From January 15 to 27, scientists from Estonian University of Life Sciences and producers of the “Osoon” TV series of Estonian Public Broadcasting travelled to Ethiopia in Africa where they studied and filmed the wintering grounds of Eurasian cranes. The scientific objective of the expedition was to study the migration incl. wintering of the Eurasian crane – an extraordinary and unique opportunity for this was provided by the satellite crane Ahja 4’s first arrival at the wintering grounds of Addis Ababa.
Aivar Leito, senior researcher at Estonian University of Life Sciences who had been dreaming for years about the expedition, said that the Addis Ababa wintering grounds are the southernmost wintering grounds for the Eurasian crane and differ materially from most other areas by the extraordinary distance (6,000 km), as well as wintering conditions (tropical climate zone and as a result very special feeding and roosting sites compared to northern wintering grounds). According to Leito, most Eurasian cranes winter in the Western European temperate to subtropical zone and the Mediterranean subtropical zone in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Turkey, and Israel. The average distance of Eurasian cranes’ wintering grounds from their breeding grounds is only 2,000–3,000 km, thus two times shorter than the Addis Ababa wintering grounds in Ethiopia.
The solar-powered satellite transmitter installed on the crane named Ahja 4 has already provided scientists with more than 250 exact locations that the crane has visited with its family – more than two hundred of those were described in detail by the scientists who travelled to Ethiopia (from the landscape to competition and human influence). “This can and will now be used to study the crane’s feeding ecology and behaviour,” Leito explained.
Kalev Sepp, professor at Estonian University of Life Sciences who participated in the Ethiopian expedition, said that in addition to the crane location descriptions, the team conducted many interviews with local residents, asking them when the cranes arrive at the area, when they depart, whether the cranes cause any damage, what they eat, where and to what extent they roost, etc.
According to Kalev Sepp, the crane Ahja 4 is doing well: “The crane family is clearly close-knit but the son sometimes acts alone and can often be found at the front of the crane flock.” Scientists were able to monitor Ahja 4 on a total of four days. Besides the Eurasian crane’s wintering and feeding information, the expedition collected a large amount of valuable original material on various endemic bird species in Ethiopia. Ethiopian expedition members Kalev Sepp, senior researcher Leho Luigujõe and ornithologist Urmas Sellis collaborated there with two local scientists.
Senior researcher Aivar Leito says such expeditions are necessary because they expand all of our horizons, incl. in nature and bird knowledge: “It is particularly important in this case to study Africa, which for us is a distant and relatively unvisited continent.” According to Leito, it also shows little Estonia’s capability and significant contribution to global nature research and protection, incl. studying the Eurasian crane as a species and ensuring its international protection. “Simultaneously with the expedition, I supervised making a map of migration routes of Eurasian cranes breeding in Europe, which is part of a plan to ensure international protection for the Eurasian crane and should be published this year,” said Leito who is also a national curator for the research and protection of the Eurasian crane.
The expedition was financed by Estonian University of Life Sciences, Estonian Public Broadcasting, and Aivar Leito.