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Evening count at a crane roost - Richards Diary part 9

Friday 23rd April

We have a challenging 4 am rise to prepare for Nigel and Roland’s car journey to Calais. Most of the journey is on good autobahn roads apart from the first bit from the mill up to Altkunkendorf which is along sandy forest tracks and cobbles. Nigel and Roland went to bed late, having checked over the travelling kit, especially the four batteries that will be needed on the journey to power the portable incubators. All of us are a little bug eyed, but there’s a sense of urgency to get everything ready and to be off as soon as possible.

Nigel and Roland prepare the incubators, and there’s much shuttling of batteries, maps and suitcases out to the truck. The 18 eggs are gently transferred from the static incubator into the two portable ones – each one carrying 9 eggs only to ensure there’s enough oxygen and heat build up from the eggs doesn’t get too high. Spare batteries, charged up last night are ready. Ice on the windscreens delays us a little. Nigel and I drive in tandem in the dark up to Altkunkendorf village to leave the hire car on smooth tarmac. Back at the mill we transfer the portable incubators to the truck with all the other essential kit for travel, then the three of us drive through the forest, past lakes covered in early morning mist. The transfer takes twenty minutes to the hire car, with the two incubators strapped carefully into the back seats, allowing room for Roland to turn round on the autobahn if necessary to check the eggs. We stop briefly to listen to a male bittern booming from the big reedbed south of the village, and finally Nigel and Roland leave Altkunkendorf at 5.45 in the early morning light.

I return to the mill to clear away last night’s dishes and enjoy a late al fresco breakfast with Lutz and Hans. Hans tells me about his conservation work with European pond terrapins at the mill. He is preparing to receive breeding animals next week at the specially-constructed hot room. The aim of the project is to build a healthy captive population at the mill, working towards the eventual release of young terrapins at suitable natural waterbodies in the local area.

Damon is asking for photos for the website and I’m having trouble sending them from the mill. I go into Angermunde to use the internet at the train station. It’s easy to get onto RSPB webmail but I can’t download photos for the website, which is frustrating since we have some great photos to share. Another way must be found.

Arriving back at the mill in the early afternoon I am delighted to see a black stork on the old carp pond marsh, probably looking for tree frogs to eat. I take some record shots but the stork is very wary and eventually flies off. A green sandpiper flies over displaying and a pair of goldeneye sit in open water on the marsh.

Beate and Eberhard invite me to an evening count at a crane roost near Glambecker Mill. We arrive at a tower hide on the edge of the beech forest at 8pm, and climb the 5m ladder to the hide, which is also popular with raccoons and raccoon dogs, as is clear from the large amount of black poo in the hide. The marsh where the cranes roost is set in the largest remaining area of peat swamp in the reserve. A dying clump of alders opposite the hide is evidence that water levels have been raised to rewet parts of the swamp. Some areas have 8m deep of peat, and are difficult and dangerous to cross.

We watch a male lapwing standing guard on the marsh and then a green sandpiper flies past, calling before it lands. I ask about breeding waders in the area. There aren’t many – mainly the lapwing and green sandpiper. The Oder Marshes on the German-Polish border still have breeding ruff but has lost black-tailed godwit. Beate talks about eastern Poland where breeding wader populations remain strong because of the lack of agricultural intensification. We spot a pair of gadwall on the marsh. From a small reedebed, a Savi’s warbler starts calling, a high pitched reel similar to grasshopper warbler. Eberhard spots a large falcon perched on a distant tree and thinks it could be a peregrine. There’s at least five pairs in the park, all tree nesters.

We watch two cranes as they appear on the edge of the beech forest opposite us. One is a well marked adult, the other immature, last year’s young from a nest just inside the forest. There’s distant calling from three other birds which fly in at tree height, passing in front of us. They circle then land on the short grassland to the left of the hide, where we can just see them through the trees. A few more gradually appear. One immature starts playing with a feather which is very amusing. After ten minutes, bigger parties of cranes start to arrive in a shallow descent to join the other birds on the ground. There is much jostling as they land, with birds chasing each other and jumping in the air with outstretched wings.

cranes coming into land at the roost site
Record shot of cranes coming into land at the roost site

Cranes coming into land
Record shot of the cranes coming into land at the roost site #2

More birds appear over the next twenty minutes until we are watching a sizeable flock of about 53 birds, mostly immatures. This is Eberhard and Beate’s first April visit to the site and they’re very pleased with the numbers. Both have huge binoculars which I had been puzzling over. It soon becomes clear why as they quickly and expertly pick out band colours on ringed cranes. Even in the dying light with tall vegetation which obscures the birds’ legs, they pick out the colour combinations with great skill. It is interesting that the birds don’t land really close to the open water, or go immediately into it. Eberhard says this is because they like to have a really good look around the area first, checking to make sure there are no dangers.

The cranes gradually move off towards the wood on the far side of the marsh, onto a bank and piece of rough grassland next to a ditch where they like to feed, although they don’t look like they are feeding much, just walking around. One of two guard cranes nearest us seems to look in our direction several times but Eberhard doesn’t think they really notice us.

We watch several cranes dancing or sparring with each other, involving lots of jumping off the ground with outstretched wings. For a big-looking bird, they have a beautiful floating motion as they dance. Eberhard has seen cranes on a windy day hover a few feet off the ground. It’s the same with the way they soar in to the roost - effortless flight reminiscent of Dalmatian and white pelicans I’ve seen in Greece.

The most dramatic moment occurs when a fox appears. Suddenly, all the cranes are looking in the same direction like they’re hypnotised by something. They move quickly forwards, heads up, calling. The fox appears, trying to walk around the moving flock, then cornered, it walks through the flock, making a half-hearted feint at one of the cranes before trotting off. The cranes follow closely until the fox circles in front of the hide and disappears from view.

Happily for us, the fox brings the cranes right in front of the hide. It’s a chance to look at the range of colours on different birds, especially the amount of black on the throat and neck and the size and extent of black feathers in the tail. There is great variation in patterning, with several very dark birds and others which are very pale. The breeding male flies out from the wood into the flock and begins trying to drive birds away. His crown is intensely black as is the throat and neck, and his white facial mask is very white in contrast. When he raises his wings (often) there aren’t any browny coverts unlike on the younger birds.

We hear many different crane calls during the visit. Eberhard points out the deep call of the breeding male, the arrival calls from incoming cranes, and towards dusk what Beate describes as an ‘I’m a lonely male’ call from some members of the flock. The biosphere cranes have up to 100 different calls and I wonder what sort of vocabulary our Somerset cranes will inherit.

We leave the hide before dusk as the cranes gather on the woodland bank. Eberhard says they won’t go onto the marsh until after dark, so we leave them. We walk back through the dry beech leaves to the car, trying not to make too much noise. We drive back to the mill on forest tracks. I ring Nigel with the loudspeaker on so Beate and Eberhard can share any news – Nigel and Roland are ½ an hour from Slimbridge with three eggs pipping.

We get back to Glambecker Mill for supper – a bottle of champagne is put on hold until the first bird has hatched. After eating, we ring Nigel again – they’ve arrived at Slimbridge with six eggs pipping and should have the first chicks tomorrow. We’re full of expectation for tomorrow.

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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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.