Rambling through Somerset’s Levels and Moors was once a tranquil experience, accompanied by a gentle rural soundtrack of churring grasshoppers, lowing cattle and singing skylarks. Today, the raucous chorusing of excitable Cranes adds a noisier note. These huge birds are back, on the increase and they’re making a right song and dance about it. Their primeval calls send tingles down my spine and fuel an obsessive urge to document the historic return of the Crane to one of its ancient haunts.
By spring 2011, the Cranes are finally finding their voices, if not yet their true ones, as raspy attempts at bugling emanate from their roost and goose-like honkings accompany their flights. Until mid-winter, they ghosted around in un-crane-like silence, appearing without warning from behind hedges and hills with only feeble juvenile cheeps audible if they passed nearby. Frustratingly, though, getting near them is happening less and less…. Wild Cranes are notoriously shy and the released birds are losing their initial naivety and reverting to type – staying hundreds of metres away from footpaths and ranging unpredictably around more of the landscape; good photo opportunities only come now with a lot of planning and ever more patience.
In mid March, I spot the birds feeding in a field half a mile to the east of me soon after dawn. I figure they might fly over me if they repeat what they did for the last three days and head for a flooded meadow to drink, preen and indulge in a spot of gull and swan chasing (they’ve quickly established who’s cock of the walk here now!). This time, 3 hours of lurking prostrate on the edge of a drainage ditch pays off!
These are my first decent shots of the fast maturing birds since the winter, with silvery-grey bodies and black-and-white head markings appearing as they lose their brown baby feathers. From their colour ring combinations I know this trio is Clarence (the leader of the pack) scruffily moulting Reg, and Twinkle. By autumn 2011 seventeen more youngsters raised from wild German eggs are exploring their new home, finding grain scattered for them near wooden crane decoys.
I spend two frustrating days from before dawn to mid afternoon in a small hide trying to capture this without success. A week later, I hike deep into the Crane zone well before dawn to erect my hide near a new decoy site. As the sun rises, I have a feeling this is going to be a good day and sure enough, as I peer out of a side flap scanning for cranes, a dog otter emerges from a drainage ditch a few yards from me. I’m sure he sees me and by the time I’ve raised my camera, he’s gone.
Before long a flock of youngsters and a couple of older birds approach. My luck has turned and I can photograph the sort of scene I’d hoped for as the group feed and bicker in a low morning sun. By mid morning Young “Pepper” – a bit of a loner – remains nearby, slowly walking towards me chasing newly emerged crane flies. How appropriate that cranes clearly love the long-legged flies named after them! Another day in late autumn, and other hide vigil looks like paying off. Soon after dawn, some thirty cranes sweep in to feed in a barley field left partly unharvested for them. I grab some wide views to show the whole flock then notice a flurry of wings at the edge of my frame and realise a crane is dancing, the first time I’ve seen this within camera range. I quickly reframe and get some shots of Squidgy leaping and high-kicking before she calms down.
With these elegant birds now starting to show hints of courtship and the promise of what that might lead to, I just know I’ll be back whenever I can….
To follow the Somerset Cranes’ progress, check out: www.thegreatcraneproject.org.uk.