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Rare cranes fledge in view of passing commuters

Last modified: 22 August 2016

Pair of cranes

Adult cranes at Lakenheath. Six cranes fledged on RSPB reserves in the Fens this year.

Image: Andy Hay

Cranes are some of the UK’s rarest breeding birds – so rare in fact that to most people it would be news that these exotic-looking birds can be seen in this country at all. With just 25 pairs of cranes breeding in the UK each year – give or take – it is hardly surprising that few people will have ever seen one in the wild themselves.

It is no wonder then that staff and volunteers at RSPB Lakenheath Fen nature reserve on the border of Suffolk, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire, are over the moon that this summer: for the second year running, two pairs of cranes have successfully raised three crane chicks between them on the reserve.

To top it off, these scarce birds, which are very shy and secretive during the breeding season, have done it all in front of an audience of commuters on the Abellio Greater Anglia route between Norwich and Ely.

Lakenheath Fen Site Manager, Dave Rogers said:“Our two pairs of crane parents have done us proud. We put a lot of effort into creating a great home for them here at Lakenheath Fen and they have repaid us by raising a total of three chicks between them for the second year running. The fact that people have been able to spot them from the train as it passes the reserve has only added to the excitement.

“They are such charismatic birds and we look forward to seeing them ranging across the Fens this autumn and winter and mixing in with the other Fenland cranes that now breed in our watery part of the country. Hopefully these three young cranes will go on to find mates over the next 3 to 5 years and eventually settle down and raise chicks of their own.”

By using a remote trail camera set up in one of the birds’ favoured feeding spots, Dave and his team were able to capture intimate photographs of one of the reserve’s pairs of adult cranes with their two chicks.

These two chicks made their maiden flight in July. Since then they have been feeding and building up their strength and confidence under the watchful eyes of their parents, before they leave the reserve in the autumn to feed across the wider Fens.  This pair have equalled their feat of 2015 when they became the first pair of cranes at Lakenheath Fen to successfully raise two young.

The reserve’s second pair of cranes – known affectionately to staff and volunteers as ‘Little & Large ’ – have also repeated their success of 2015 by rearing a single chick again this year.

Dave Rogers: “It’s fantastic that our cranes are doing so well and have matched last year’s success, but a reserve-first is always special. This year, our ‘first’ is that for the first time one of our crane pairs – ‘Little and Large’ – succeeded in raising a chick from a second nesting attempt in the same breeding season. After their first attempt failed this is especially gratifying.”

Lakenheath isn’t the only site in The Fens that has had success with cranes breeding this year. Not to be outdone, the RSPB’s Nene Washes nature reserve just to the east of Peterborough has also had three young cranes fledge from two pairs this summer, with a third pair unfortunately failing in their breeding attempt this time around.

Nene Washes Site Manager, Charlie Kitchin: “To have six young cranes raised on RSPB reserves in The Fens this year, adding to what is still a vanishingly small number of these superb birds that breed in this country – that’s really something to celebrate. Although it’s not a competition, we’re hopeful we can go one better at the Nene Washes next year and have young from all three pairs!”

For people looking to see these birds for themselves, the best place to spot the cranes at Lakenheath is from Joist Fen viewpoint, around a mile and a half from the visitor centre. If you have mobility difficulties, permits are available to drive down to a parking area near New Fen viewpoint, you half a mile closer to Joist Fen viewpoint.

Lakenheath’s cranes will soon be leaving the reserve to join others in the wider Fens area to feed and roost together over the winter. They may even join up with the cranes at the Nene Washes, where flocks gather regularly throughout winter. For the chance to see cranes in the Nene Washes this winter, from the RSPB car park at Eldernell it is a short walk to the raised bank from which the best views are usually to be had. Those planning a trip to RSPB Nene Washes need to come prepared though, as the site is without any visitor facilities. For more information, please ring 01733 205140 or visit www.rspb.org.uk/nenewashes.

RSPB Lakenheath Fen is open at all times. The visitor centre and toilets are open daily 9am-5pm. For more information, please ring 01842 863400, email lakenheath@rspb.org.uk, or visit www.rspb.org.uk/lakenheathfen.

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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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