The dancing cranes of West Sweden – a bucket list wildlife spectacle
The throng stretches out on either side of me: a shifting, bickering thousands-strong multitude spread around the lakeside, jostling for space and filling the air with sound. It is a breathtaking sight, a cacophonous celebration of life on a spectacular scale.
While rural south-west Sweden is the kind of place one might visit in order to avoid the crowds, it is the masses that I have come to witness: the vast congregation of cranes that gather every year on the banks of Lake Hornborga during their long migration to rest and feed.
More than that, they dance.
Lake Hornborga lies north-east of Gothenburg and on arrival I waste no time in heading to the waterside from my accommodation in the nearby town of Falköping. I notice a few of the birds dotted about the fields as I approach the site but you don’t have to be a birdwatcher to spot this large, long-legged species. Towering up to 1.3 metres, they certainly stand out, with their elongated necks, black and white head stripes, grey plumage and bustle of feathers at the rear.
Nothing quite prepares you for the main event, though, and turning off the road to the trandansen (crane dance) arena I am faced with an expanse of wetland and grassland covered in common cranes; 19,500 of them to be precise, according to the daily count carried out by volunteers.
Amid the giant flock, courting pairs dance, reaffirming potentially lifelong bonds with leaps and bows and bugle-blasts of noise. Their exuberant jumps and jerky neck thrusts might have a touch of dad-dancing about them but they are such elegant birds that they carry off the moves in style.
“It’s a wonderful sight,” says bird guide Kent-Ove Hvass as we gaze out from the viewing point at the animated assembly a few metres away, fanning out around the bay and flying in from all directions. “And the more you watch them over the years the more you see how unique they all are.”
The annual arrival of cranes begins in mid-March and has a special place in the hearts of Swedes as a sign of spring and longer days ahead – and it draws spectators from across the country and beyond. While it may well have occurred in this area for thousands of years, the birds have also been encouraged to visit because of the local production of brännvin: Swedish vodka.
At one time potatoes were grown locally to create the spirit and migrating cranes gradually developed an appetite for unharvested tubers left in the ground. Their seasonal visits became such a popular sight that when the district distilleries shut down in the 1970s, the birds continued to be fed – which also helped prevent hungry flocks from raiding crops in neighbouring farmers’ fields.
Today up to 150 tonnes of grain are spread beside Lake Hornborga during spring, helping the birds to refuel as they journey to breeding grounds in the far north. Their journey starts in Spain but many fly in from Rügen, northern Germany, another staging post, 430km away or a one-day flight. The greatest numbers tend to be seen in late March/early April, and when I visited last year a new record was set as the daily tally peaked at 27,300 cranes. By May they have departed on the final leg of their journeys but the lake is still a great place to see other waterfowl and raptors, such as marsh harrier, osprey, golden and white-tailed eagle.
“Seeing the crane dance is on the bucket list for a lot of Swedes,” says Sofie Stålhand, Hornborga reserve centre manager. “And hopefully the experience inspires people to learn more about our nature and why it is worth protecting.”
The area celebrates the influx of cranes with a week-long festival, and has other features of interest besides birdlife, including ancient standing stones at Ekornavallen and the fascinating Kata Gård Viking tombs unearthed on a hillside overlooking Varnhem Abbey. A museum and newly built centre at Varnhem tell the story of the excavation of one of Sweden’s oldest churches and life in the community down the centuries.
There are a range of places to enjoy local food near Lake Hornborga, including historic hillside hotel and spa Kurorten Mössebergs (buffet lunch from £12, doubles from £140 B&B); Löfwings Ateljé & Krog (mains from £13, doubles from £107 B&B), where you can browse wildlife art in an adjoining gallery; Vilhelmsro Gårdscafe (doubles from £91 B&B), a converted 19th-century dairy farm serving organic fare; and Herrtorps Qvarn (doubles from £54 room only; locally sourced, organic meals), a renovated riverside mill offering the opportunity to spot beavers in the wild. The giant cheese emporium Falbygdens Osteria, with 200 varieties to choose from, is also a flavoursome visit.
During their five-week stay the cranes steal the show. Gawky and raucous at one moment, stately and serene the next, they are mesmerising to watch. Some people camp out near the site so they can savour the precious spectacle until the sun goes down, the birds head off to roost for the night, and the last dancer leaves the floor. •Read more about the cranes and the local area
More European birdlife spectacles
Flamingos in France The vast Camargue wetland in southern France plays host to thousands of pairs of greater flamingos that nest among its briny lagoons every spring and summer, with guided tours available or the chance of close views at the bird park Pont de Gau.
Gannets galore, Scotland
Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth (30 miles east of Edinburgh, off North Berwick coast) has the world’s largest gannet colony during spring and summer, when 150,000 of these large seabirds nest on the island’s cliffs. Guided trips (starting at £25/£10 for 1hr 15mins cruise) offer the chance to watch them diving for fish and raising young.
Remarkable raptors, Gibraltar Large numbers of birds that migrate between Europe and Africa funnel through the shortest sea crossing at the Strait of Gibraltar. In spring and autumn, visitors to the Rock can view large gatherings of soaring birds of prey, including honey buzzards, black kites and short-toed eagles. More details at visitgibralatar.gi.
Puffin paradise, Wales
Every spring and summer, thousands of pairs of puffins breed on Skomer Island, off the coast of Wales. One of the largest puffin colonies in southern Britain, these characterful seabirds, with their colourful beaks, can be watched ferrying fish catches to their young in nest burrows. One-hour Skomer cruises (£12/£8) leave from Martin’s Haven, but there are also day trips (£22/£12) including several hours on the island (book tickets on the day from Lockley Lodge up the hill from Martin’s Haven).
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