Until this week, if anyone had told me that I would see a sandhill crane in the UK I'd never have believed them. OK, so there were three previous UK records, but these were predictably in the far flung corners - Orkney and Shetland, plus a record in County Cork. Surely there was no chance of seeing one in deepest Suffolk.
Sandhill crane is a North American species, breeding in the plains of Canada and the northern US, and wintering around the Gulf of Mexico from Florida to Texas and New Mexico. Like all cranes, they are large birds, standing one metre (three feet) tall with a wingspan exceeding 1.5 metres (about five feet).
Cranes always attract attention with their large size, elegant shape, distinctive bugling calls and energetic displays.
We're not well blessed for cranes in the UK, compared to other parts of the world. Huge flocks of common cranes migrate south every year from northern Europe to spend the winter in Extremadura (Spain), parts of France, Hungary and other areas, where many British birdwatchers will have seen these amazing birds. Similarly, huge flocks of sandhill cranes migrate south through North America, or Demoiselle cranes from central Asia to India.
Common cranes do actually breed in the UK. A small flock has been nesting in the Norfolk Broads for about 30 years (as told in 'The Norfolk crane story' by John Buxton and Chris Durdin), and two pairs have nested at RSPB Lakenheath Fen for the last few years. We regularly see wandering birds on the Suffolk coast, especially in the spring, but for UK-based birdwatchers, that's about the only chances of seeing a crane.
But what has all this to with sandhill cranes? Well, about two weeks ago one turned up in Aberdeenshire, where it found the perfect place to rest at RSPB Loch of Strathbeg. We assume that like many other American migrations that arrived in the UK at the same time, it had been blown across the Atlantic by Hurricane Katia. Being only the fourth UK record, many birdwatchers headed north to catch a glimpse of the incredibly rare visitor. Then, last week, it began heading south, being reported over Northumberland, Durham and North Yorkshire.
Here in Suffolk, we joked that it was coming our way, but how many of us really expected those words to come true? All that changed on Sunday morning, when a lucky local birdwatcher photographed what he thought was a common crane over Kessingland. That would have been a good record, but a closer look at the photos confirmed that this was, in fact, Suffolk's first sandhill crane. As news broke on pagers and websites, birdwatchers all along the coast kept their eyes to the sky hoping it would come their way.
Somehow the crane missed RSPB Minsmere, and touched down instead at RSPB North Warren. Thirty minutes later it was off again, landing briefly on Sudbourne Marshes, before alighting close to birdwatchers visiting Boyton Marshes. Then it was off again, this time settling just a few hundred metres to the south on a stubble field near Boyton village. Hundreds of birdwatchers flocked to this tiny village, me among them.
Just as I arrived with my family, the crane took off again, but luckily it only flew a further two fields away and we eventually had excellent views of it feeding on farmland close to the Alde Estuary. Three days later, the cranes is still their today, and continues to attract the crowds. It's also become a media star, appearing on Anglia TV News last night, in local newspapers, and on the BBC website.
How long will it stay, and where will it go? No-one really knows, but one thing is certain. No-one who has seen it will ever forget it, and I'm sure many tales of its visit to Suffolk will be told over a beer or in birdwatching hides for years to come.
(sorry, I don't have a photo a present - please post one if you were lucky enough to take one)