Belfast Telegraph

Friday 1 August 2014

A long-legged beauty on the river Roe... but crane really shouldn't be there at all

The common crane that was spotted at the Roe Estuary

This elegant visitor has taken up residence in Roe Estuary for the last week – and could be here for the entire winter.

Birdwatchers have flocked to see the common crane that has been frequenting the wetlands at Myroe since September 29.

Northern Ireland's bird recorder George Gordon said cranes do turn up every so often, sometimes after getting lost during their migration from Europe to Africa.

"It's an unusual bird and it shouldn't be here – it should be on its way to Africa," he said.

"Common cranes breed as far north as Sweden. The ones in Europe either migrate across the Straits of Gibraltar or the ones to the east go right round and end up down the Nile – and then every summer they come back."

A handful of cranes have taken up residence in England as part of a reintroduction effort by the RSPB, but it's a little known fact that they are also native to Ireland, although it's a very long time since they bred here.

Crane bones have been found in Ireland, demonstrating that they were once natives.

"They did breed in Ireland up until the middle Ages," Mr Gordon said. "They nest on the ground in northern Europe, in bigger areas such as forests, river valleys and round lakes, and breed up to the north of Norway and into Russia.

"They need very big open spaces and are very intolerant of human interference, so they need a really big expanse of open ground to nest on."

Cranes went extinct as a breeding bird in the UK around 400 years ago, until 1979 when three migrant birds overwintered in the Norfolk Broads and went on to establish a small population.

Birds have now bred in Suffolk and Humberside and the current population is around 50 resident birds. A further 100 resident birds are to be introduced between 2010 and 2015 as part of the Great Crane Project.

RSPB conservation officer Anne Marie McKevitt said the birds are very striking in appearance.

"This bird would stick out like a sore thumb. It's a tall bird, grey and white, long legged and much bigger even than a grey heron," she said.

"They are a huge bird, with a lovely bit of red at the top of the head. They're supposed to have an amazing guttural call.

"They do get blown off course fairly regularly. It's really a bird of wetlands. Because they don't want them to get too attached to humans, the people rearing them in England literally have to dress up in a grey costume as the chicks would get too attached to them."

This particular bird may have blown off course but could well end up staying for the entire winter. Mr Gordon said: "This bird has very worn plumage so it might actually stay for a whole winter. The feathers can get very old – the bird renews them in spring. But the back end plumage is very worn which means it might stay."

FACTFILE

Cranes stand up to 1.2m tall and are 20% larger than a grey heron. Cranes are one of the tallest breeding birds in the UK with a wingspan up to 8ft. They are social birds and appear to form life-long pair bonds. Their famous dancing display is performed by solitary birds, pairs and flocks, most frequently in spring.

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