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Finally, the day of release arrived!

So, the day in question finally arrived and it was time to release the cranes. Although it was a bit more blustery than we might have liked, we decided that because of the nature of the release site and the bird’s clear attachment to their grey suited parents and release site that things would be ok. Compared to other releases this was always going to be different, for the main part I am pretty sure that no other UK releases have costumed handlers leading the birds in question out of their pen.

With a small amount of trepidation, the gates of the pen were opened, allowing the birds to come out at their own pace. Although the young birds are very inquisitive, they are also very cautious. When talking with people not accustomed to bird releases, they often are of the opinion that it is like a release of white doves at a concert. However, in reality the birds can take a long time to come out with some birds preferring to stay where they feel safe for up to a day or two, until curiosity over comes their fear of the unknown.

For us it was no different, although about four of the birds did decide to make maiden flights unrestricted by the roof of their pen. This appeared to be an especially frightening experience for one of the birds; having never flown higher than about 3 meters the bird was suddenly lifted up on the wind. Each time the bird tried to come into land through its lack of experience it tried to land with the wind in its tail thus, causing it to accelerate and therefore, have to gain height and make another circuit to avoid crashing into the ground. Eventually after four circuits of the pen and a period of time which although seeming like an eternity was probably no more than a minute, the bird twigged that it needed to land into the wind and was able to make a controlled landing in a field adjacent to the pen. The other three birds who had decided to fly out, in a somewhat more measured way than the first one, were waiting for it. The rest of the birds that had decided to leave the inner pens decided to follow on foot, and so ensued the bizarre site of Amy, a professional photographer and myself all in grey crane suits heading out of the main pen followed by fifteen or so cranes. 

Cranes taking flight
Cranes taking first flights

Cranes with 'mum' and 'dad'
Amy and Roland exploring with the birds (Richard Austin)

For their first venture into the unknown (the other side of the fence), we stayed close to home. The first port of call was a set of decoys positioned about thirty meters from the fence line of the main pen. These were very important, as they would help to hold any birds that fly out of the pen and prevent them from straying too far, too early. Their other equally important function was to draw any birds that left the pen but wanted to return to the decoys rather than the fence, where they would be able to fly over, rather than pace the fence line where they would be extremely vulnerable to predation by foxes. A small amount of grain had been spread under the decoys to develop an association between them and suitable food. We stayed around the decoys for an hour or so, which gave the birds a chance to explore the surrounding area, which was extremely rich in insects, keeping the young cranes more than amused and giving them an invaluable lesson in the art of successful foraging.

It is fair to say that all went extremely well with the birds all learning very quickly how to fly in an out of the pen. The main good points were that the decoys worked exactly to plan and also that the birds automatically roosted in water in the pen. We did however have some problems with a few of the birds now free from the constraints of the pen decided that they wanted to try and follow Amy and myself when we tried to leave. After a couple of abortive attempts to leave in suits, we quickly made an escape over a small bridge near the pen when the birds were not looking. This allowed us to nip behind some bushes, quickly take off our suits and become scary people again. This fact was not lost on the birds which flew over the hedge from the pen, promptly getting the shock of its life and sending it flying back to the pen rather sharply! 

Cranes starting to take longer group flights
Group flights around the area (Richard Austin)

CLose up of two birds in flight
Getting more confident in flight (Richard Austin)

- Roland and Amy

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20 September, 2010 - 22:36
mozziecat's picture

This is so exciting. I can hardly believe that cranes are actually flying on the Levels. This will inspire me to get to the local reserves more often in the hope of seeing or hearing one. I visited Slimbridge last year shortly after hearing about this project and saw the cranes there. They had some young ones in the training school at the time as well as adults out in the reserve. They are so beautiful.