09 November 2010


No, not the tall metal things that seem to be a permanent feature of Alcalá's skyline these days.  I'm talking about Grus grus, Common cranes, currently spending their winter holidays at nearby La Janda.   (Interestingly the Spanish word for the tall metal thing, grúa, is not dissimilar to that for the bird, grulla.  Just thought you´d like to know that.)

Standing at up to 130cm and weighing up to 6 kg, the Common or Eurasian crane is one of the most impressive visitors to our area.  They breed in wetlands in northern parts of Europe and Asia, and migrate south for the winter, some heading across to Africa, others staying in Southwest Spain.  They became extinct in the UK in the 17th Century, but have been reintroduced in the Norfolk Broads and the Somerset levels.   They are omnivorous, but are apparently particularly partial to cranberries, which may be where that fruit got its name.

The Plain of La Janda, stretching from Benalup down to Vejer, used to comprise a huge shallow lagoon, with reedbeds and marshland.  It was one of Europe´s finest wetland areas for birds, especially given its proximity to the migration route between Europe and Africa across the Straits of Gibraltar.  Common cranes, storks and other birds visited in their millions, and they feature strongly in prehistoric cave paintings in the area, such as the Cueva del Tajo de las Figuras near Benalup.

In the middle of the 20th Century the lagoon was drained to support rice-growing.  This is now considered by ecologists to have been a disastrous act of vandalism, and subsequent activities like the large-scale installation of wind turbines have added insult to injury.  Despite being recognized as a priority area by international authorities, La Janda has not yet been included in the list of Protected Areas of Andalucia.  More on the ecology of La Janda.

These days the cranes still come, though in much smaller numbers. The paddy fields make an ideal picnic spot for them.  They fly in large family groups, usually in a V-shape, and their distinctive call, a rough nasal trumpeting, can be heard for miles.

Stephen Daly, a local bird expert who also runs guided birdwatching tours, reports this touching tale of reunion on his excellent blog Never Mind the Finnsticks:

"A flock from last week checks out the rice growing area on the eastern end of La Janda, before deciding to land, beckoned on by the plaintive calls of one lone juvenile crane on the ground who was calling at the top of his voice, so happy to hear and then see his returning friends. He was a survivor from last winter, having had his wing smashed by a wind turbine blade at the beginning of the year. He managed to keep low, feed and survive the increased patrols of foxes, and other predators that have bebefited from finding collision casualties from the windmills or indeed flying into the many wires that span the countryside. Such predators would surely take an injured bird. Still unable to fly, I've seen the crane often this summer sneaking through the growing rice."

This video, taken at the Gallocanta bird reserve in Zaragosa, gives an idea of what La Janda might have been like when the cranes came in their thousands:

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