Strike a pose: the ballet of crane lake

Descending on Sweden in their thousands, these birds not only stop to feed but also perform an elaborate courtship dance, writes Nerys Lloyd-Pierce

Mythology has it that the crane, if treated with due respect, will bring luck, success and a long life. Farmers in western Sweden have a long tradition of paying homage to the bird by mimicking its leggy gait in a ritual dance around the farmhouse. Imitation, they say, is the sincerest form of flattery, and such prancing was said to secure a fruitful harvest. But for optimum results, the pastoralists of yesteryear were obliged to perform the "crane dance" backwards and, preferably, minus their clothes.

Mythology has it that the crane, if treated with due respect, will bring luck, success and a long life. Farmers in western Sweden have a long tradition of paying homage to the bird by mimicking its leggy gait in a ritual dance around the farmhouse. Imitation, they say, is the sincerest form of flattery, and such prancing was said to secure a fruitful harvest. But for optimum results, the pastoralists of yesteryear were obliged to perform the "crane dance" backwards and, preferably, minus their clothes.

Modern Swedes no longer jump through hoops in the name of crane veneration, but the arrival of these feathered migrants is still a cause for celebration. When the cranes descend in April on Lake Hornborga in western Sweden - a stopover on their migratory journey to northern breeding grounds - an estimated 150,000 people turn out to see them.

At the peak of the migratory influx, thousands of Eurasian cranes (Grus grus) flock to Lake Hornborga, their immense numbers forming a kind of plumed ocean. There, onlookers can witness the elaborate courtship dance performed by crane couples celebrating their lifelong breeding partnership.

This spring, migration figures hit bumper levels, with the daily count reaching 12,700 birds, though on the particular day that I was there, the apologetic expression on the face of Jan Mogol, a naturalist who runs the local nature reserve, suggested that all was not as it should be.

With a shrug, he gestured at the sky, from which the sun beamed down. It seemed that this unseasonably warm weather had prompted many cranes to continue their journey far sooner than expected, and the numbers had dwindled to 3,000. All the same, a congregation of 3,000 birds is not to be sniffed at. And judging by the ranks of people watching them, falling numbers is no deterrent to this particular spectator sport.

The cranes were busily eating grain, stabbing at the morsels on the ground. Some 200 years ago the birds stopped here to refuel because of the large potato crop cultivated for schnapps production. Now, with the distillery gone, the spud has been replaced by grain, distributed nightly by machine. Given the epic voyage that these migrants undertake - from Extremadura in western Spain to the northern reaches of Scandinavia - the nourishment available at Lake Hornborga is a vital component in surviving the journey.

Among the largest migrating birds, these feathered leviathans have a wingspan of 2.5m and stand 120cm tall. Powerful fliers, they can maintain speeds of 40mph. In their migration between Siberia and the Indian subcontinent, demoiselle cranes traverse the Himalayas at an astonishing three miles above sea level. This high-altitude prowess may be one of the reasons why, since the days of Confucius, cranes have been vested with supernatural powers.

Surprising though it may seem, only a handful of the 150,000 crane-fanciers that descend on the region each spring are dedicated birdwatchers. Some, like Ray, a cheery Englishman I met, subject themselves to 14-hour stints in cramped hides in order to achieve maximum crane observation. But most are just ordinary punters who spend the day at Lake Hornborga armed with picnics and ice cream rather than industrial-strength binoculars.

Jan Mogol attributes this soft spot for cranes to two factors. First, the arrival of the cranes marks the end of Sweden's long, drawn-out winter. The second reason, he suggests, is an anthropomorphic one: people can see reflections of human behaviour in that of the cranes. "The cranes form long-term relationships and bring up the kids together," he says. "The dancing is a way of cementing the partnership, of reinforcing the bond. Like a human marriage, the partnership needs to be worked on if it is to survive."

Dagsnas Castle sits on the shores of Lake Hornborga with a view of the flight path of the cranes as they return to their roosting sites at dusk. As the sun melts over the horizon, squadrons of charcoal silhouettes brand the apricot sky, and the marshes resound with the birds' doleful cries. Given its impeccable location, Dagsnas Castle should be the perfect place on which to base a visit to see the cranes. Unfortunately it isn't, thanks to poor service and spartan rooms. Our tour took us to better places, including Bjertorp Castle, an Art Nouveau masterpiece with an award-winning kitchen, and Handelsmanflink, a family-run hotel on the island of Flaton.

Back on crane-watch I had a dawn appointment to see them dancing. With the numbers so greatly depleted, a billowing sea of participants was going to be an unlikely sight. And, according to Jan, by this stage any gyrations would be for bonding purposes rather than courtship. But the crane fan club had already gathered as small groups of birds began to fly in, hitting the ground in a series of bounces.

We scanned the flock of feeding cranes for signs of movement and were swiftly rewarded as a pair of tall grey birds launched into a courtly sequence of movements, heads bobbing, great wings outspread, like a duke and duchess at a ball. Then, in just a few minutes, the show was over and the couple returned to feed. After all, there was the serious business of preparing for that long journey ahead.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

Nerys Lloyd-Pierce travelled to Sweden with the Swedish Travel and Tourism Council (00800 3080 3080; www.visit-sweden.com or www.west-sweden.com) and City Airlines (0870-220 6835; www.cityairline.com). City Airlines offers direct daily flights from Birmingham to Gothenburg from £174 return. Discover the World (01737 214255; www.arctic-discover.co.uk) offers four-night gourmet breaks to western Sweden from £639 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights from London Heathrow, b&b accommodation, three-course dinners and car hire.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Arts and Entertainment
TVShow's twee, safe facade smashed by ice cream melting scandal
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live
tv
Life and Style
tech
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
News
Actor, model and now record breaker: Jiff the Pomeranian
Video
News
REX/Eye Candy
science
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates after scoring his first goal for Arsenal in the Champions League qualifier against Besiktas
sportChilean's first goal for the club secures place in draw for Champions League group stages
News
i100
News
Down time: an employee of Google uses the slide to get to the canteen
scienceBosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Business Development Manager / Sales Pro

    £30 - 35k + Uncapped Comission (£70k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Business Develop...

    Graduate Sales Executive / Junior Sales Exec

    £18k + Uncapped Commission (£60k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Graduate Sales Exe...

    Web Developer / Software Developer

    £25 - 60k (DOE): Guru Careers: A Web Developer / Software Developer is needed ...

    Oracle 11g SQL 2008 DBA (Unix, Oracle RAC, Mirroring, Replicati

    £6000 - £50000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: Oracle 11...

    Day In a Page

    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
    Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

    What is the appeal of Twitch?

    Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
    Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

    How bosses are making us work harder

    As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
    Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

    Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

    As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
    Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

    A tale of two writers

    Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
    Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

    Should pupils get a lie in?

    Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
    Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

    Prepare for Jewish jokes...

    ... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
    SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

    A dream come true for SJ Watson

    Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
    Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

    Paul Scholes column

    Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
    Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

    Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

    A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
    Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

    The science of herding is cracked

    Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
    Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

    This tyrant doesn’t rule

    It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?