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Bird Watching (UK) - - Contents -

Rosa­mond Richard­son was lucky to see a won­der­ful Crane in Norfolk

IT WAS ONE OF THOSE leaden Fe­bru­ary days, grey-brown, slug­gish and cold. A weak sun skulked be­hind a veil of cloud. Tor­por pre­vailed, slow­ing the pulse of life. My urge to hi­ber­nate was over­rid­den by a stronger urge to see a bird breed­ing again in Norfolk af­ter decades of ab­sence. I’d been told this was the most likely month of the year to see a Crane: these se­cre­tive birds would be pre­par­ing for the mat­ing sea­son, and were at their most ac­tive. Added to which, I’d re­cently re­turned from Ja­pan where Cranes are har­bin­gers of good luck and sa­cred mes­sen­gers of wis­dom, de­picted in art trans­port­ing the re­cently de­parted to heaven. Over din­ner, a Ja­panese woman had folded a tiny pa­per Crane for me, telling me how the per­son who folds a thou­sand Cranes will be granted their greatest wish. An­cient Greek sto­ry­teller Ae­sop wrote of the Crane’s abil­ity to rise above the clouds into end­less space, sur­vey­ing the won­ders of the heav­ens as well as of Earth be­neath with its seas and lakes, moun­tains and rivers. Playable flutes dat­ing from 7,000 BC, un­earthed at the site of a Ne­olithic set­tle­ment in an­cient China by the Yel­low River, were made from wing bones of the Red-crowned Crane. Homer de­scribes the sound of mi­grat­ing Cranes (the long­est jour­ney in­volv­ing over 2,000 miles) as the sound of armies ap­proach­ing in bat­tle, a bugling call that can be heard up to four miles away. It’s pro­duced from an elon­gated, con­vo­luted trom­bone-shaped tra­chea which is fused along part of its length with the ster­num, mak­ing a series of plates that vi­brate and am­plify the sound. I had never seen a Crane. Maybe this would be the day. I walked my dog along the foot­path sur­round­ing the re­serve at Lak­en­heath in Suf­folk. It was de­serted. Bit­ter blasts of wind knifed across flat fields. A pair of Egyp­tian Geese were feed­ing on the bank, a Great Crested Grebe floated aim­lessly, Mute Swans drifted on the freez­ing wa­ter. The shiv­er­ing wood be­yond was sil­hou­et­ted black in a trail of mist. Grey­lags and Teal flew in, fol­lowed by three Oys­ter­catch­ers, sleek and plump in black-and-white livery, with car­rot-or­ange bills. Noth­ing else was stir­ring. I walked along the dyke to­wards the reedbeds where Cranes were said to be nest­ing, stop­ping from time to time to scan with binoc­u­lars, but noth­ing ap­peared. It was silent, and very still. In the Mid­dle Ages in Eng­land, Cranes were a fa­mil­iar bird. They used to be an ev­ery­day sight over Eng­land’s wet­lands and ap­peared reg­u­larly on the ban­quet­ing menus of lords and kings, roasted. But by the early 17th Cen­tury they had died out in the UK (the last one was recorded in 1653). Since the 1950s, their water­land habi­tats have been drained to har­ness more land to ac­com­mo­date an in­creas­ing hu­man pop­u­la­tion, but then, in 1976, one pair re­turned to breed at Horsey Mere near the Norfolk coast, and they are now slowly mak­ing a come­back in East Anglia. Sud­denly, be­yond the ghostly po­plar wood, a young Crane flew out of the marsh with long neck outstretched, hugely wide-winged, stilt-legs trail­ing, toes pointed, the tiny red cap on the head clearly vis­i­ble, sole colour in a mono­chrome day. It sailed into the trees with ef­fort­less wingflaps, el­e­gant and grace­ful be­yond any­thing I had ever wit­nessed. This cru­ci­form, ash-grey bird was enor­mous, al­most white in the dark day, with sooty throat and long dark blue-grey flight feath­ers. I heard the cronk­ing call as it was chased off by its par­ents, the trum­pet sound that Dante calls ‘clan­gourous.’ I caught a glimpse of the three of them spar­ring among the branches un­der the grey tints of the skies be­fore dis­ap­pear­ing from view: the ado­les­cent had clearly out­grown the nest and the par­ent birds were un­equiv­o­cally claim­ing the ter­ri­tory to bring up an­other brood. In those few mo­ments I wit­nessed a huge bird of poise and in­de­scrib­able beauty, a mir­a­cle of the di­ver­sity of life, arte­fact of a divine imag­i­na­tion. I’d been lucky to be in the right place at the right time, and hap­pened to be look­ing in the right di­rec­tion – yet ev­ery time I go back to Lak­en­heath, I half-ex­pect to see a Crane again, re­mem­ber­ing how the first one I ever saw moved me with its soul-stir­ring beauty.

CRANE Mighty, mag­nif­i­cent, and very wel­come back as a Bri­tish breeder

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