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Second phase egg collection - Richards Diary part 14

Wednesday 28th April

Today is the start of the second phase of egg collecting and follows the pattern of the first collection. We have 1½ days to collect up to seven more eggs, and need a new permit from Mr Ventland the vet to take them out of Germany. Beate and her team will monitor sites where we have taken eggs to see how many crane pairs re-lay. Cranes normally lay two eggs. As part of the second phase however, we will only take one egg from some of the nests to see if there is a difference in productivity between the re-layers (and non re-layers) and those left with a single egg at the end of the breeding season. This information should help us further reduce any short term impacts on collection sites in future years.

We meet at Beate and Eberhard’s farmhouse, feeling more relaxed knowing we already have eighteen eggs at Slimbridge. The RSPB film crew is with us today and this will inevitably slow down collection, although they, like us, are anxious not to prolong disturbance at the nest sites. I spent a lot of time last week at nest sites, and Damon is keen to get a good look at egg collection this time around.

We also want to try out a field assessment of egg age in the second phase. This involves taking egg weight, length and width measurements at the nest and phoning them through to me at the truck where I can input the figures into an Excel spreadsheet programme which estimates the hatching date of each egg. This will allow us to compare hatching date estimates based on adult crane behaviour in late March (the only way of telling whether cranes have layed eggs or not without disturbing them) with actual hatching dates of eggs when they get to Slimbridge.

The day proves to be trickier than we thought. At several nests, chicks are already ‘pipping’ in the eggs. At other sites eggs have already hatched and the young have left the nest. We’re finally successful and take two eggs (19 and 20) from a reedbed site. At 2pm we stop at a lovely valley site where a tree frog chorus competes with a slightly unnerving male voice choir of fire-bellied toads. We manage to get a good shot of a tree frog sitting on my hand.

a tree frog sitting on Richards hand
An obliging tree frog

The team go off the look for a known cranes’ nest but return disappointed – they find two little ginger chicks already out of the nest and withdraw quickly. Good views of lesser spotted eagle and a pair of red-necked grebes in summer plumage helps offset some of the disappointment. I watch a group of high-flying cranes pass overhead in a V-formation – very likely birds on their way to breeding grounds in Sweden and Finland.

It’s five hours before we manage to collect eggs 21 and 22, taken from another feldsolle reedbed. Egg 23 comes later in the afternoon at another reedbed site. I watch from the truck as the adult cranes stand anxiously in an adjacent field as the eggs are collected. A hunting male marsh harrier and the fluty call of a displaying woodlark provide a brief distraction.

the team discussing together
The team discussing the afternoon's collection

Eggs 21 and 22 being carried safely
Eggs 21 and 22

view of cranes
Adult cranes look on nervously at one of the nesting sites

A typical Brandenburg road sign
A typical Brandenburg road sign

Eberhard, Roland, Damon and myself return to the crane roosting site at 6.30pm. Again, the marsh is quiet and beautifully still. Eberhard tells us that in a month or so the mosquitos will start coming out in serious numbers. I think of Damon who will be coming back in June to learn about crane ringing with Gunther (from Kranichschutz Deutschland), and don’t envy him. Eberhard and the crane team will also be out then, catching young cranes to put on leg rings (‘bands’) and again I admire their commitment and energy. Lutz is apparently one of the best crane catchers and has become very adept at high speed chases through bog and marsh.

Over the next two hours large numbers of young cranes arrive at the roost site and Eberhard, using his powerful binoculars, is able to get good ring data from some of the birds. We wait until dusk, watching the young cranes gradually drift down a large drainage channel towards the open water. There is a sudden alarm call from the leading birds as a racoon appears in the scrub beside the channel, but the cranes are less interested in the racoon than they were in the fox the other day, and it quickly disappears. We leave the cranes in the twilight and return to Eberhard’s car. Driving back to the mill through the forest we almost collide with a group of large black boar and several ginger piglets, who manage to get across the track just in time. Roland is particularly delighted, having missed out on close views of wild boar on other occasions, and wonders with obviously conflicting emotions if the little piglets would make good pets/sausages.

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.