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.

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