Sandhill crane population remains stable at 200-250 birds
Thanks to reports to Kachemak Crane Watch we know that some of Homer's sandhill cranes migrated south on Sept. 7. Another group of roughly 80 cranes were observed migrating out at 11:30 a.m. the next day - September 8. Also on Sept. 8, cranes were reported flying in several flocks of hundreds over the Stariski Creek area coming from across the Inlet. These cranes are probably part of the western Alaska population. Cranes choose ideal weather preferring a strong frontal wind followed by high pressure bringing upper air currents from the northwest to aid their long flight.
On Sept. 9, the third of three Annual Sandhill Crane Count Days sponsored by Kachemak Crane Watch validated the earlier local crane departure with a count of 40 adults and 16 colts. On the previous Count Days (August 26 and September 2) 117 cranes including 14 colts and 136 cranes including 25 colts were counted at Beluga Slough.
This is the second fall season that the cranes have gathered to roost at Beluga Slough. Local cranes also use other locations in the area, including Mariner Park Lagoon, Lampert Lake, and wetlands in the Anchor River/Fritz Creek Critical Habitat Area. Cranes need shallow water to roost in at night so they are safe from approaching ground predators - sort of like an early-warning system.
The grand finale of this year's crane migration occurred on Sept. 17, when a series of sandhill cranes (many apparently from western Alaska) flew overhead as they 'kettled up'. They were distinctive forming their characteristic V flying shape. They flew over Homer and Kachemak Bay, spiraling around, regrouping, then surging on toward the wintering grounds with a mighty triumphant crane chorus reverberating all around the Bay. What a memorable sight and goodbye until next year message.
"(It is) not often are we fortunate enough to have the wind currents just right to bring so many cranes over our area, but this year was a gorgeous spectacle of migration," said Edgar Bailey, the co-founder of Kachemak Crane Watch.
The local population, despite all the hazards of raising their flightless young, seems to be holding its own. Kachemak Crane Watch estimates the local population to be stable at about 200 to 250 individuals. It is difficult to know the exact number of cranes using the area from Anchor Point south to the head of Kachemak Bay because there are so many wetland areas away from people, and not everyone who sees cranes calls in the sighting.
Some family groups linger in the area longer than the main migratory flock departure date. If a pair nests late they will remain in the area to allow their colts time to get ready for the 2,400-mile migration to the Central Valley of California around Sacramento. Most cranes lay their eggs in the first week or two of May. After 30 days, the eggs hatch, usually in the first week or two of June. The parents have 60-70 days to safely raise the chicks to fledging, when they then can fly anywhere in the area.
Kachemak Crane Watch continued monitoring nesting success this year. Twenty-nine nests were confirmed compared to 30 last year. That is about the average number of nesting pairs reported over the years. The 29 pairs produced 54 colts, with 34 reported fledging roughly 70 days after hatching, a 63 percent success rate, 2 percent more than last year.
Part of Kachemak Crane Watch's mission is public education. Information on this year's crane sightings show a cautionary tale emerging that is important to discuss. What is different this year is the strong uptick in cranes hanging out in the main part of town, due in large part to an increase in the number of people putting out corn for the cranes.
"We are at a point where problems are starting because people are choosing to attract cranes into areas where they should not be encouraged," said Bailey.
Bailey said Kachemak Crane Watch hasd received reports from residents about cranes walking down busy streets, hanging in local neighborhood yards, and nesting in town.
"We have had complaints about cranes digging up lawns and flower gardens and scratching cars," he said.
While a few cranes have nested in town over the years, the number of nesting pairs in town has increased as have the number of non-breeders in small flocks dropping in around town. This is of concern because more cranes in busy neighborhoods may result in injuries to people as the cranes defend their territories and protect their colts; and to the cranes themselves from cars, loose dogs, and injuries from flying into powerlines. Some folks use herbicides on lawns in town. Worms from these treated lawns fed to very young colts can kill them.
Cranes bond and do not nest until about their 3rd or 4th year so recruitment of adults and maintenance of the adult breeding population are critical.
"Homer can be a safe haven for cranes if we remove risks associated with cranes in Homer," Bailey said. "Perhaps a sandhill crane hunting closure within 1/4 or 1/2 mile of the road system from
Anchor Point south to the end of East End Road would protect cranes until they resume
their wild lives as they join migrating flocks heading south. This could be accomplished
through a proposal to the Board of Game.
Sign up for our email list on the Kachemak Crane Watch website at www.cranewatch.org. Remember, when you see cranes in the Kachemak Bay area from Anchor Point south, send your report to email@example.com or call Kachemak Crane Watch at 235-6262.