A practical way of letting nature back in is through the activities of the Conservancy movement. There are nearly 100 Conservancies in KwaZulu-Natal, and in addition to their conservation work, many host activities enabling people to visit these special areas. For example, the Karkloof Conservancy in addition to hosting guided walks, has two bird hides in the wetland where three species of cranes may be seen. 

As Conservancies KZN explains: “Conservancies are voluntary community organisations made up of people who care for the environment. There are many different types of Conservancies: urban, suburban, rural, farming, coastal, and even in residential estates, business parks and landfill sites!”.  These Conservancies protect wildlife and eco-systems, and may also be involved in projects related to fresh water, waste management, recycling and renewable energy.

Working for Wetlands, a joint initiative of three South African government departments, reminds us that wetlands are high value eco-systems but that formerly they were regarded as wastelands to be converted for other uses. However, in more recent times the value of wetlands is better understood, but many wetlands globally have been lost. Studies in South Africa suggest that a high percentage of our wetlands have been lost or severely degraded with many of the remaining wetlands having little or no protection.

Protected wetland in Karkloof Conservancy in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, South Africa

A protected wetland in the Karkloof Conservancy surrounded by farmland and timber plantations

Working for Wetlands points out that the loss of wetlands leads to serious consequences, including:

  • Diminished water security,
  • Desertification,
  • Reduced food security,
  • Reduction in biodiversity,
  • Lost livelihoods and
  • Increased vulnerability to natural disasters, especially floods and droughts.

With the extreme weather and changing rainfall patterns associated with climate change, the role of wetlands in reducing the impacts of floods and droughts is even more important.

Caring for and protecting wetlands is important for the protection of our water resources and for sustaining food production and is also crucial for enhancing biodiversity.

Grey Crowned Cranes in flight over farmland in the KZN Midlands

A pair of Grey Crowned Cranes flying in over the irrigation sprinkler system of a farm neighbouring the Conservancy wetland

One of the reasons why visiting wetlands is so rewarding is to see first-hand the variety of life that thrives in such an environment. Many managed wetlands provide sustainable opportunities for visitors to appreciate such rich ecosystems and to learn about their fundamental importance.

Wetlands can be managed and protected not only in “wild” places, but also in urban and agricultural contexts. I have heard of a farmer who, after giving up planting cash crops to focus on improving the health of the wetlands and streams on his farm, described what he was doing as “farming water”.  I thought this was an interesting way of looking at it.

Not only do farmers benefit from wetland protection through having, for example, access to clean water for irrigation and the reduced soil erosion that wetlands provide, but also diverse species of plants and animals are able to thrive and breed in protected wetlands. Among the birds that depend on wetlands and surrounding natural grasslands are the three species of cranes that occur in South Africa. These three, namely, the Grey Crowned Crane, the Wattled Crane and the Blue Crane, can at times be seen at the Karkloof Conservation Centre near Howick in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands.

Wattled Crane in flight over mistbelt forest, Karkloof Conservancy, KZN Midlands, South Africa

On one of our visits to the Karkloof Conservation Centre we were fortunate enough to see a pair of Wattled Cranes. I photographed this one flying with a glorious patch of mistbelt forest as a backdrop. The status of the Wattled Crane is listed as Vulnerable, on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species

Blue Crane in Eastern Cape, South Africa

We have not yet been fortunate enough yet to see any Blue Cranes at Karkloof. This one I photographed one rainy day near Naudés Nek pass in the Eastern Cape. Blue Cranes, South Africa’s national bird, are endemic to Southern Africa, and although their population is regarded as stable, their status is listed as Vulnerable, on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species

Pair if Grey Crowned Cranes coming into land in a wetland in a farming area in the KZN Midlands

We had just got ourselves seated at the second bird hide at Karkloof Conservancy when this pair of Grey Crowned Cranes flew in. A neighbouring farmhouse can be seen in the background

Pair of Grey Crowned Cranes in grassland in Karkloof Conservancy, KZN Midlands

How fortunate to see a pair of these beautiful birds. Sadly, they are listed by the IUCN as being Endangered

The loss and degradation of wetlands and associated grasslands are one of the main reasons for the Vulnerable or Endangered status of cranes. There are other factors too that contribute to the decreasing numbers of Grey Crowned Cranes, and these include human disturbance, live capture of chicks and collection of eggs for commercial trade, unintentional or intentional poisoning, power line collisions and land development.

Grey Crowned Crane walking through grassland, KZN, South Africa

Grey Crowned Cranes can live up to 22 years in the wild. Adults weigh between 3 and 4 kg. These tall birds are 100 to 110 cm in length, with wingspans of 180 to 200 cm. They are the only species of Crane to have a long hind toe that enables them to perch in trees. They roost in trees at night to avoid predators, which include domestic dogs

Organisations working to protect cranes include the International Crane Foundation. Click here to read about the work that they do. Locally we have the KZN Crane Foundation. It notes that the population of Grey Crowned Cranes in South Africa is down to between 3000 and 4000 adult birds.

Grey Crowned Cranes are omnivorous in their feeding habits, with their diet consisting of the seed heads and tips of sedges and grasses, leaves, agricultural crops including pulses, nuts, grains and seedlings, insects and insect larvae, caterpillars and worms, frogs, lizards and crabs, and also rodents. Unfortunately, they can be regarded as a pest on farms as they may damage crops.

A pair of Grey Crowned Cranes, KZN Midlands, South Africa

Grey Crowned Cranes form monogamous breeding pairs, often staying together for life. Breeding occurs usually in the wetter months and the nest is built either in standing water or near it where there is tall vegetation. They lay 2 to 4 eggs that are incubated for about a month. Hatchlings can float on water within 12 hours of hatching and fledglings can wander with their parents as early as their second day, returning to the nest at night

Courtship dance of the Grey Crowned Crane, Karkloof Conservancy, KZN, South Africa

The courtship dance of cranes is well known. How amazing that shortly after arriving in front of the bird hide, this pair of cranes started calling and bobbing before embarking on a series of wing spreading and flapping, and jumping in the air. Either the male or the female may initiate such a display

Grey Crowned Crane calling in duet with its mate as part of its courtship display, Karkloof Conservancy, KZN Midlands, South Africa

Usually the courtship “dance” starts with the pair duetting in a series of honking calls. The red throat sac is inflated to amplify the call

Grey Crowned Crane spreading its wings in courtship display or dance, KZN, South Africa

The crane is truly impressive with wings extended

Grey Crowned Crane jumping with wings extended as part of its courtship dance or display, Karkloof Conservancy, KZN Midlands, South Africa

In addition to extending and flapping the wings, and bobbing up and down, jumping also forms part of the display

Grey Crowned Crane flapping its wings during courtship display

Grey Crowned Crane spreading its wings in courtship display

Grey Crowned Crane in courtship dance, South Africa

Grey Crowned Crane with wings held high in courtship display, KZN Midlands

And putting it all together, here is a series of video clips showing parts of the courtship dance. 

The video shows the pair calling in duet and displaying, and then an interlude where one of the cranes has a thorough bath followed by a preening session, and then another brief series of wing-spreading and jumping moves, before the pair move off quietly together for a spot of foraging.

Portrait of a Grey Crowned Crane, South Africa


Encyclopedia of Life. Balearica regulorum. Grey Crowned Crane  http://eol.org/pages/915338/hierarchy_entries/24919546/details; International Crane Foundation https://www.savingcranes.org/; IUCN.  2018. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2018-2. http://www.iucnredlist.org  Downloaded on 25 October 2018; KZN Crane Foundation http://kzncrane.co.za/

Posted  by Carol

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