Lakeside roost, 1988-2019

by Elinor Scambler

Crane roosts in the Atherton Tablelands wintering area may be long term, like Hasties Swamp National Park which has been active since at least 1962. Others are used for only a year or two, then fall into disuse. The Lakeside roost, on the shores of Lake Tinaroo, was named after the adjoining suburb of the small town of Yungaburra. Ben Constable (1928-2009), a keen birdwatcher, lived next to the roost and his records cover from 1988, when he first saw cranes flying in to roost, to 2007. Although Ben's crane records are fragmentary these are the only month to month roost records on the Atherton Tablelands over a long period.

Ben's advice was invaluable in setting up the first annual BirdLife Crane Count in 1997, for example his experience that early morning mist prevented crane ID, and that some cranes even left before first light, helped decide that the annual count would be held late afternoon to dark rather than in the mornings. The roost is now only used intermittently.

↓ Lakeside roost, Yungaburra, Atherton Tableland, NQ (Google Earth Pro, 2013). The red dot shows Ben Constable's house, a view of the roost from his back yard is in the Sidebar. The creek south of the roost is Wrights Creek; the creek to the west and north is Maroobi Creek.

Lakeside roost

The beginning

↓ Ben Constable in Yungaburra

Ben Constable

Ben and his wife Joan bought the Lakeside land in 1984, when he was still working as a surveyor's chainman on road and bridge building in rural areas west of Cairns. He was a keen member of the North Queensland Naturalists from at least 1965, attending all monthly excursions, watching wildlife at every opportunity, and was also a member of Birds Queensland.

In 1965 he contributed a short anecdote to the NQ Naturalist journal describing an event where a Black Butcherbird was dismembering and eating a (croaking) frog; a water dragon was stalking the butcherbird, obviously to try and grab the prey; when a kookaburra swooped down, grabbed the frog, and flew further down the creek laughing. He called the piece ‘Robbery in the Gully’ and the Journal issue (Vol 33 No 139, December 1965) can be downloaded from the NQ Naturalist site. Ben also contributed notes on Sea-Eagle nesting, birds eating cane toads and other topics to newsletters of the NQ Naturalists and Birds Queensland, thank you to the Cairns Historical Society for providing copies of those.

On 17 June 1988 Ben recorded ‘a few’ cranes ‘camping’ across the water on the shores of Wrights Creek. A week later 30-40 were on the roost, too far to identify from the back yard with 8x40 binoculars, and for the first time he used the telescope to identify them. Some were Brolgas and some Sarus Cranes, but the numbers of each were not noted until September the following year, 3 Brolgas and 27 Sarus taking off from the roost in the early morning. Those were the last Brolgas identified on the Lakeside roost: all subsequent birds identified were Sarus.

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The peak years, 1990-2001

Some of Ben's records are patchy (e.g. in 1996 he only recorded arrivals in the early months of the season). But in most years 1990-2001 more than 100 cranes used the Lakeside roost and it was a founding Crane Count site from 1997. Ben's highest ever count was in mid-September 1998, with 229 Sarus Cranes leaving the roost at 6.30 a.m. 1998 was also the only year that Ben took records in every month, and a graph shows a very interesting pattern of slow arrivals, then the peak, then quite a steep drop off to the last sighting of the year, 12 cranes on 30 October. Since there are no comparable records for other roosts, we don't know if the Lakeside cranes left the Tablelands altogether from the peak in mid-September, or if they perhaps moved to another roost site before migrating back to the breeding area.

1998: the highest total and a full-year record

Yellow triangles are minimum numbers (e.g. Ben wrote ‘100+’). The annual crane count (black triangle) totalled 96 Sarus Cranes. If the Crane Count had been held in the first week of September, as now, the total would have been 130. The actual peak of 229 fell right between those two dates, on 17 September.

Lakeside roost

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Recent years

In 2002, a drought year left the Lakeside roost almost dry and only five Sarus Cranes roosted there, with more than 100 roosting about 1.6km further west. This was a temporary site, very close to housing, and has never been used since. This dislocation seems to have disrupted the cranes' loyalty to the Lakeside roost. Even in wetter years it was rarely used, except in 2012 when the birds returned and the annual Crane Count recorded more than 100. From 2017 farmland to the east of Ben's old home was subdivided for more housing, but even so in September 2019, 34 Sarus Cranes roosted on the original site. It will be interesting to see if they return in 2020. Thanks to David Merrall, BirdLife Northern Queensland, for the 2019 Crane Count update.


Where to view Sarus Cranes in Australia»

John Grant's Secrets of the Sarus Crane»

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