Against all the odds, a female crane in Aberdeenshire successfully raised a chick to fledging age this year despite losing her mate when the chick was just five weeks old.
Usually, both crane parents are involved in raising and caring for their young including taking turns incubating the egg(s), initially feeding and then teaching them to find food and protecting the chicks until they can fly.
It takes about 10 weeks before a newly hatched chick can take its first flight, which is a long time for the wary parents to keep watch. But they take their guard duties seriously even attacking foxes that stray too close. This is a huge undertaking for the parents and many fail to successfully raise any chicks to a fledging age. The fact that this female was able to raise and fledge a chick single-handed is quite miraculous.
Hywel Maggs, Senior Conservation Officer for RSPB Scotland said: "It is remarkable that this single crane managed to raise this chick on her own. When her mate disappeared, followed the next day by one of the chicks, we thought it would only be a matter of time before the second chick died. It's unheard of in the UK for a single adult to successfully raise a chick and shows tremendous strength. Mother and son have now left Aberdeenshire on migration and we will have to wait until next year to see if she returns with a new mate".
This remarkable crane is part of a tiny population of just two pairs that have recolonised Aberdeenshire after an absence of around 400 years.
Cranes were once widespread in wetland areas across the UK, but drainage and hunting saw them become extinct in the UK by the 1600s. They have naturally recolonised places in eastern England from the Norfolk Broads in the late 1970s to newly restored wetlands in the Fens in 2007 and are starting to breed in other places. There is also a reintroduction partnership project in Somerset to attempt to secure their future in the UK.
Neale Taylor, Scottish Natural Heritage's (SNH) operational manager for Tayside and Clackmannanshire area said: "It is wonderful that a crane chick was raised successfully in Aberdeenshire this year. I happen to have just returned from northern Spain where thousands of migrating cranes stopping off on their way to winter quarters from Scandinavia created a magnificent spectacle for visitors. Maybe this is just the beginning of the return of more of these rare birds to Scotland. As a part of the Biodiversity 2020 challenge we provide financial support for the RSPB's work in the north-east with local land managers and the local community, and it is really pleasing when everyone's efforts pay off."
Cranes were first recorded returning to breed Aberdeenshire in 2012. Since then, four chicks have fledged and along with the adults they now form an important part of the UK's small crane population, which reached a record-breaking 48 pairs this year. Unlike the birds in eastern England that are resident all year, the Aberdeenshire pairs migrate in the winter but as yet, where they go is a mystery.
On 4 October, just four days after the birds were last seen in Aberdeenshire, there was a sighting of a single adult crane with its juvenile 485 miles away in Portland Bay in Dorset. Careful scrutiny of photos of this bird suggests that this might have been the Aberdeenshire 'supermum' and her youngster.
Come next March a group of farmers, conservationists and volunteers will be keeping an eye out for their return and hoping that at least two pairs come back to breed in Aberdeenshire.
Hywel added: "It's great to have these iconic birds back in our landscape. Let's hope there's more to come for people to enjoy their flamboyant dancing and bugling well into the future. I want to say thanks to all the local farmers and residents who have passed on sightings and been so accommodating to the crane families."
1. Wild cranes are now breeding in Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, Yorkshire and Aberdeenshire, as well as populations in Somerset, Wiltshire, Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire. The population is now roughly half from the Great Crane Project's reintroductions and half from the natural re-colonisation. The Aberdeenshire breeding sites are confidential due to the sensitivity of these birds to disturbance.
2. The Great Crane Project, a partnership between the RSPB, WWT and the Pensthorpe Conservation Trust, has been instrumental in supporting the increase in numbers after successfully hand-rearing and releasing 93 cranes into the Somerset Levels and Moors between 2010 and 2014. You can find out more about the project at: www.thegreatcraneproject.org.uk
3. Latest common crane survey reveals record breaking 48 pairs across UK in 2016 with a total population of an estimated 160 birds - its highest number since they returned to the UK in 1978 after an absence of more than 400 years. The 48 pairs across the UK in 2016 that raised 14 chicks to fledgling stage - two more than the average for the last five years. Over the last five years, an incredible 60 chicks have been raised by wild cranes significantly adding to the UK population.
4. Standing at a height of 4ft, this graceful grey bird with a long, elegant neck is one of the tallest in the UK. Common Cranes live an average of 20-25 years, and find a mate and start to breed at between three and five years of age.
5. RSPB Scotland is part of the RSPB, the UK's largest nature conservation charity, inspiring everyone to give nature a home. Together with our partners, we protect threatened birds and wildlife so our towns, coast and countryside will teem with life once again. We play a leading role in BirdLife International, a worldwide partnership of nature conservation organisations.