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First, catch your crane...

On a quiet, still morning a week ago, four conservationists hid, crouched in the grasses and obscured by hawthorn hedges as the morning mist formed in the first light of dawn. After a wait of around an hour, a pair of cranes and their eight week old chick crept steadily from their night-time roost, stealthily and nervously walking out of the thick cover of reeds onto a short drove road.  From here they walked much more quickly out into an open field, recently grazed, gleaning early-morning insect morsels from the rush tops.  

The purpose of our morning vigil was to catch the not-yet-flying, but nearly fully grown, crane chick in order to fit colour rings and a small radio tag. This way the project's volunteers can monitor the success or otherwise of the project.   Without any distinguishing marks on this second generation of cranes, there is no way of knowing how well they survive, and where they move to once they have left the care of their parents in the early spring following their hatch.

With my head down to keep out of sight, I was alerted to the cranes via two-way radio from Ed, hidden on the far side the field who had a clear view of the birds moving more quicky now into the open.  I slowly looked up and got a glimpse of a head, around 20 metres away.  A striking contrast of black, white and vivid red – one of the adults, and no sign of the ginger-headed youngster.  I lowered my head, cap down over my face.... whispered back on the radio – “I see them”.  I waited thirty seconds or more -  and slowly looked back up.  

Three birds this time, clearly in view, with the youngster in the middle, flanked by the adults – and only eight meters from me.  I sprang from my position, scrambling up from the ditch, and sprinted directly towards them  – this was our chance to catch the chick.  The adults instantaneously alarm called and took to the air.  The chick panicked, zig-zagging full-tilt away from me into the field.  I kept running, breathlessly calling on the radio as I did to alert Ed, Amy and Alison to the chase.  

Six-feet of wings spread out as it ran, the bird flapping to get airborne, and for a few seconds I was sure we were too late.... but it remained earth bound.  After another fifty metres, it was clear that I was now gaining on the bird, and finally, about 150m from where I had sprung, I was within reach. 

The chick knew it was out-run and stopped, turning and hissing, beak thrust upwards towards me and wings outstretched.  I stopped – arms out to steady myself, facing the crane – a strange stand-off in the middle of a misty moorland field at six thirty on a quiet August morning.  Breathing hard, I radioed the team  - “Got it!”

As Amy, Ed and Alison approached, the chick made a final attempt to run, so I caught and held it, as Amy and the team prepared a groundsheet for the ringing. We put a small  hood over the head of the crane – common practice when handling birds - and it immediately calmed down, allowing us to gently lie it down and for Alison, a qualified ringer with the BTO to fit the rings and radio tag. 

With the ringing done, the bird was lifted gently back onto its feet, the hood removed and it was released, walking and then running into the cover of a nearby hedge.  The parents meanwhile were calling from a nearby field – anxious to be reunited.

We packed up and headed back to our vehicle - job done. The first wild-reared juvenile crane had been ringed in the UK.  As we left the area, it was with some relief that we saw the parent birds flying over, heading back towards where the chick had run to hide.... and we left them to the peace of the rapidly warming morning.

  Photo - John Crispin

The following day – the chick, Red-White-Green back with its parents – Alexander and Swampy.

  Photo - John Crispin.

2nd September – the chick, Red-White-Green in flight with its parents – fully fledged.

 

The ringing team – (left to right) Damon, Ed, Alison, Amy. 

 Massive thanks to Ed and Alison – who were both volunteering in the crane catching team.  We are also seriously indebted to the German team Beate Blahy and Ebehard Henne in the Schorfheide-Chorin Biosphere Reserve, Brandenburg, Germany  who taught us the crane-catching technique, the volunteers Adam, Nigel  who have been keeping a close eye on the pair through the breeding season, to John for the hours of time to get the photos of the birds, and to the landowners for allowing us access – Thank you!   

Here’s to Red-White-Green – may you have many breeding attempts of your own!

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Damon’s role is to act as the hub of the project - making sure everyone involved knows what is going on and that it is all running smoothly. He is also responsible for project community awareness work in Somerset, construction of the release enclosure, and running the post release monitoring work in Somerset.  Damon works alongside the RSPB reserve teams in Somerset.