Putting names to legs

When you walk around a nature reserve with a fancy camera hanging around your neck, it is natural for people to assume you are both an expert birder and experienced photographer.

When you’re actually a relative novice in both, this can lead to some embarrassing situations. It’s not uncommon to be asked unanswerable questions about the technical specification of your equipment or consulted about the animals around you (my personal favourite so far has to be “is that flamingo dead?” – don’t worry, it was only sleeping).

However, such assumptions can also have their advantages. One such situation occurred when I was at WWT Slimbridge, taking photos of the captive cranes which were unusually close to their enclosure perimeter.

Common crane
One of the captive cranes at Slimbridge

A gentleman carrying a camera with a huge lens approached and, obviously assuming I was a lifelong ornithologist who would be interested in such things, let me know that there were wild cranes over by Hogarth Hide. I thanked him, pretended to know where Hogarth Hide was so as not to reveal my ignorance, and wandered away in the right general direction until I found some signposts telling me where to go. When I reached the hide I was excited to see three common cranes, one adult and two juveniles, feeding near South Lake.

Common cranes by South Lake
Cranes by South Lake

Common cranes are rather amazing birds. They are one of the largest species in the UK, standing at over a metre high and with a wingspan of close to 2.5 metres. Seeing them this close in the wild is a pretty special experience – not just because of their stature, but because (despite their name) common cranes are also fairly rare. In fact, they were extinct in the UK until the 1980s, since when conservation efforts and a reintroduction programme have led to their return. I felt very privileged to see them and merrily starting snapping away with my camera.

The next week, I returned to the same hide and found two more cranes in much the same spot. These were both adults, and it was fascinating to watch them pace around in the shallow water looking for prey. I was also lucky to catch them calling in unison.

Cranes calling
Cranes calling

Now, here’s the really exciting thing about these birds. They are all products of the Great Crane Project, the aforementioned reintroduction scheme, which hand-reared crane chicks between 2010 and 2014. They were released onto the Somerset Levels and have since spread further afield with a few successfully settling and breeding at Slimbridge. The birds were ringed and can be identified by the unique colour combination of three rings on their right leg.

The Great Crane Project has a searchable list of all these identifiers on their website – which means you can find out the name of the birds you see, along with when they were hatched and considerable detail about their life history. Through this I have been able to identify the cranes I encountered as Ruby, with her two unringed offspring, and Phelps and Elizabeth Royal.

This project, and all the information available on its accompanying website, is a fantastic way to inspire the public about conservation. Putting a name to a leg can really help people – especially those who aren’t that experienced in birdwatching – to connect with the wildlife around them.

You can read more about the project and its birds at the Great Crane Project website.