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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