Story last updated at 6:42 PM on Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Observations of sandhill cranes in Homer area

Two lesser sandhill cranes flying toward Beluga Lake on April 7 signified the start of spring migration. April 13, 17, and 20 were the first known crane observations in 2005, 2004 and 2003, respectively.

During the last two weeks of April, up to seven cranes were reported on the ground almost daily in different locations.   During this period flocks of up to 200 were sighted flying high over Homer, headed westerly, probably for upper Cook Inlet to Bristol Bay.

Based on personal observations and anecdotal information, the overall crane population in the Kachemak Bay area remains low. Flocks of over 100 were recorded in 2003 compared to only 55 in 2004 and 78 in 2005. This year a flock of 110 was reported Sept. 9, a day before most local cranes migrated.

Higher counts in hayfields at an eastern Skyline Drive monitoring site reflected the end of adjacent neighborhood eagle feeding. This site’s average daily count in summer 2006 was 29 cranes compared to 16 in 2005, 14 in 2004, and 11 in 2003, when marauding eagles were common.

Up to 90 cranes were again counted this summer on lawns along Gladys Court and tidal flats south of East End Road. Cranes frequently flew back and forth between these areas.

Flocks seen in cut hayfields generally represent nonbreeders or failed breeders. It is difficult to see pairs of cranes with colts (chicks) since they usually stay in territories in cover until fledged.

More colts (36) were observed this year than in 2005 (29) or 2004 (23). Whether this represented an actual increase in 2006 or was due to the reporting of more nesting pairs this year is unknown.

Six known colts were killed by eagles, coyotes or dogs this summer, but at least four fledged and were in flocks that were repeatedly seen until migration.

As usual, Kachemak Bay area’s fall migratory behavior began in late August preceded by some family groups joining congregating, nonbreeding flocks. In 2006, the last known departure of cranes in the Homer area was on Sept. 18.

Since 2000 when good records began, departure of most local cranes usually occurred on or about Sept. 10, depending on weather conditions.

The latest known crane sighting in the past seven years was 12 birds on Oct. 11, 2005.

The first observed high-flying cranes migrating eastward probably mainly from Bristol Bay and Matanuska-Susitna Valley were seen Sept. 11 near Seldovia.

The most notable passage of migrating cranes occurred on September 20 when flocks of hundreds aided by westerly tail winds flew eastward over the Homer area.

Oddly, these birds usually leave later than our local cranes, despite a likely longer distance from their wintering areas probably in central California.

Unfortunately we must await next April before again hearing the clarion call of this magnificent bird, which is a member of the oldest family on earth, having survived for more than 8 million years.

Aldo Leopold, in A Sand County Almanac, expresses the essence of cranes:

“Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language.  The quality of cranes, lies, I think in this higher gamut, as yet beyond the reach of words.”

Edgar Bailey is a longtime Homer resident and conservationist.