When Mandy Muir pointed out these Sarus cranes (Grus antigone) [top two photos] on the plains at Yellow Waters in Kakadu this time last year, I didn’t realise quite how lucky I was to see and photograph them in our part of the Deep North. Professor Stephen Garnett from Charles Darwin University tells me that this was the first time they had been noted in the Top End. Only three birds were seen and they have since departed. Sarus cranes have been sighted in years past down near Borroloola and reported once from the Ord River in Western Australia. Their stronghold is North Queensland and the Gulf Country. Amazingly, they are believed to have been present in Australia for perhaps 10,000 years but were only first recorded officially in 1968. Since they were first noticed their numbers seems to have been growing and it’s believed there are around 5,000 birds now. They benefit from some kinds of farming but other crops like sugar cane are bad news for them. Habitat loss in Thailand and the Phillipines has seen the sub-species in both places become extinct. A population of about 700 is being studied in northern Cambodia. This population is regarded as “steady” but nevertheless vulnerable to threats from changes in land use. India has been paying special attention to their Sarus crane population and Professor Garnett reports that there are about 10,000 birds doing quite well there. Superficially, the Sarus looks like the more common and widespread Brolga (Grus rubicundus) [bottom photograph] but on closer inspection there is plenty to distinguish between them. Brolgas have dark legs and Sarus crane legs are pinkish to reddish. The Sarus has more red on its head and neck, with the red extending down the neck a little. A size difference is also noticeable amongst adults, as the Sarus is about 10% bigger than the Brolga. The Sarus has a lighter beak to that of the Brolga. Given the fate of the Sarus in Thailand and the Phillippines, we need to pay more attention to make sure we don’t overlook these cranes again…as settler society did in Australia until 1968.

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