Wattled Cranes are not often seen and they are not easy to spot. They are found on the vast flood plains of the Okavango and Chobe, on the countless islands in the Kwando River and on the wetlands of the Linyanti. Wattled Cranes may also flock to former Bushmanland in large numbers, if the salt pans in that area contain water. Many of the birds probably originate from the Okavango Delta in Botswana, which is home to an estimated 1300 Wattled Cranes – the major part of this species in southern Africa. In years of good rain the cranes are also found at Lake Oponono north of Etosha National Park.

Wattled Crane
A Wattled Crane takes off from his feeding ground in the Okavango wetlands to continue the search for food a few hundred metres further on. These cranes eat mainly plant material such as tubers and grass seeds, but also small snails, fish and frogs.

These usually shy birds are the largest and rarest cranes in Africa. They are around 1.5 m tall and weigh 8 kg. In Namibia they are classified as endangered. According to estimates the local population consists of some 250 birds and only 10 breeding pairs. Nature conservation official Holger Kolberg, who works in the research department of the Ministry of Environment and Tourism, and I discovered a nest with two eggs at the Okavango River in Bwabwata National Park in the end of July 2014. The inconspicuous nest of reeds and other aquatic plants was on a barely noticeable rise in the middle of a flood plain, surrounded by water with dense plant growth.

Wattled crane
A Wattled Cranes’ nest with two eggs in the middle of a flood plain at the Okavango River in Bwabwata National Park. From a little distance it is hard to recognise the nest as such.

During the annual International Waterbird Census at the Nyae Nyae Pan in Bushmanland, conducted in April 1994, a total of 95 Wattled Cranes were recorded. The number dropped to only seven in April the following year. In January 1992 it had been 84 cranes but in January 1993 there were just two. More recently, in February 2018, thirteen Wattled Cranes were counted at the pan, while the number recorded in March 2003 was 62 in total. In the intervening years the pan was mostly dry. The wetland counts are coordinated and partially conducted by the Ministry of Environment and Tourism. Numerous individuals and organisations participate in the censuses which take place twice a year: one in winter and one in summer.

Wattled Crane

At Lake Oponono north of Etosha National Park a few Wattled Cranes were seen in most years when water was sufficient there. During the July 1997 census 42 birds were counted, after there had been only 23 of them three months earlier. The following year, in April 1998, there were just 13 cranes. The last time Wattled Cranes were spotted at Lake Oponono was in February 2017, and there were only two of them.

In the Mahango core conservation area of Bwabwata National Park on the western bank of the Okavango River, several Wattled Cranes were seen every year since August 1991 until May this year. The largest number (28 birds) was recorded in July 2016. In May this year (2019) a total of ten cranes were spotted in three places.

According to experts, Wattled Cranes become sexually mature only at the age of eight to nine years. They raise just one chick. This is the lowest reproductive rate of all cranes worldwide. On top of that they are threatened by habitat loss and countless disturbances, mainly caused by humans. Holger Kolberg at the Ministry of the Environment asks anyone who sees Wattled Cranes, Blue Cranes or Crowned Cranes to please send him an email giving the place and date (if possible the GPS coordinates) of the sighting. His address is holgerk@afol.com.na.

Author: Dirk Heinrich

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