“Cranes are the stuff of magic, whose voices penetrate the atmosphere of the world’s wilderness areas, from arctic tundra to the South African veld, and whose footprints have been left on the wetlands of the world for the past 60 million years or more”
Andalucía is an important wintering and stopover point for migrating Common Cranes, so in winter we are often lucky enough to be surrounded by the magical, musical voices which Paul A Johnsgard speaks of in the above quote.
As a small part of our commitment to our Flyway Promise conservation effort (and because we love Cranes!) we´ve been spending some time surveying with Grupo de Trabajo y Conservación de la Grulla Comun en Extremadura (Grus Extremadura for short).
As well as education and conservation work, this organisation has been working to bring together data about Common Cranes passing through the Iberian Peninsula since 2014, both by collating ad hoc records and managing two peninsula-wide surveys in December and January of each winter. They also have an incredibly welcoming and enthusiastic WhatsApp group – it seems Crane enthusiasts are as gregarious as the birds themselves!
And so, we found ourselves spending the end of a glorious winter´s day on our home patch at the farmlands of La Janda, enjoying local treats in the form of Spanish Imperial Eagle, Black-winged Kites, Short-eared Owl, Western Swamphens, Spanish Sparrows, White and Black Storks, a Red-knobbed Coot that´s been hanging out, Penduline Tits and Eurasian Bluethroats. Counting the Cranes, we were treated to the evening fanfares of those bugling beauties as they came in to roost around us in long, wavy lines.
The spectacle of large numbers of gregarious birds, gathering together during a huge journey, is always an uplifting one, and is brought even more to life by the spark of an individual story. One young Crane grazing on rice stubbles with its family wore a nice bit of bling, in the form of colour rings on its legs. Checking out the colour code, we found this youngster and its family had joined us from Teuva in Finland, having travelled a distance of around 4,600 km.
Their journey, made with extended family and friends from their home wetlands, probably started in August or September. Joining up with other travelling birds from around Scandinavia as they went, they most likely crossed the Baltic Sea to Sweden, then moved south through northern Germany, wetland-hopping all the way. In France they may well have taken a break at the Lac du Der (a reservoir) in Chantecoq with thousands of others, before crossing the Pyrenees through the valleys of Navarra and western Aragon.
A stop at Zaragoza´s famous Gallocanta Lagoon – usually for a few days – is an annual pilgrimage for hundreds of thousands of migrating birds. Winter numbers usually peak at over 100,000. To see and hear these gatherings on an icy dawn is a beautiful experience which we have missed a lot in 2020! I can only imagine what it must feel like for a young Common Crane from Finland joining this throng for the first time!
Many Common Cranes then continue to the central parts of Extremadura where they rest and feed, using this area as a corridor to the rest of Iberia – Portugal, Cordoba, Sevilla, Doñana and our own La Janda, from where some birds cross The Straits of Gibraltar to winter in Morocco.
On our first survey we counted 732 – much lower than the usual 1,200 or so recorded in the December census (in fact only yesterday we counted 1,407) – but a beautiful sight nonetheless. Adverse weather across central Spain may well have held the birds back or made them choose other sites – just days later there were reports of hundreds more arriving from the North. All in all that evening, our Ibergrus compañeros counted 11,361 individuals in Andalucía – a little higher than usual – and a grand total of 238,361 birds in Spain.
Common Cranes are nothing if not adaptable. Despite threats from draining of wetlands, agricultural intensification, and danger from collisions and electrocutions by power infrastructure, their western European population has trebled in the last 20 years. They have seemingly embraced modern agriculture, augmenting their winter acorn feasts in traditional Spanish dehesa (Holm Oak pasture) with plenty of extra treats from rice and maize stubbles.
However, the fate of our youngster´s eastern cousins provides a cautionary tale. Had s/he hatched a few hundred kilometres further east, the journey might have been a very different one. Changes in land use since the collapse of the former Soviet Union are proving too fast and too great for the Crane community to adapt to. Resulting population declines are only made worse by persecution, hunting and pesticide poisoning.
The habitats of the Common Crane are highly susceptible to climatic change. As the world heats, affecting seasonal water levels and food availability, we are seeing them arriving earlier at their breeding areas, abandoning them earlier in summer, passing earlier through post-breeding stopover sites, and wintering further north.
If traditional migration routes become untenable due to lost wetland stopovers and land use changes, they must develop new ones, as they have done across parts of southern Germany and central Spain in recent years. It is our job to look after the habitat that is left, so there is always a place for those magical voices and footprints.