/The dancing cranes of West Sweden – a bucket list wildlife spectacle

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.

Map of Scandinavia, featuring Lake Hornborga in west Sweden.

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.”




Pairs of common cranes display with trumpeting sounds at Lake Hornborga, west Sweden.



Pairs of common cranes display with trumpeting sounds at Lake Hornborga

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.




Stately and elegant, common cranes stand up to 1.3 metres tall.



Stately and elegant, common cranes stand up to 1.3 metres tall

“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

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