In mid-May 2006 the Gulf country was still largely inaccessible. Flooding in the wake of cyclone Monica the previous month had left the seasonal wetlands high and wide, making our chances of locating young Sarus Cranes that much more remote. With satellite transmitters and permits in hand, and accompanied by Rigel Jensen and Merryl Baetge, I had come out to Karumba with high hopes of obtaining the first data on movements of these cranes, maybe even tracking their annual migration to the Atherton tablelands.
A reconnaissance the previous February had shown that many pairs of adult cranes were on territories in the flooded woodlands, but nesting had seemingly not yet commenced. So by now I expected to see many juveniles, including some as yet unfledged and therefore catchable. Our methodology was simple and in the established tradition of crane-catching - see a young crane, run it to ground!
As usual, the theory proved deceptively straightforward, firstly because we found only one flightless juvenile (I speculated that many eggs or chicks had been lost in the floods) and second its skill at eluding capture was far greater than our hunting prowess. This half-grown chick was adept at disappearing into the neck-high grass as its parents led us away in opposite directions. After several unsuccessful attempts over two days, we spotted the family in an open area and Rigel and I sprang from the braking car. Our speed caught the birds by surprise, and the chick dropped while still in short grass - even so, it lay so well camouflaged that I almost trod on it before it hissed and broke cover. It soon gave up the chase as two of us closed in, and barely struggled as we put a hood over its head. It weighed in at a healthy 4kg (adults range from 5 to 8kg), more than enough to carry the 30g transmitter without ill effects. This was mounted on a specially designed legband, a system used successfully in north America, where monitored birds showed no adverse effects on behaviour or reproduction. As the adult birds flew wide circles above us, calling loudly, we fitted the transmitter and recorded vital statistics in about 15 minutes. On release, the youngster spread its wings and 'craned' to its full height, posturing defiantly until I backed off. We watched it walk away, apparently unencumbered by its new load, before leaving so that the family could reunite.
Having tested the transmitter satisfactorily beforehand, we waited expectantly for the first fixes, relayed by David Roshier from Charles Sturt University, who had donated the transmitters. Anticipation turned to profound disappointment as a day, then two, passed with no signals received. The realization that the transmitter had been damaged soon after deployment (most likely by some vigorous pecking at the antenna) was truly deflating, but on the brighter side there may still be a young crane wearing a very expensive legband, fetchingly bright red and inscribed with the code 'K01' in large print. So there is still a chance we may learn something from our bird. He or she has not been sighted on the tablelands yet. In 2006 many fewer cranes than usual arrived, presumably remaining on the Gulf plains which were unusually green well into the year. Despite larger numbers in 2007, there was still no sightings. This year may be different, so if you happen to spot 'Karumba', on the tablelands or in the Gulf, or anywhere else for that matter, please let me know!
Thanks to Birds Australia for providing some of the funding for this project.
You can contact John Grant by email or phone 0410 810427
Sarus Crane Gulf breeding wetland (Courtesy John Grant)