Sarus Crane and Brolga

Sarus Crane (l) and Brolga (r) Birds of Australia, Ken Simpson, Nicolas Day

These tall cranes, grey with red on their heads, bring to mind our own Sand Hill Crane. The two species often are found mixed together in flocks and look similar, with long crane legs and a heavy, silver-grey body. Through a spotting scope I saw the red on the Sarus head that extends further down the neck. At dusk, the pink legs of the Sarus and the much darker legs of the Brolga looked the same to me. The red on the neck and the color of the legs are accepted indicators for positive identification, called field marks. Unfortunately, many field marks require closer inspection than is possible unless the bird is in the hand – or dead. Years ago, when most birds were plentiful, scientists shot a representative of a suspected new species of bird to examine. They did not consider the hobby birder, who might be averse to killing their prey, when assigning field marks as well as names.

It was to see these cranes on their evening resting grounds that we traveled to Bromfield Swamp. After a full day of birding in the Atherton Highlands, we followed a dusty road around the rim of an extinct volcanic crater to our destination, a typical Queensland house with its peaked roof and wide veranda. Below us, the lush, green crater floor was crossed with fences to keep the grazing cattle out of the wetlands at the very bottom.

Fay Gordie, a small, wiry woman and the matron of the ranch’s family, drew us up onto the veranda for the fabulous view of the crater. We saw cows and the wetlands, but no birds had arrived yet. We waited in the fat wicker chairs and chatted with Fay and her family.

As dusk approached, someone noted a handful of the tall birds in the fields. Seven were visible through the spotting scope on the veranda. Then there were nine. Fay told to walk closer to them, so off we traipsed, past the curious cattle and down the hill. Binoculars in hand, we studied the birds, afraid they might fly if we got too close, but they ignored us. After good looks and with dinner in mind, we returned to the porch where we watched more gather until the light faded to night. I estimated there were several hundred the last time I scoped them, both kinds mixed together, pecking busily for what nourishment they could find in the grass.

The dinner was genuine Australian tucker, what would have been served to the working hands, with a few embellishments.  We heaped our plates with corned beef, stuffed chicken, sausages and pork chops lfrom the ranch. Side dishes included lima beans, green beans, potatoes au gratin and ears of corn. Two desserts waited at the side, a meringue with fruit specialty and cheesecake. Heavy fare and I enjoyed every bite.