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Suffolk is doing its bit in boosting the population of the UK's tallest bird

PUBLISHED: 12:46 14 December 2018 | UPDATED: 14:27 14 December 2018

The UKs tallest bird is on the return after being driven to extinction in the UK 400 years ago. Photo: Nick Upton/PA Wire

The UKs tallest bird is on the return after being driven to extinction in the UK 400 years ago. Photo: Nick Upton/PA Wire

The majestic and exotic-looking common crane is on the increase.

Willowy and delicate in shape, the crane is more familiar to many of us in Oriental drawings than in the misty fields of Britain. Yet, this is one of the places where it has made its home.

According to figures just released, 2018 has been the most successful year for common cranes since the 17th century. They are now to be found in Suffolk, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire, as well as other parts of Britain including Somerset, Gloucestershire and Wales.

This year, a record 54 pairs produced 25 chicks, bringing the national total population to around 180 birds.

Bugling call

One of the places common cranes have settled is at the RSPB’s reserve at Lakenheath in Suffolk, where up to two pairs have successfully fledged 14 chicks since they starting nesting there in 2007.

Common cranes in flight    Photo:Nick Upton/PA WireCommon cranes in flight Photo:Nick Upton/PA Wire

“Late winter and early spring are the best times of year to see the cranes at Lakenheath Fen,” said Dave Rogers, site manager at the reserve. “The birds over-winter in Cambridgeshire and return here at the end of the winter with any young they have from the previous year. They are nervous birds and the best time to find them at Lakenheath Fen is in late February and early March before they nest as they frequently fly about and can be seen feeding in the wet grassland.

“If you’re lucky, you’ll get to see the cranes performing their distinctive dance. Their bugling call reverberates across the reserve and can be heard up to two miles away.”

Devoted parents

Once the cranes have laid their eggs, the parents take turns to sit on the nest for a 28-day incubation period.

“The young then take 11 weeks to fledge, which is a long period for the parents indeed,” continued David.

Juvenile crane   Pic: Dave RogersJuvenile crane Pic: Dave Rogers

“Cranes are devoted parents and once the chicks can fly, they generally spend a couple of weeks feeding around the reserve, building up their flight muscles and exploring land adjacent to the reserve. Again, this is a good time to see these elusive birds.”

In August, with the breeding season over, the cranes migrate across the county border to Cambridgeshire for the autumn and winter months.

At the moment, more than 40 common cranes have formed a winter flock and are often seen at the RSPB’s reserves at Ouse Fen near Cambridge and at Nene Washes near Peterborough. Each day the flock will move around to find food on the wet grassland of the reserves and on the adjacent arable fields where they will feed on maize and wheat stubbles and the remains in potato fields.

Worms are also a welcome part of these omnivorous birds’ diet. Then as dusk descends, the crane will roost in shallow pools which gives them some protection from foxes.

Special birds

Adult cranes Pic: Charlie KitchenAdult cranes Pic: Charlie Kitchen

The recent increase in common crane numbers is a real success story, as for more than 400 years, these elegant birds were extinct in the UK due to habitat loss and hunting. It was only in 1979, that a small number of wild cranes settled in the UK on the Norfolk Broads.

Then in 2010, the Great Crane Project in Somerset was established. This project - a partnership between the RSPB, the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust (WWT) and the Pensthorpe Conservation Trust - aimed to restore healthy numbers of wild cranes in the UK. Through improved habitat conservation and the hand-rearing of wild-sourced eggs, the project released around 20 young birds a year between 2010 and 2015. The young cranes have adapted to life in the wild more successfully that anyone predicted.

“Cranes are very majestic birds,” explained David. “They can be a bit of a challenge to see, but they are definitely worth the effort. We’ve got to know the breeding birds here at Lakenheath very well and put a lot of effort into helping them raise their chicks. They are very special birds indeed.”

Summing up, Damon Bridge, chair of the UK Crane Working Group said: “To see cranes returning to their former homes and begin the spread back across the UK after all this time is brilliant and a true reflection of how important our wetland habitat is to cranes and many other species.”

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