Outside of the Tree Kangaroo Café and the Malanda Falls Visitor Centre, painted wooden silhouettes perched in the grass to mark Crane Week. From September 23rd to September 29th, Tablelanders and visitors celebrated the large flocks of Sarus Cranes and Brolgas, two species of tall grey cranes that gather on the Atherton Tablelands each winter when their breeding grounds to the west in the Gulf of Carpentaria or to the north in Cape York begin to dry out. Come the Wet Season, the birds will leave again.
I joined Birdlife Australia in a Crane Count near Innot Hot Springs, where thousands of cranes flocked to swamps and creeks for an evening drink and place to roost. After driving around dusty dirt roads all morning, staking out unobtrusive spots to observe the cranes fly in for the night, my eyes felt dry. But once I was stationed near the center of a long swamp, with green grasses and lily pads and a cluster of magpie geese at the eastern end and the sky above me, it was like my eyes were taking a long cool drink, just as the cranes would.
It was silent in the sense that the sounds of nature were all we could hear. When the magpie geese were startled, the buzz of their wings was like a swarm of bees had been disturbed until they settled back down in the water only a short distance from where they had begun. I learned to distinguish between the calls of the Sarus Cranes and Brolgas, just as I learned to differentiate their appearance. The Brolgas, much more common, have dark gray legs and a small splash of intense red on their heads, while the Sarus Cranes have rosy pink legs and red caps that extend partway down their slender necks.
We saw thousands of cranes. Though accustomed to flocks of autumn geese flying south over bare trees in crisp air at home, these grey birds filled the sky in a way I have never seen before. Like tiny pieces of gray confetti and red glitter fluttering through the air high above me, they beat their wings while their long legs trailed elegantly behind them. Calling to each other while circling above the swamp, my friend hypothesized that the birds were searching for their partners before settling down for the night. In a flock of a thousand birds, each just wanted to find the right one to sleep next to. As twilight darkened the sky above the swamp, we listened to the last calls of the cranes before leaving.