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Collection day one - Richards Diary part 7

Wednesday 21st April

Beate and Eberhard arrive early. We pack carefully, making sure to remember all the important pieces of kit – portable incubator, crocodile clips to connect the incubator to the truck cigarette socket, a backup battery just in case we have problems with the truck’s socket, rubber gloves and sanitation gel for handling the eggs. We all have rubber wellies or longer waders for deeper water nest sites.

I’m in charge of the high resolution camera, and my main task is to record egg collection at the nest sites. We head towards the southern part of the park where there is a good concentration of nesting cranes outside the designated site.

Within 20 minutes we turn off the highway onto a farm track. We spot our first crane – the off duty parent keeping an eye over the nest site. We stop behind a hedge, out of site of the nesting cranes in a reedbed some 300 metres away in a hollow. Quickly we change into waders, rubber gloves on, collecting tray ready, cameras on and running. Then we’re off, along the track through the hedge, down a gentle slope towards the reedbed. The guard crane sees us and calls. We stop at the water’s edge for Beate to put on a pair of rubber gloves. Nigel hands her the collecting tray, and she wades in, with me following with the camera. Peter, who has been watching this nest site since mid March, tells us that the cranes layed their two eggs on March 27th or 28th, so the eggs are about 26 days old and suitable for collection. He points out the nest with a sitting adult crane. It lowers its head, trying to hide. Beate and I approach the nest through about a metre of water, forcing our way through dead reed litter. The nesting crane suddenly gets up and flies off, calling loudly. It circles then lands several hundred metres away with its mate, neck straight trying to see what we’re doing. Both the cranes remain alert and call constantly through our brief visit. It’s clear they’re unhappy with our intrusion at their carefully prepared nest, a neatly constructed platform of dead reed litter. Beate works quickly to remove the two warm eggs, carefully pushing them into the foam cradle in the collecting tray. The eggs are beautifully marked – a grey-green background with light and dark brown blotches, each about 10cm long and 6cm wide and weighing about 190g. We leave quickly, wading back very carefully through the cold feldsolle water to avoid dropping the eggs. We walk back to the vehicles where the eggs are immediately transferred to the portable incubator, which has been pre-warmed using the crocodile clips connected to the truck’s cigarette lighter. Several weeks of careful field work by our German crane colleagues and twenty minutes collecting here in the marsh and we have our first crane eggs. No time to really savour the moment, we’re off to our second site.

We arrive at nest site two, half an hour later. It’s very different from site one, set in an alder swamp surrounded by grassland. We park the vehicles uphill from the nest site about 400m away, adopting the same procedure as at nest site one – check for the collecting tray, don rubber gloves, then quickly down to the nest site. As we approach the swamp, the brooding parent flies from the nest. Whilst everyone else stands on the dry ground overlooking the swamp, Beate, Lutz and I wade into the dark water of the alder swamp. The nest site lays some 40m from the edge of the swamp and is fully out in the open on a compact bed of dead reed. It looks very easy to get to, but experienced cranes know that deep water keeps the nest safe from wild boar and foxes. It also makes it very tricky for well-meaning crane conservationists. With help from a long stick and guidance from Lutz, Beate and I get to the nest as it starts to shower. Beate picks up the two eggs and places them in the collecting tray. We both manage to get back safely to dry land, returning quickly to the truck where new eggs 3 and 4 join eggs 1 and 2 in the portable incubator. Driving with the crane eggs now becomes more difficult and Nigel drives very slowly off road so the eggs aren’t unduly rocked.

Although each incubator holds space for up to sixteen eggs, we don’t want to take unnecessary risks. It’s agreed to collect a further two eggs before returning to the big static incubator at the mill. The more eggs there are in the portable incubator, the greater the risk of overheating and oxygen deprivation.

The third and final site of the morning is another area of reed swamp surrounded by willow scrub. We stop some 600m from the nest site, admiring the work done on a couple of alders by the local beavers. Again Beate leads the charge and we collect two eggs 5 and 6. We aim to collect about twenty eggs during Wednesday and Thursday of the first collection, and are progressing well.

We return to the mill with the six eggs and Nigel and Roland begin processing them in the IR. Wearing sterilised rubber gloves, each egg is measured and weighed before being dipped in warm disinfectant solution. Eggs are then dried off on a plastic egg tray. Each carefully numbered egg is then placed gently in the big static incubator.

During the afternoon, field collection takes place in the north of the biosphere. Nigel stays at the mill to monitor the first batch of collected eggs whilst Roland and I go out again with Beate and Eberhard.

We reach the first afternoon site where the crane nest is located in a shallow reedbed on the edge of an alder swamp. Eggs 7 and 8, two more beautifully marked eggs, are collected and transferred to the portable incubator. We take eggs 9 and 10 from an alder swamp 200m from the first afternoon site and feel happy with the rate of progress despite intermittent rain. I do the driving, which needs a lot of concentration on the rough farm tracks and village cobbles.

We visit three nest sites near a beautiful feldsolle and have to do a lot of walking to get to them. At the first site the eggs have been predated by wild boar, a common occurrence in the biosphere. Eberhard and I leave Beate and Roland to look at the other two sites and return to the truck. We pass through some big sandy fields which have been returned to organic arable farming. We pick up Beate and Roland but sadly they don’t find any other eggs and we move on quickly, with the afternoon passing.

At the last site of the day, we walk down a green lane between high hedge banks. Beate charges on ahead with Roland, determined to make the most of the remaining afternoon sunshine, and I follow with Eberhard. It feels just like home in south Devon, although there are no big banks of primroses and the blackthorn is not yet in flower. We put up a couple of green sandpipers by a feldsolle. Eberhard says they often nest in old blackbird nests in the biosphere. We pass into a long dry beech wood which slopes down to a beautiful alder swamp. The woodland floor holds lots of toothwort and carpets of emerging wood and yellow anemonies. Beate has already collected a single egg from a deep water nest site – egg 11.
We watch her and Roland negotiate a deep stream to get to two other nests and we return to the truck to meet them further down the road. There are two displaying woodlarks over the field giving their characteristic fluty call. We get to the truck, watching large flocks of yellowhammers and tree sparrows feeding in a ploughed organic field. Beate and Roland are walking back down the road and Roland is soaking, having fallen in the swamp - no harm done and it makes us chuckle, although the boggy smell in the truck is less welcome. More importantly, we’ve collected egg 12, the last of the day.

evening light on the green feldsolle
Evening light on the green sandpiper feldsolle

This is the diary of Richard Archer, RSPB Conservation Officer for Somerset. In mid April, Richard spent three weeks as part of the RSPB/WWT/Pensthorpe crane team collecting crane eggs in Eastern Germany. These are his personal
reflections on the successful German visit. You can read all of Richards Diary here.

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About the author
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Richard Archer is RSPB’s Conservation Officer for Somerset, and took his sabbatical in the of Spring 2010 to help with the collection, incubation and transport of the first year’s eggs.