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Three is the magic number for Lakenheath cranes: rare birds fledge three young in best year yet at reserve

Last modified: 16 July 2015

Pair of cranes

One of Lakenheath's two pairs of cranes, which fledged a record three young this year.

Image: Andy Hay

Staff and volunteers at RSPB Lakenheath Fen nature reserve, on the Norfolk-Suffolk border, are celebrating the best breeding season to date for the two pairs of cranes that nest on the reserve. Three young cranes have fledged at the fenland reserve, which celebrates its twentieth anniversary this year.

The parent cranes, which stand five foot tall and have an eight foot wingspan, have been resident on the reserve since 2007. One of the pairs made history in 2009, when they fledged the first young crane chick in the Fens for over 400 years. Since then, a further four chicks have fledged on the reserve. In 2012, both pairs fledged young in the same year for the first time ever.

Cranes are large, elegant birds that breed in wetlands through Northern Europe and Asia, similar in size and appearance to grey herons. They have “Amber” conservation status in the UK due to the very small number of cranes breeding or wintering here.

Last year there were just 25 pairs of cranes nesting in the whole of the UK, and the Fen population, which also includes birds nesting at RSPB Nene Washes, east of Peterborough, forms a significant proportion of the British nesting population.

At Lakenheath Fen, one pair fledged twins on 6 July, with the second pair fledging a single youngster on 12 July. As well as being the first season that three young have fledged on the reserve, it is also the first time that twins have fledged on the reserve.

Dave Rogers, Senior Site Manager for Lakenheath Fen said: “Cranes are magnificent birds and we’re delighted that the two pairs at Lakenheath are having so much success breeding here. It was great when the first pair had got their twins flying and it is amazing now that the other crane pair, known to us as Little and Large, have coaxed their youngster into the air as well. Our best year ever for cranes! We put a lot of effort into managing the reserve for our cranes and it is fantastic that they have done such a good job of parenting this year.

“They usually stay around the reserve for 2-3 weeks after the chicks first get airborne, building their flight muscles, so hopefully our visitors will be treated to good views of the families as the young birds test their new-found flying skills around the reserve.

“The best place to catch sight of them is from Joist Fen viewpoint, a one-and-a-half mile walk from the visitor centre along the reserve trail. If they’re really lucky, passengers passing Lakenheath on the train between Norwich and Ely might even be able to spot them from the train!”

By mid-August the parents and young will leave the reserve and will spend the autumn and winter together, but unlike their cousins in Europe they won’t be migrating south for the winter. Instead, Fenland cranes stay to over-winter here in the UK, feeding on the spilt grain, left over potatoes and sugar beet tops that are plentiful in the arable farmland around the Fens, and roosting at night in the area’s expansive wetlands. They also gather in social flocks with other cranes and on occasion places like the Nene Washes can have 20 or more together in the winter.

“After they leave the reserve this summer our birds won’t be back with us full-time until January,” said Dave Rogers.

“Then in February and March the adults start to reaffirm their territories and pair bonds, dance and bugle and chase off last year’s young. So, early next year our chicks will finally have to fend for themselves and are likely to join the growing crane population in the Fens.  It will be 3 to 4 years before they find a partner and look for a breeding territory of their own.”

Fun facts about cranes:

· The crane’s call is known as bugling, and they really do sound like trumpets, not like birds at all.

· Cranes are definitely not fussy eaters- they are omnivorous (eating plants and animals) and their diet can include everything from cereals and nuts, to insects and spiders, and even lizards, snakes and small mammals.

The best place to see Lakenheath Fen’s crane families in the next few weeks is from “Joist Fen” viewpoint, which is a one-and-a-half mile walk from the visitor centre along the reserve trail.

RSPB Lakenheath Fen nature reserve is open at all times and the visitor centre is open daily 9am-5pm, apart from 24-26 December. Entry is free for RSPB members and £4 per car for non-members. Please ring 01842 863400 or e-mail more information about visiting the reserve.

How you can help

Formerly widespread in the UK, cranes need a helping hand to make a comeback to our wetlands where they rightfully belong.

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