In spring and autumn you can hear them from far away. When a trumpet-like sound can be heard, it is time to observe cranes in the Mecklenburg Lake District.
Anyone who has observed the migration of the cranes will be drawn to this special natural spectacle again and again. We were out and about in the Mecklenburg Lake District during the crane migration and went to the overnight roosts of the birds.
What you should know about cranes
With a body size of up to 130 cm, the crane is quite a large bird. Because of its very long legs and long neck, it is also called a striding bird.
The plumage is light grey with many different shades. The tail and wings have black feathers. The wingspan can be up to 245 cm.
On its head it wears a red featherless cap. The black and white head and neck markings are also very characteristic. The wedge-shaped bill is over 10 cm long.
Anyone who has heard the call of the crane will not soon forget it. The loud trumpet-like warning and flight calls are particularly distinctive.
In the mating season, the crane emits a duet call, which is characterised by a series of tuned tone sequences and is answered by the partner.
Cranes usually stand together in larger groups. Before an animal flies off, it stretches out its head and neck in an arc in the direction of flight for about 10-20 seconds. The characteristic trumpet-like sounds are emitted to synchronise the group’s departure. The crane takes a few steps of run-up and then pushes itself off the ground. In flight, the bird stretches its neck long forwards and its legs are stretched long backwards.
Cranes can fly up to 2000 kilometres without a break. In doing so, they often glide on the air currents like a glider. Normally, however, only 10 to 100 kilometres are covered at an average speed of 45-65 km/h.
Cranes show a behaviour that strongly resembles a dance when they are in courtship or very excited. They stretch their heads and beaks high in the air and call trumpet-like. Sometimes they can be seen spreading their wings and strutting excitedly.
Cranes breed in north-eastern Europe and northern Asia. Preferred areas in Germany are in the north and east. The crane can be observed particularly well, for example, at the lakes in Brandenburg and the Mecklenburg lake district.
The birds live and breed in wetlands and moors. Their nests are on the ground. To search for food, they go to agriculturally used fields or meadows, where they also rest. To spend the night, the birds retreat to water bodies with low water levels.
Cranes eat animal and plant products. In spring, during the resting period on the bird’s northward migration, the birds feed mainly on seeds in the fields. In early summer, insects and smaller vertebrates are also on the menu. Before the return flight to the wintering areas, crop residues and seeds are preferred and in the winter quarters the crane feeds on fruits of the holm and cork oak and sunflower seeds.
Shortly before the cranes even set off on their bird migration, the animals already become restless. They begin to dance, call out their trumpet-like sounds and are also very restless at night. Then, when the temperature changes and the wind is right, the birds take off.
The crane migration consists of groups of birds in pairs or small families. They usually fly in a wedge formation, at an angle or in diagonal rows. The birds communicate with each other by calling.
The flight to the destination is usually completed in stages and so there are stopovers where several groups gather. The resting places consist of well-situated sleeping quarters and spacious areas for feeding. The animals often stay here for some time, gaining strength for the onward flight, and then take off again for the next stage, depending on the weather.
Crane watching in the Mecklenburg Lake District
Early October is the ideal time to observe cranes. We approached the cranes on the Müritz in two completely different ways – on foot and by boat, once early in the morning and once in the evening. I can’t say whether I liked one variant better than the other, I just found it impressive and indescribably beautiful!
Morning crane watching in the Mecklenburg Lake District
I am not an enthusiastic early riser and when the alarm clock rang at 4:30 in the morning, my mood was not exactly at its peak. Luckily, the view out of the window showed no rain, but it wasn’t particularly warm either, at 4 degrees.
We wanted to make the 40-minute drive to Gneve before sunrise, but there was still a short walk of about 20 minutes before we would reach a viewpoint. Yes, and if you want to see cranes flying off in the morning, you have to reach your vantage point before sunrise.
In Gneve there is a small car park and from there you walk towards the Gneve lookout tower. If you want, you can stop here, but it is well worth walking a little further. There are some benches on a small hill and a small picnic area (covered) offers the ideal vantage point on the Großer Schwerin peninsula. The peninsula is a bird sanctuary and here in the shallow water the cranes spend the night undisturbed.
The animals don’t always take off in the same direction, it depends on the wind direction among other things, but the probability of them flying in the direction of this viewpoint is quite high.
We had hardly arrived at our observation point when the first groups rose with their characteristic trumpeting. At first we stood very openly on the hill. What I didn’t know is that cranes can see very well. They perceive us humans on the ground, see us as a threat and loudly turn their flight path away. So if you stay somewhat hidden, wear inconspicuous clothing and are nice and quiet, you can be lucky that the cranes fly very close by.
For almost an hour, individual groups of cranes rose again and again and set off in search of food in the surrounding fields. After that, the sky became a little quieter and when I looked across the fields, I noticed that in the meantime the deer were also foraging in the harvested fields and, startled, took flight when they spotted us.
Crane Tour with the White Fleet
When evening falls on the Mecklenburg Lake District, the cranes return to their roosts. We set out on a White Fleet ship for an evening crane tour from Waren to experience this spectacle.
The White Fleet offers the crane tours in autumn on a few days a week. Depending on the weather and the time of sunset, the tours start at different times. Our tour left Waren at 4.30 p.m. and picked up a few more passengers at two more stops in Klink.
Warmly dressed, we looked for two seats on the upper deck. During the trip, which took us to the Großer Schwerin peninsula, a nature guide told us something about the Müritz, the local bird life and of course about the cranes. I have rarely experienced such peace and quiet on an “excursion boat” during a trip. I don’t think there was anyone on deck who didn’t listen to the explanations with complete enthusiasm. I have rarely heard anyone talk about nature in such an impressive and stirring way.
The trip to the peninsula took about an hour. Once there, the captain positioned the ship so that we had an excellent view of the nature reserve. The sun was disappearing more and more and then they could be heard. The trumpet-like calls announced the flocks of cranes from afar. And then one group of cranes after the other flew in and landed on the peninsula first. The land filled up more and more, the animals stood everywhere and new groups looked for a place to land in between. Only gradually did the animals run into the shallow water in front of the peninsula to spend the night undisturbed.
What amazed me very much was that the animals that gave us humans a wide berth in the morning did not seem to perceive us on the ship as a danger. Some of them flew directly over the ship and did not change their flight path.
We spent a good hour watching the birds finding their overnight quarters. Then fewer and fewer animals arrived and the captain began the journey back to Waren. This journey time also flew by due to the exciting stories of the nature guide and in complete darkness the ship finally docked again in Waren.
Where can you still spot cranes?
In the Mecklenburg Lake District you can observe cranes very well under expert guidance. From Federow, the National Park Service offers a 4-kilometre guided tour that leads to an observation point near the overnight campsites at Lake Rederang. Tickets should be bought in good time, as the tours are very popular.
But even without an expert guide, you should take a look at the surrounding fields during crane season. We saw groups of cranes standing there again and again. In some places we could even stop and watch the animals from the car. You should avoid approaching the skittish animals. They would interrupt their feeding and thus not be able to build up sufficient reserves of strength to make the further journey to the wintering areas.
Disclosure: The crane-watching tours were part of a tour to the Recherechreise. The report corresponds to our impressions and was written independently of the trip.