New Zealand: unidentified cranes

On this page, Ozcranes looks at the few sightings of unidentified cranes in New Zealand, some 2,000km from the nearest Brolga population in the Australian Riverina, and 3,800km from the usual breeding and wintering locations for Sarus Cranes in northern Australia.

For an introduction to Australian cranes see Australia/New Guinea Cranes Introduction», also see Ozcranes New Guinea Brolgas» for possible movements between Australia and New Guinea and an image of Brolga wing feathers.

Known movements

The non-stop flight capacity for Brolgas and Australian Sarus is unknown. Their usual post-breeding dispersal and other movements (direct or in stages) are presumed to be short distance compared with northern hemisphere species that may travel many thousands of kms between breeding and non-breeding areas.

The few Australian records are summarised in the Table below. The only direct evidence of movements between breeding and non-breeding sites is approx. 350km in northern Queensland, and up to 123km in Victoria. The longest known flight by a Brolga is the sighting of a single bird on Willis Island, 500km east of the Australian mainland across the Coral Sea, on 11 April 1923. This was probably associated with the ‘Douglas Mawson’ cyclone on 30-31 March, named after a vessel which sank with loss of life in the Gulf of Carpentaria. The cyclone was a large system and the actual flight path of this Brolga may well have been longer than 500km. Two very rare sightings give the most southerly (central Qld) and westerly (Pilbara region, WA) sightings of Sarus Cranes away from their usual locations in northern Queensland. Overseas, satellite tracking shows that crane species migrating long distances (800 to 1000s of kms) usually travel over 8-32 days, stopping over at a number of sites. However it's common for Whooping Cranes (7-8kg weight) to fly 700-800km non-stop.

Known movements for Australian cranes

SpeciesMethodDirect distance in km
Brolga Single bird seen Willis Is., Coral Sea [1] 500km (est. distance from Qld coast)
Brolga & Sarus Crane Genetic evidence, N Qld [2] 350km (breeding to non-breeding sites)
Brolga GPS tracking, SW Victoria [3] Max. 123km (breeding to non-breeding sites)
Sarus Crane Observation, Central Qld [4] 900km (S from breeding area)
Sarus Crane Observation, Pilbara, WA [5] 2,500km (W from breeding area)

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Crane map

New Zealand

← Map showing Unidentified Crane records in New Zealand (base map adapted from FOTW).

The first New Zealand records (1947 and 1968) were originally accepted as vagrant Brolgas, but from 2005 onwards the Birds New Zealand Rare Birds Committee (now Records Appraisal Committee, RAC) redefined these sightings as Unidentified Crane [6], because the details recorded at the time were insufficient to rule out possible vagrant Sarus Cranes (first recognised in Australia in 1966). Interestingly all four NZ vagrant cranes were first recorded in January-March, which is the breeding season in northern Australia but the post-breeding dispersal period for southern Brolgas. This suggests that, as well as from the distances involved, southern Brolgas are the most likely candidates for eastward movements to NZ. From severe weather records (BOM), the 1947, 1968 and 2009 records coincided with severe droughts in eastern Australia, while the 2012 sighting occurred during wet conditions. No unusually severe westerly winds were associated with the dates of these sightings. Numbers of Australian waterbirds, including tagged Cattle Egrets, are recorded arriving in New Zealand [7] but the sightings of unidentified cranes do not appear to be related to significant known movements of this kind.

The following Table gives direct distances from Australian crane populations to NZ sighting locations. For Brolgas, these are only the minimum distances likely flown, as cranes migrating over water deviate from direct paths due to wind drift in the absence of landmarks [8]. For Sarus Cranes, the direct distances are likely overestimates of flight over water, but underestimates of total distance flown, as any Sarus arriving in NZ is most likely to have first travelled south on the Australian mainland.

Crane sightings in New Zealand

NI= North Island; SI=South Island. Distance is from the nearest Australian Brolga population in the Riverina, and (in brackets) from Sarus Crane and Brolga populations on the Gulf Plains and Atherton Tablelands

DatePlaceDirect distance in km
March-May 1947 Clevedon, Auckland, NI [9, 10] 2,318 (3,778)
January 1968 Punakaiki, Westland, SI [11] 2,042 (3,797)
8 March 2009 Mossburn, Southland, SI [12] 1,860 (3,900)
17 February 2012 Te Anau Downs, Southland, SI [12] 1,860 (3,900)

NOTES: (1) To estimate the distance to New Zealand from the western Victoria Brolga population, add 500km to the above unbracketed figures. (2) To estimate the distance to New Zealand for Sarus Cranes flying from their (rare) most southerly sighting in Central Queensland, subtract 700km from the above bracketed figures.

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Auckland swamp

↑ Swamp in Auckland District. An unidentified crane was seen by more than 80 people near Clevedon over several months in 1947 (rytc)

Episode 1: Clevedon area, Auckland 1947

From March to May, 1947, 80 people saw or heard the strange large bird presumed to be a Brolga, in the Clevedon area of Auckland District, but no-one managed to take a photograph. Sarus Cranes were not recognised in Australia until 1966, so written descriptions did not focus on characters that distinguish the two crane species. A large grey and brownish feather was found in a cow paddock, trampled into mud, and taken to Australia by one of the first discoverers John Melville Cunningham (1919-1992). Veteran museum scientist Tom Iredale (1880-1972) compared the feather with specimens in the Australian Museum, Sydney, and Museum Victoria. He concluded it was a Brolga secondary flight feather, but it was not compared with Sarus Crane specimens as Sarus were unknown in Australia at the time. In 2012 NZ birdwatcher Paul Godolphin (author of the 2012 sighting) contacted the museums to see if any record or specimen remained, but nothing was found.

Episode 2: Punakaiki, Westland 1968

↓ Westland swamp (P Kurdulija)

Westland swamp

On the 8th of January 1968, K E Westerskov from the University of Otago, Dunedin, stopped off to view the pancake rock formations at Punakaiki, Westland. Pausing in the warm sun to change the film in his camera, he scanned the sky and suddenly saw a large unusual bird flying in from the north. Grabbing his binoculars he checked enough features to be sure it was a crane (he presumed, a Brolga), then took a grainy photo with the telephoto lens as the bird disappeared in the distance across swampy coastal marsh habitat. He was familiar with likely Australian species straying east to New Zealand in the prevailing westerly winds, and had seen a film about Brolgas. His notes read:

Large, dark grey, the size of White Stork, thick head with reddish face, long and stretched neck, long and pointed dark bill, long dark legs trailing behind. Flight not laboured like White-faced Heron, easier, more stretched wings. Brolga Crane?

He discussed his sighting with H Lavery and JG Blackman, who were working on Australian cranes in northern Queensland at the time (see references in Ozcranes Brolga FAQs). Their conclusion was that it was probably a Brolga.

Episodes 3-4: Mossburn & Te Anau Downs, Southland, 2009-12

↓ Swamp near Mossburn, South Island (S Stewart)


There are extensive discussions of the 2009 and 2012 records on the BirdingNZ Forum. New birds for the NZ list must be approved independently by members of the RAC, including ruling out zoo or other captive escapees. These cases were accepted as wild birds, but there was insufficient detail on characters that distinguish the two crane species and unfortunately no photographs. One suggestion was that the 2009 and 2012 sightings may have been the same bird, staying in the Southland District for three years. The 2012 record was said to be the best description received by the RAC to that date, and was accepted as an unidentified crane ‘probably a Sarus Crane’. Which raises the question of how the extraordinary distance of at least 3,000km could be travelled by an essentially northern Australian bird.

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[1] J Hogan (1925) Bird notes from Willis Island. Emu 25: 266-275
[2] T Nevard, M Haase, G Archibald, I Leiper, & ST Garnett (2019). The Sarolga: conservation implications of genetic and visual evidence for hybridization between the Brolga Antigone rubicunda and the Australian Sarus Crane Antigone antigone gillae. Oryx. doi:10.1017/S003060531800073X.
[3] Veltheim, I (2019). ‘Movements, behaviour and ecology of the brolga, Antigone rubicunda, at multiple spatial and temporal scales’ PhD thesis, Federation University.
[4] W & W Cooper, personal comm.
[5] I Tanner & R Jaensch (1988). A Sarus Crane near Karratha, Western Australia. Australian Bird Watcher 12(8): 269-270
[6] RP Scofield (2005). Rare Birds Committee Report. Southern Bird 22 June 2005
[7] M Maddock & D Geering (1993). Cattle Egret migration in south-eastern Australia and New Zealand: An update. Notornis 40: 109-122
[8] T Alerstam (1975). Crane Grus grus migration over sea and land. Ibis 117: 489-495
[9] HR McKenzie & JM Cunningham (1951). Mystery bird puzzles observers: Australian Brolga visits Auckland district. The Weekly News, 18 July 1951, p. 38
[10] HR McKenzie & JM Cunningham (1952). Occurrence of the Brolga, Megalornis rubicundus, in New Zealand. Notornis 4(7): 198
[11] KE Westerskov (1968). Australian Brolga Grus rubicundus recorded in New Zealand. Notornis 15: 248-253.
[12] Miskelly et al (2013). Vagrant and extra-limital bird records 2011-2012. Notornis 60: 296-306

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