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February’s the month of the crane, says Heidi Jones, Visitor Experience Officer at RSPB Lakenheath Fen

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At Lakenheath we are lucky enough to have one or two pairs of common cranes breeding on the reserve, and have done so since 2007. In 2019, we had one pair that successfully raised one chick to adulthood, and they have spent the winter together, as is typical of cranes, in a big group feeding in arable farmland around the Ouse Washes.

The group is quite mobile and moves around depending on where the best food sources are and also – a big factor especially this year – where it’s flooded!

They like to ‘roost’ or spend the night in water, as it helps to keep them safe from predators. However, flooded fields are no good for feeding in and can make the cranes move elsewhere.

Cranes (27826963)
Cranes (27826963)

Our cranes break away from this winter group to visit us every now and then to keep an eye on their summer territory, making sure no other birds have got their feet under the table while they

are gone.

We had a visit on December 23 from two birds, and several times again over Christmas, and it is believed that because there has been so much flooding locally they may be choosing to roost here instead. Six birds were recorded on New Year’s Day!

We are very lucky that our previous Site Manager, Norman Sills, still lives locally and keeps a very careful watch over the cranes both in their winter gang and here on the reserve through frequent visits. He suspects that these six that have been roosting with us could be a previous year’s breeding pair with their young from the past three years (one chick in 2017, one in 2018 and two in 2019) which would make it a real family group.

This winter we have had some work done out on the reserve to cut portions of the reedbeds and clear out clogged-up ditches in the areas where the cranes like to nest. This will help provide the cranes (and other birds like bittern and egrets) with plenty of feeding spots and could even encourage a second pair to share the reserve with the first pair, as happened in 2018.

Cranes like to have cut areas of reed to use as ‘landing pads’ when they arrive back at the nest, from where they can clearly see whether they are safe from predators, or whether they are being ‘watched’ or followed, and can then walk to the nest in safety – keeping it’s exact location a secret, hopefully!

It is fascinating having these birds at Lakenheath and playing a small part in helping them return to breed regularly in the UK, and – although they are secretive nearly all the time – they delight those lucky visitors that do see them or hear them calling.

In spring when they return to us with breeding in mind (generally any time in February), their beautiful ‘bugling’ calls (a ghostly trumpeting sound that is just unforgettable) will ring out from the wild far end of the reserve and can be heard from quite a distance. So if you visit this month, wrapping up warm could be well rewarded with a sighting or a sounding of these lovely birds.

Hope to see you soon on the reserve.