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I've been a Canberran since moving here from Adelaide on the first day of 1980. I now live in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise Maher, ABC 666 radio and on-line journalist. Among my early memories is following Sleepy Lizards (Shinglebacks) around the paddocks north of Adelaide, guarded by the faithful bull terrier. I have always been passionate about the natural world, trying to understand how it works, how the nature of Australia came to be, and sharing those understandings. My especial passions are birds, orchids and mammals. For much of my life I have been a full-time naturalist, running bush tours, writing books etc, doing consultancies, presenting a regular radio slot on local ABC, chairing a government environment advisory committee and running adult education classes. Recently I have eased back somewhat, but am still writing, teaching, doing some radio work and running overseas tours - as part of my fascination with our Gondwanan origins I've been running tours to South America for the past decade. I was awarded the Australian Plants Society Award in 2001 and the Australian Natural History Medallion in 2006, both for services to education and conservation.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Craning for Attention


My attention was caught by a story from Russia, concerning machissimo President Putin and his latest wildlife-related exploit, this one involving piloting (or at least co-piloting) an ultra-light aircraft in the final training flight of a group of immature captive-bred Siberian Cranes. Like most of the world's 15 crane species, Siberians are threatened with extinction, there being only some 3,000 - 4,000 left. He had dropped by to help out at the research station in Siberia, en route to the APEC summit in Vladivostok. This might seem surprising until you recall that this is the president who found time in his busy schedule to visit, four years ago almost to the day, a Siberian Tiger research project in the far east; imagine his surprise then when, just as he arrived, a tiger escaped from her constraints and charged a TV crew! Well, fortunately he just happened to have his trusty tranquiliser gun on him and saved all their lives - and astonishingly it was all caught on film. He has also helped out apparently in-difficulty marine scientists by shooting a Grey Whale with a crossbow for them so they could take skin samples, and on his first dive in the Sea of Arzov at an ancient city site, blow me down if he didn't find two amphorae that the so-called experts had missed, just sitting there. And would you believe it, on each occasion there just happened to be a film crew on hand?! Uncanny.

RIA Novosti/Alexsey Druginyn
Photo courtesy of RT website (http://rt.com/news/putin-cranes-flying-hope-460/)
OK, two comments only from me. Firstly, whatever the motivation, I'd rather a leader thought it was desirable to associate himself with conservation efforts than to boast his prowess at killing animals for fun. Secondly, exciting as the concept of the crane-training process is - it involves habituating the chicks to the aircraft, then using it to lead them on their first migration, in this case to central Asia - we must give credit where it's due, and note that it was developed 15 years ago in the US. In 1997 highly threatened Whooping Cranes were led south in this way; prior to that the technique had been trialled with Canada Geese, then with relatively abundant Sandhill Cranes. 

Cranes represent an ancient group of birds which have not done well from the entry of humans to their world. The centre of their diversity is eastern Asia, with four species restricted to Africa, two to North America, and two found in Australia. More than half of these are regarded as threatened species, though some populations of others are also at risk. Conflicts with farming interests have led to many being shot and poisoned (especially in South Africa - Blue Cranes, the national bird; Australia - the Brolga; and the US - Sandhill and Whooping Cranes, though 'recreational' hunting has also been significant there). In these places and elsewhere habitat loss, especially of wetlands, has also been significant. In pre-Canberra in the 1870s a flock of 80 Brolgas was recorded by the post office (at Ainslie for those who know it); apart from an occasional intriguing report, there have been no Brolgas here for a very long time now.
Brolgas, near Winton, Queensland
 I have been lucky enough to see all four of the exclusively African species (two others spend winter there), and the two Australian ones (less of a challenge to those who live here!), but none of the others. The fabulous trumpeting calls are facilitated by greatly lengthened and coiled trachea, and in some cases fusion of the bony tracheal rings with the sternum to form vibrating plates.


Wattled Cranes, Okavango Delta, Botswana
(this photo and the next are scanned from old slides - sorry!)
Blue Cranes, Western Cape, South Africa
 A curious situation applies in Australia; until less than 50 years ago only one species, the Brolga, was recognised. Then, in 1966 in the Gulf country of north central Queensland, Sarus Cranes were recognised. For a while it was assumed that they'd recently turned up from south to south-east Asia where they are widespread, but in reality it seems that we just hadn't noticed. Indigenous Australians certainly had, apparently referring to 'the Brolga that dips its head in blood', or 'red-legged Brolga' - see photos below. The Australian Sarus Cranes are now regarded as a separate sub-species, whose ancestors arrived in Australia some 35,000 years ago; recent enough, but not that recent. 
Brolgas (above) and Sarus Cranes (below), both at Karumba on the Gulf of Carpentaria, Queensland.
See the Sarus's much redder head, and the red legs.
I'll never fly with the fabulous cranes like President Putin, but I'm privileged to have been as close as I have.
Black Crowned Crane, Waza NP, northern Cameroon
Grey Crowned Cranes, Murchison NP, Uganda
 For the Putin story, here are two links with slightly different perspectives:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/sep/06/putin-hang-glider-endangered-cranes

http://rt.com/news/putin-cranes-flying-hope-460/

And for cranes in general, you can't go past Peter Mathieson's wonderful 2003 book The Birds of Heaven; travels with cranes.


1 comment:

Flabmeister said...

Well done for avoiding the question from Gruen Planet "What would Putin do?". An excellent post (as always)!

Martin