4. Cranes, Wetlands and Australian Tucker

Sarus Crane (l) and Brolga (r) Birds of Australia, Ken Simpson, Nicolas Day
After almost two weeks birding around Queensland, Steve said he had a surprise for us. He wouldn’t give more details except that the surprise would occur at the end of the day. First, we would to try and find a few birds missed on earlier tours on the Atherton Tablelands.

During stop-and-go birding on the Tablelands we saw diverse environments like the steamy rainforest, glistening wetlands, and burning savanna, all of which attracted unique bird life. Among the new birds we spotted were several friendly Galas, also known as Rose-Breasted Cockatoos. These twelve-inch birds have a dark grey back with a rich, deep pink chest and a light pink crest, an unusual color for a bird. The cockatoos seemed to be talking to us —at least I wanted to believe that—as they roosted on a massive strangler fig. Strangler figs germinate on top of other trees, pierce their roots into the ground, and over hundreds of years eventually kill the host trees. I’d seen the results several times on other trips, a tall root structure draped over…nothing. The host had died and rotted long ago.

A favorite bird of mine that we observed on the Tablelands was the Australian Bustard, also called the Plains Turkey. This was the first of several bustards I would see on my birding Australian tour and every one was a delight to observe. Bustards are one of the world’s heaviest flying birds and can weigh up to 44 pounds. We usually saw them plopped under a tiny bush or quietly strolling away from us through tall grasses, so we couldn’t get a true sense of their size. Bustards walk with their beaks tilted up, stretching their long necks skyward, relying on their slow movement and dun-colored feathers that match the dry grass for camouflage.

We also spotted Channel-billed Cuckoos who were migrating from their home in Papua New Guinea to nesting grounds in sub-tropical Australia. Australians look forward to hearing the cuckoos’ rasping calls that mark the passing of another year. Channel-billed cuckoos are the largest parasitic birds in the world. They grow to 22 inches tall and have a heavy toucan-like bill and a wingspan more than three-feet wide. Like all parasitic birds, the male cuckoo finds a likely host-bird in an egg-filled nest and tricks the nesting bird into a chase while the female cuckoo rushes into the nest to lay her egg for the unwitting host-bird to raise. The usually smaller nesting bird ends up feeding the cuckoo chick as her own, even though the growing baby will force the mother’s offspring out of the nest to die.


Welcome to Bromfield Swamp

Mid-afternoon we finished birding on the Tablelands and we turned onto a dusty road a short distance south of the small town of Malanda. Just past the turn, we approached a concrete viewing platform with a sign indicating this was Bromfield Crater. As we drove past, Steve explained, “This crater is an extinct volcanic maar, which is a broad, low-relief crater that fills with water when groundwater seeps into hot magma. Steam explodes when the magma and water meet, creating a shallow, flat-bottomed lake or swamp where birds flock to drink the water during dry periods.”

Steve was full of information, but I couldn’t see anything that looked like a crater since we were driving on the outside of the rim and could not see over the edge. “Brolgas and Sauras are both in the crane family,” Steve continued. “They arrive at Bromfield Swamp at dusk, so we’ll have plenty of time to see them before it gets totally dark.” I noted that it was only 4 p.m. and we still had at least two more hours of sunlight. We couldn’t see where Steve was pointing. The viewing platform obscured everything beyond, so when the bus didn’t even slow down, I wondered, What’s going on? Then I realized it had to be something to do with our surprise that Steve had mentioned in the morning. I stared at the grasses waving at eye level, hoping for a glimpse of this geologic marvel Steve had attempted to describe, thinking it might be the surprise. I could see a house across the open space, but still could not see into the crater.

About a third of the way around the rim, the bus veered to the right through a break in a tall hedge. Steve then announced with fanfare, “And now for the surprise!”

We pulled up to a typical Queensland farmhouse with a large covered veranda wrapped around most of the wooden structure. I could tell this house was built for hot weather with its tall peaked roof built to draw hot air up to vent out at the top like houses I had seen in Tanzania. Clearly, this place was not a tourist mecca and no signage indicated that the farmhouse was an inn or B&B.

A small wiry woman rounded a corner of the house, walking with confidence and command. Steve jumped out of the van to greet our host, Marianne Robb (not her real name). She put us at ease with her warm greeting, “Welcome to our home.” Marianne was the picture of grace and congeniality as she shook hands all around and asked our names. She answered our immediate questions. “My family has owned and operated this ranch for generations and we are pleased to have you as our guests. We feel fortunate to live so close to this fascinating crater, so follow me, please.”

Marianne trotted up several stairs to the veranda and we followed, walking past two long tables set for dinner. We headed to the back of the house where the veranda railing faced the crater and a magnificent view that spread before us. Dry grasses rolled two-thirds of the way down the gradual slope to the marshy pond nestled on the crater’s wide bottom. The far rim of the crater was difficult to see in the distance.

“Brolga Swamp is a nationally important wetland because of the seasonal presence of the brolga and sarus cranes,” Marianne explained. On the opposite side of the wetland, a dark clump of trees offered shade to a few cattle grazing outside the fence built to keep them away from the swamp itself. Thick stands of reeds hid some of the water, creating a series of smaller lakes where the dark water sparkled in the sun. No birds had arrived yet.

Birders set up their telescopes in a flash. “Hopefully, we will see both cranes,” Steve bubbled with excitement.. “Brolgas were thought to be the only cranes in Australia until 1961 when the sarus cranes began to arrive from their northern habitats in parts of Asia. Both cranes are non-migratory but they move around their territories in response to the seasonal rains.”

Steve noted that both cranes have red on the head, but on the sarus the red extends down the neck. Breeding information on these two cranes is limited, but ornithologists do know these Australian birds breed in the Atherton Tablelands. The Australian population of sarus cranes is about 5,000, and relatively stable while brolgas number about 10,000.

Marianne offered lemonade and iced tea and invited us to settle into the wide wicker chairs on the veranda to wait for the cranes. Drinks in hand, we relaxed and chatted with Marianne, her cheerful daughter, Joyce, and her daughter’s rugged husband, Phil, who had just returned from ranch duties. They eagerly shared the history of the area and family stories, exuding pride of their homeland as they spoke about their ranch. We learned that the brolgas spend their non-breeding months, November to June, near Bromfield Swamp—right in front of us—where they dependably spend the night. On occasion, a few sarus cranes join them.

Fortunate to live right on the ridge of the crater, the family was clearly committed to good grazing management to protect “their” cranes. I felt fortunate to be there with these local hosts who knew all the secrets of this unusual geographic wonder.


The Birds Arrive!

Our excitement grew as we waited for the birds to arrive. However, Steve cautioned, “Nothing is certain because the rains determine the movement of the cranes and not the calendar.”

Not long after, a whisper drifted from my right. “I think they’re here!”

We fell silent and quietly set our drinks aside. Binoculars ready, I moved to the porch railing and scanned the crater’s bowl. Winks of the waning sunlight reflected from the wet marsh as a few ghostly shadows floated out of the evening sky, legs dangling, wings fixed and ready for a landing. Suddenly, a handful of tall gray birds stood in the fields below us.

Seven of the big birds were best seen through the spotting scope, but in the shadows it was difficult to find the field marks. Sarus or Brolga? That was what we all wondered since the two species look so similar.

“Go on down the hill, you’ll get a better look at the cranes there,” Marianne urged. Thrilled at the offer, a few of us crept down the slope, afraid the cranes might fly away if we got too close. Instead, they just ignored us. What a good view we had! The birds’ field marks are subtle and often indistinguishable, especially by newer birders like me. Both species of these tall cranes are grey with brick-red coloring on their heads. The sarus is the tallest flying bird in the world, but up to that point in my birding experience I had not seen many cranes of any species for comparison. I was stumped. The two types of birds are often found mixed together in flocks and look similar with their long crane legs and heavy, silver-grey bodies. They reminded me of Sandhill Cranes I had seen on Sauvie Island near my home in Portland, Oregon. The squeaky gargle of these approaching cranes was also reminiscent of the sandhills. I needed help for a definitive identification, but no one was close enough to ask.

After we returned to the porch, we watched more birds arrive in growing numbers. Daylight faded. Through a spotting scope I noted two birds standing close together. They seemed slightly different and I searched for the field marks again. On one of them, the blood-red feathers extended further down the neck than on the bird standing next to it, which was taller. Based on that field mark, I determined the crane with more red was a sarus and the other one was the brolga. As dusk embraced the marsh, I was just able to distinguish the pink legs of the sarus and compare it to the much darker legs of the brolga—another field mark. I was pleased with myself. A positive I.D. for both birds, and just in time.

The last of shreds light left the crater, leaving only starlight for illumination. The excitement of the cranes’ arrivals was over and we were all suddenly feeling hungry. At Marianne’s invitation, we lined up along a buffet table overflowing with genuine Australian “tucker,” Australian slang for food. A pressure lantern on the wall of the house hissed as it illuminated the table’s bounty. We heaped our plates with corned beef, stuffed chicken, sausages, and pork chops, all food from Marianne’s ranch. Side dishes included lima beans, green beans, potatoes au gratin, and ears of corn. For dessert we had a meringue with fruit along with cheesecake. Heavy fare, but I enjoyed every bite as would the hard working hands on a ranch or farm for who needed it.

After dinner, I took a last look through the spotting scope. I could only see silhouettes of several hundred cranes wading in the shallow waters of the marsh, busily pecking for insects, frogs, tubers, and whatever else they might find hidden in the grass. Once again, that thrill of satisfaction washed over me.