Discovering Sarus in Australia: (1) 1934-1964

by Elinor Scambler

Although genetic studies and aboriginal language terms indicate Sarus Cranes have been in Australia for many thousands of years (see Ozcranes Sarus Crane FAQ»), the first formal record was near Normanton, north-west Queensland, in 1966 (Gill 1969). One of the 1966 discovery team, Mrs Billie Gill of Innisfail, later found a literary quote apparently describing Sarus Cranes at Forest Home cattle station near Georgetown, between 1942-1957 (O'Conner 1958; Gill et al. 2014).

In this article Ozcranes presents a report that clearly describes Sarus Cranes somewhere in the Einasleigh Uplands SW of Cairns, in 1934. This is the earliest written record of Sarus Cranes in Australia discovered to date (December 2020). We also discuss some unconfirmed early reports from various sources. In future articles we'll give the story of the first official records in the Gulf (1966) and on the Atherton Tablelands (1967), and the people and personalities involved.

Sarus Cranes: Einasleigh Uplands, 1934


↑ Wetlands at the Valley of Lagoons, 1930 (the actual location of the 1934 Sarus Crane record is not known)

In early 1934, an unknown English visitor joined four other (unnamed) women for a motor tour round cattle stations in north Queensland. The English visitor wrote about her travels in a so far unknown English newspaper, reprinted in the Cairns Post of 11 April 1934 under the title ‘As we are seen: Round Australia by rail and car’. The tour was undertaken in the early Wet season and many roads and bridges were damaged or flooded. The group appears to have begun by travelling through Ravenshoe and the total route of some 710 km included a property reached by boat on the flooded Burdekin River. One station visited was 1600 squ. miles (4140 squ km) in area, with 16,000 cattle, 500 working horses and some 2,000 wild horses (which were shot as pests). Wildlife observed included Brolgas, or Native Companions:

These last are most amusing, for they love to show off. They are about the size of a Flamingo, and are silver grey birds with red heads and orange legs. At the sound of our horn they arched their long necks, bowed and scraped to each other and danced about, and finally, half ran, half flew, away with their long thin legs doing the ‘giant stride’.

The actual location of the sighting is unknown but given the road distance travelled and the known locations of Ravenshoe and Burdekin River, the tour apparently visited stations in the Upper Herbert and Upper Burdekin catchments, all within the Einasleigh Uplands bioregion.

↓ (L) Sarus Crane display, Atherton Tablelands (Sandy Carroll). (R) Touring car and lunch at Valley of Lagoons, 1930 (1930 images by an unknown photographer, courtesy Townsville City Libraries)

Sarus dance Lunch 1930

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Forest Home, 1942-1957

Barbara McNamara lived at Forest Home Station on the Gilbert River near Georgetown from 1942 to 1957. She wrote a humorous, semi-autobiographical novel ‘Steak for Breakfast’, published in 1958 (under her pseudonym Elizabeth O'Conner), reprinted up to 1984. In later years she lived in Atherton, where she died in 2000. Her description of birds in the lagoon at Forest Home:

With the coming of the Wet a new form of life materialized. On the lagoon, and in the swamp at the back of the house, water-birds stalked on their long legs, or dived and swam about, sending up their long, lonely cries in the night. There were black and white ‘policeman’ birds [Black-necked Storks, also miscalled Jabiru], brolgas dancing on thin pink legs, snow-white cranes [herons], herons and shags [cormorants], and quaint little whistler ducks, sailing about in formation like miniature battleships. The wild screaming of the brolga frightened me at first, but I grew used to it, as I grew to like the lonely cry of the curlew, and the long hooting wail of geese flying overhead, and the boom, boom, boom of the bittern...

Mrs Billie Gill owned the book, and her children read it during the 1960s when she was one of the first three people to recognise Sarus Cranes in Australia (Gill 1969; Ffrench 2017).

Unconfirmed records, 1953-1964

Two publications in the 1980s referred to unconfirmed reports of Sarus Cranes in northern Queensland before 1966: neither includes any details or evidence. A Mr Strudwick was reported to have seen Sarus Cranes in the Gulf Plains in 1953 (Archibald & Swengel 1987), of which nothing more is known. A sighting was also reportedly made (and a photograph taken) on the Atherton Tablelands by Jim Bravery and Dr William (Bill) Cotterel of Harvard University in 1964 (Archibald 1981). However this is not supported by Bravery's published papers or his detailed diaries (see Scambler 2020)

Egg collector Len Harvey (1909-1990) claimed in his diary notes (made after 1970), to have seen Sarus Cranes on the Tablelands in the early 1960s:

Suitable damp areas of Atherton Tablelands, 1961, 64 and 70. Numbers of brolgas feeding with sarus cranes among them. We learnt to pick by the red on heads, extending down necks, leg colouring of two species different. Evenings flies away from feeding grounds.

However Mrs Billie Gill (Gill et al. 2014 and personal communication) was extremely sceptical of people claiming backdated Sarus Crane records after the 1966 discovery by herself, Fred TH Smith and Eric Zillman. (Thank you to Wayne Longmore for providing a copy of Len Harvey's diary entry).

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The next articles in this series will cover the official discoveries of Sarus Cranes in the Gulf (1966) and on the Tablelands (1967), the people and personalities involved, and publication of the results. Stay tuned!

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