Crane Counts and teams

The North Queensland Crane Count is a volunteer survey of Brolgas and Sarus Cranes, held annually on the Atherton Tablelands by BirdLife Northern Queensland since 1997. This page covers the historical background to the counts and Crane Count teams and roosts since 1997. The Crane Count has become a highlight of the year where people connect with each other, with cranes and the environment. Everyone is welcome, Contacts are below.

A paper reporting results from the first 21 years (1997-2017) has been published, see Ozcranes Research Crane Count results».

Tablelands crane background

Many populations of the world's fifteen crane species migrate away from their breeding wetland areas in the dry, non-breeding period each year (called the wintering or flocking season). In the tropics, migration distance is quite short, maybe a few hundred kilometres, and Tablelands cranes are presumed to breed in the Gulf Plains some 500 kms away. Recently-discovered information from Jim Bravery's diaries shows that up to 1,000 Brolgas have been on the Atherton Tablelands in the dry season since at least the 1920s. The first Sarus Cranes were seen near Atherton in 1967, only a year after Sarus were discovered in the Gulf Plains. Bruce Cook and Jim Bravery identified 23 Sarus feeding with about 80 Brolgas at Willetts Swamp, and within a few years up to 300 Sarus were recorded at several roosts. Sarus and Brolgas mostly roosted at different sites, or kept to separate parts of a site.

in 1983, 16 years after the first Tablelands sighting, Ray Swaby visited Bromfield Swamp, Malanda, to record calls of Australian Sarus for the first time in the wild. In doing so he not only captured the Sarus calls on tape, he conducted and published the first detailed count of both species at any Tablelands roost. Three hundred Sarus Cranes and 750 Brolgas flew in, but he had trouble recounting next morning due to heavy mist in the crater. Contrary to recent experience in Crane Counts from 1997-2017, in 1983 Sarus Cranes arrived earlier at the roost than Brolgas. The evening and morning calls Ray Swaby recorded can be played on Ozcranes Crane Calls page».

By 1997 knowledge had not expanded much further, and the newly-formed Birds Australia NQ Group (now BirdLife Northern Queensland) decided to hold an annual count at multiple Tablelands roosts simultaneously, to census the whole winter population.

Kaban team

↑ Kaban-Tumoulin Crane Count teams, 2019 (Tim Nevard).


How cranes are counted

Kaban team

Crane Count team in action, Kaban-Tumoulin 2019 (Tim Nevard). The team is concealed amongst trees to count cranes landing in the nearby farm dam. →

Teams of 2-6 people are led by an experienced counter. The roles of data recorder, time keeper, identification checker and spotter are allocated (or shared, in smaller teams). BirdLife provides datasheets and materials on crane identification and counters bring their own telescopes or binoculars. Watches are synchonised before the count. At the start of the count, cranes already present are counted and identified. Cranes flying in are counted in flight and identified and their time of arrival noted. If the species is unclear birds are recorded as ‘Unidentified Crane’. Counters report any events that may disturb the survey, and observations of crane behaviour. Counting continues until it is too dark to see birds. More detailed instructions are given at briefings immediately before the Count. For a formal description of methods from 1997-2017, see the published paper at Australian Field Ornithology.

The surveys have confirmed the predominance of Sarus Cranes on the wetter Tablelands, with most Brolgas occupying roosts in the drier south-west and north-west. The study has produced valuable data on crane numbers, roosting behaviour and habitat in north Queensland, and the Count and its related activities have increased knowledge and interest in crane ecology and conservation in the region. Preliminary data supported the declaration of the Atherton Tablelands Key Biodiversity Area».

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For general enquiries and news of ongoing Crane Counts visit BirdLife Northern Queensland or email the Crane Count Co-ordinator. Details for the next Count are also available in Ozcranes News and Diary. For enquiries specifically related to the paper on 21-year Count results, please contact Elinor Scambler.

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