Grant

Part 4: A crater full of cranes

As the afternoon draws on, I make my way to Bromfield Crater, near Malanda. From the rim, there is a fine view over the long-extinct caldera, its floor now accupied by a shallow swamp. The crater is widely known as the roosting place of cranes – both Brolga and Sarus Crane sleep here, often reaching a total of 800 birds. From the lookout point on the western rim, I can see that many are already in the crater when I arrive at about 4.30. As usual, most of the early arrivals are Brolgas: over 200 of them. A sprinkling of Sarus Crane families feed amongst them. Occasional bugling calls carry up from the swamp as small groups of birds break into dance or pursue one another briefly.

As I watch a group of Sarus Cranes they point their heads skywards and several begin a vigorous trumpeting for no apparent reason. Then the calls are answered from behind me and I turn to see a small flock approaching. Flapping heavily into the breeze, they arrive over the crater rim and relax into a long, downward glide. Continuing to bugle, they peel off downwind, losing height before tacking back on a curving trajectory towards the birds calling them in. Lowering their legs like spindly undercarriage, they execute a seamless stalling descent, their necks arched gracefully upwards as they become impossibly lanky aerial ballerinas. They finally drop to the ground, and a rollicking chorus ensues, some of the birds jumping as if uncontrollably excited. This elaborate greeting ritual and mutual calling that began as the arriving flock came into sight, suggest a well-developed social network, with an advanced level of individual recognition. Why else would one group out of the many present respond so quickly at the approach of a new flock? It is a scene that has captivated me many times at this roost.

My fascination echoes that of people around the globe throughout human history and prehistory – cranes feature strongly in mythologies from all of the continents on which they are found. Here in Australia the indigenous people have passed on the lore of the Brolga orally for hundreds of generations. Curiously, the Sarus Crane is not known to feature in these ‘dreamtime’ stories.

As more and more Sarus Cranes, – 20, 30, 70 at a time, arrive at the crater, a vermilion sunset unfolds, silhouetting the great birds. The mysteries of the crane's origins, and the many unknowns of their lives in Australia, provide an ongoing impetus to study them. But, on this magical evening at Bromfield, it is the aesthetic and spiritual connections that compel my gaze.


The next issue of Wingspan (15:1, March 2005) contained follow-up correspondence with a reply from John, Sarus Secrets response (pdf 200kb)»

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About the authorJohn is a professional zoologist working in teaching and research, with a particular interest in Sarus Cranes. He has been studying the recruitment rate and feeding substrates in the wintering population of Sarus on the Atherton Tablelands since 1997. Both studies have reached the significant stage of 20 years of survey data, and writing is in progress. John's other work includes Sarus breeding ecology in the seasonal Gulf of Carpentaria wetlands and the maturation stages for Australian Sarus. He is a member of the the Crane Specialist Group.

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