This is the month when the Cranes that have wintered in southern Iberia and Morocco return northwards to their Scandinavian and Russian breeding grounds. The gathering of thousands of Cranes in traditional spots like the old lake of La Janda might convince us that all is healthy with this species. But reading the accounts of the 19th Century naturalists leads us to realise that we are observing a meagre ration of what was once a real spectacle of nature.
One of my favourite accounts of the northward passage of Cranes across the Strait of Gibraltar is Irby's who wrote how: "On the 11th of that month (March), in 1874, Mr Stark and myself had the pleasure of seeing them (the Cranes) on passage; and a grand and extraordinary sight it weas, as flock after flock passed over at a height of about two hundred yards – some in single line, some in a V-shape, others in a Y-formation, all from time to time trumpeting loudly. We watched them for about half an hour as they passed, during which time we calculated that at least four thousand must have flown by. This was early in the morning, and we were obliged to continue our journey; but when we lost sight of the Vega of Casas Viejas, over which the cranes were passing in a due northerly direction, there appeared to be no diminution of their number, and, as my friend remarked, ‘One would not have believed that there were so many Cranes in all Europe.’"
Thirty years later Verner commented how the passage was as spectacular as in Irby's day and noted how:
"The direction taken by successive flocks, in accordance with observations made by me for me for many years in the same district, is almost invariably the same, namely a line which when plotted on a map passes about 6 miles west of the old town of Tarifa."
It is a danger to highlight the spectacle today as it lulls us into a false expectation that all is well. But the real cause of the decline of the Crane is habitat loss. Places like La Janda, once Spain's largest lake and now sadly drained, and many other wetlands of the Strait of Gibraltar were part of a vast network that supported vast numbers of waterbirds of which the Crane was a spectacular flagship. Even as I write these lines wetlands like the Smir on the Moroccan side of the Strait are being filled to give way to developments. This is particularly ironic as this wetland forms part of an intercontinental UNESCO Biosphere Reserve!
The situation is even sadder. Cranes no longer breed in southern Europe but they did in Irby and Verner's day, la Janda being their last stronghold. Verner (1911) tells us how: "About thirty years ago, considerable numbers of Cranes remained to nest in south-west Andalucia: but constant egging by professional “collectors” has sadly reduced their numbers. In some districts they have ceased to nest altogether while in others where I can recall seeing over thirty pairs in the nesting season there are now hardly half a dozen to be found during the summer months."
So these images are a tribute to a wonderful species and its wetland habitats and a warning: just because we see large flocks of this species (or indeed other animals), it should not be taken to mean that all is well. The wetlands of the Strait of Gibraltar and its birds have been dying a long and lingering death for 150 years. Yet it seems that more emphasis is placed on the wonders of the region than on the rate of loss. In another 150 years it may only be the images that we are left with. And that will be our legacy...