Common Crane Migration and most important Wintering Ranges

As the name implies, the Common Crane is the crane species most common to most parts of Europe. In fact it is possible to watch these impressive birds in northern Europe and also in central, western, and southwest Europe during most parts of the year. In this article I am going to tell you a thing or two about crane migration and crane wintering ranges.

Before delving into detail, I would like to highlight the fact that the Common Crane is one of the most impressive bird I ever have come across. Believe it or not, observing these creatures is so immensly rewarding and one could do this for ages.

In Europe, the Common Crane represents the only species of the entire crane family.

common crane on harvested field crane migration wintering ranges
Common Cranes on harvested field

When do Common Cranes migrate home?

When do Common Cranes begin their journey home to their breeding ranges? Common Cranes leave their wintering ranges for the journey home as early as end-February. By March nearly all cranes will have left the wintering ranges.

The first groups of Common Cranes arrive resting ranges in Central Europe from end-February, while the masses of returning cranes arrive there throughout March. Central European breeding populations all arrive at their resting places by mid-March whereas the nordic populations migrate even later. These resting places are also huge staging areas where thousands of migrating cranes arrive. They come in small and large flights and gather there in their thousands to sleep and feed before leaving for their home ranges.

common crane
Common Crane

Common Crane Migraton to Wintering Ranges

Towards the end of the breeding season the first groups of Common Cranes already leave for the staging areas. In the staging areas cranes feed in larger groups and rest befor starting their long flight to the wintering ranges in western, southern and southwest Europe and in the north of Africa.

The first Common Cranes to arrive at the staging are non-breeders that only spent summer in central and northern Europe. These sommering birds already arrive between July and mid-August in groups on the staging areas.

It must be said that the staging areas in northeast Germany and western Poland are also breeding areas. For the Swedish breeding population, the Lake Hornborga area (Hornborgasjön) ist the most important staging range.

Another stepping stone during migration are coastal areas in northeast Germany (Baltic Sea), especially between Darsser Bodden, Zingst and the Gross Mohrdorf area near Stralsund. Also, the island of Ruegen is an important stepping stone during migration and breeding range as well.

From August breeders begin their flight to the staging areas. Breeders always go on the flyways accompanied by their offspring. These families are always together. And a crane family can consist of three to five birds; which means two adults and up to three juveniles.

The main migration through Central Europe takes place between October and early November. From the staging ranges cranes leave in several large waves to their wintering areas.

common crane
Troop of Common Cranes on harvested field mingling with Greylag Goose

Wintering Ranges of the Common Crane

Generally, the Common Crane uses two large regions for wintering. All breeding populations that breed beyond the Ural mountain range and further into western Siberia migrate into wintering areas in central and upper India and also in southern China.

Though, the situation is rather different with European breeding populations of the Common Crane. The most southern wintering area of the Common Crane is the north African Maghreb stretching even eastwards into Lybia. Most Cranes wintering there arive by using the south-western flyway to North Africa.

However, nowadays only a small fraction of the entire European crane population still makes the long journey to Africa. The vast majority of the crane population winters in southern France and and mostly in Spain / Portugal.

Common Crane populations breeding in eastern Russia (Europe) use the eastern flyway alongside the east coast of the Black Sea down to the Middle East (Iraq, Iran, Turkey) and from there to Ethiopia.

Breeders from western Siberia use the flyway along the southeastern coast of the Caspian Sea to arive in the Middle East and with some continuing their flight even to Ethiopia.

common crane family with two juveniles
Common Crane familly – Adult birds with two juveniles
common cranes
Common Cranes during Winter Migration

European Flyways and Staging Areas

Flyway, staging areas and wintering areas are closely linked to the breeding areas. Starting from there one can also conclude that Common Cranes, in Europe, use three large flyways to get to there wintering areas.

The main routes are the Southwest or Western European Flyway and the South / Southeast Flyway (also called Baltic-Hungarian Flyway). The third one is the Eastern Flyway or East European Flyway.

The Southwest Flyway

Which populations use the south-western flyway? In general, the breeding populations of Norway and Sweden, from western Finland, German populations from Central Europe, from Poland and the Baltic states (only up to western Estonia), from the Czech Republic all use the southwest flyway.

German populations come from the baltic coast line Darss-Zingst-Mohrdorf-Stralsund and the Island of Ruegen, Duvenstredter Brook (on the eastern edges of Hamburg), Diepholzer Moorniederung (Lower Saxony) and the northern parts of North-Rhine Westphalia.

common crane in flight
Flying Common Crane in northeast Germany
common crane in flight
Common Crane attemptinmg to land on a harvested field

Staging Areas on the Southwest Flyway

Preliminary staging areas are generally smaller and are used by cranes to gather and to begin the journey to the main staging area in a larger group or flight. These smaller areas are in Sweden at Kvismaren Lake, Lake Takern and Horngorga Lake in Västegötland.

The western populations in Finland migrate over Vaasa and southern Finland to Sweden. Whereas Baltic populations use a flyway along the Baltic coast to arrive at the island of Ruegen and to the Darss-Zingst-Mohrdorf-Stralsund range adjacent and east of Ruegen.

This entire area is one of the largest staging areas in the east of Central Europe and the Baltic Sea. So for anyone being interested in watching Cranes and getting some decent shots of theses lovely birds, go there during migration.

Populations from Poland also follow the Baltic Coast but then turn southwards along the river Oder to arrive at the Rhin-Havelluch are in the German State of Brandenburg where they gather shortly in order to travel further west.

The next stepping stone on the way down south is the Diepholzer Moorniederung in Lower Saxony. Migrants from the area Darss-Zingst-Mohrdorf-Stralsund-Ruegen travel over Lübeck to the Diepholz area, whereas migrants from the Rhin-Havelluch area contrinue their journey through the states of Brandenburg and Anhalt-Saxony to Diepholz.

Over Antwerp-Lille-Rouen Common Cranes migrate to the stagen range and wintering are at Lac du Der-Chantecoq in the southern Champagne and to Arjuzanx both in France. Large numbers of migrants already stop there for wintering.

The journey still continues to Spain where the larges wintering areas are Laguna de Gallocanta and the huge nature reserve in the Extremadura. Only small contingents of migrating Common Cranes only continue to northern Africa and the Maghreb (Marocco, Algeria, Tunesia and the western Sahara.

common crane
Common Cranes near Gross Mohrdorf in eastern Germany

The Western Pomeranian Bodden Landscape

It is the unique landscape of the western Pomerainan Bodden range that has been home to the Common Crane for centuries and by now is one of the most important breeding ranges in Germany.

In the wider Darss-Zingst-Gross Mohrdorf- Stralsund area about 70,000 cranes rest there every year. This area is also most important for breeding. Anyone wanting to catch a glimpse of these majestic birds should go there at least once a year. There is ample opportunity for birdwatching withouth disturbing the cranes.

Diepholzer Moorniderung

The intire area of Diepholzer Moorniederung is much more than just a huge nature reserve. It has become a major breeding range for Common Cranes in German, it is one of the major staging areas and nowadays even a wintering area.

Because of rather mild, or let’s say warm winters, most of the German populations doesn’t move too fare away from the breeding ranges and prefer to stay during winter. However, with stronger winters looming, again, more birds might prefer to move down south.

The Southeast Flyway

The southeast flyway goes from south Finland along the Polish western border down to eastern Slovakia and eastern Hungary. A large staging range is used in Hortobagy (Hungary).

From there cranes travel over the Balkan area to Sicily in order to cross the Mediterranean Sea heading to Tunesia and Algeria. Only a smaller part leaves this flyway before reaching the Balkans to turn westwards to join the main trail to France and Spain.

Another group migrates from the smaller Slovakian staging areas, in a westbound move through Northeast Italy, along the Adriatic coast to lower Italy where they join the main flyway to Maghreb.

East Slovakia is crossed in September and end-October. Hungary is passed between September and early November. Arrivel in Tunesia is mostly between early September to early November. The flight home to the breeding ranges begins from early March.

common cranes during migration on harvested field
Common Cranes during migration

The Eastern Flyway of the Common Crane

The Eastern Flyway of the Common Crane is used by breeding populations from eastern Finland, Russia, Belarus and the Ukraine. This flyway leads along the west coast of the Black Sea and further westbound to Greece and the aegean area. A part of the migrants continue their way over the Krim peninsula to Northern Turkey and further to the Middle East and even further into Egypt’s Nile Delta and Sudan.

common cranes on harvested field
Common Crances during migration
common cranes on harvested field
Common Cranes on havested field


The Common Crane has made a remarkable recovery all over Europe. Contrary to the common trend of species being in decline and despite the palpable effects of climate change we can enjoy to see more of these impressive birds.

For those of my inclined readers, who so far did not have had the chance to meet cranes in nature, I would like to point out how rewarding it is to watch them going about their daily business. It is rewarding to observe theses most elegant and majestic creatures.

Currently the Common Crane is listed as not endangered. About 10,000 breeding pairs live in Germany but more than 350,000 cranes cross through Germany during migration.

Thankfully, nature conservation organisations such as NABU in Germany do their bit to preserve the species by providing areas where cranes can feed, sleep and breed without being disturbed by people.

During migrations and in the breeding ranges, NABU also pays farmers to bring out food in the early hours of the day to help cranes finding enough food at all times.

common cranes on harvested field
Common Cranes on harested field

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Published by Raymond Loyal Photography

Bird, Nature, Art and Architecture Photographer, Traveller, Blogger.

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