Story last updated at 2:53 p.m. Thursday, October 2, 2003

Kachemak Bay's sandhill cranes: declining populations?

Point of view

Edgar Bailey
The fading ethereal calls of lesser sandhill cranes signify the end of summer. Sept. 24 was the last reported crane sighting by one of over 40 individuals participating in Kachemak Crane Watch. Cranes were first sighted this past spring on April 20. The highest ground count at any single site was 110 in May in Waterman Canyon. Another person counted 101 nearby on a different date. The largest observed flock of local cranes gathered just prior to fall migration was 81 on Sept. 2. High overhead hundreds of cranes probably from northern Cook Inlet to the Bristol Bay region flew towards the Fox River during the first half of September, with usual northerly tail winds. The last known sizable flock (350) of these transients passed overhead on September 20.

Like last summer the consensus of nearly everyone contacted is that crane numbers in the Homer area are decreasing. Also, a pilot for the National Marine Fisheries Service who regularly flies this area firmly believes there were fewer cranes here than in past years. It was particularly disturbing to learn that only 11 known colts (crane chicks) reportedly fledged this summer and a mere six last year. How many 2003 colts will return with their parents next spring? Hopefully this low recruitment is not representative of most years. If the number of colts produced in future years does not significantly increase, the small local population of cranes in Kachemak Bay could slowly disappear like our willow ptarmigan and other species. Cranes often live more than 20 years, so population declines are slower to discern.

Regrettably, besides the overall population trend, nobody knows how many cranes summer in the Kachemak Bay region. The actual locations of all nighttime roosts are not known, nor are their migration route(s), stopover areas, or precise wintering areas. Nobody queried has ever seen a banded crane around Homer. Obviously neither the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) nor Federal wildlife agencies are monitoring the small population of cranes here. Since no banded cranes have been observed, it is also evident that our population is not studied wherever they spend their winters, presumably in central California.

Based on numerous interviews with local residents apparently there are at least four limiting factors affecting our local summer crane population, which probably numbers less than 200 birds. First, habitat loss is occurring as additional hay fields and other open areas are being subdivided. Loose dogs sometimes kill colts. Eight were known killed since 2000, and adults with noticeable injuries may have been victims defending their young. Additionally, coyotes and feral cats likely are a factor. Bald eagles also harass and prey on cranes. Cranes are very wary of eagles, and cranes nearly always hastily leave when an eagle appears.

This past summer I have observed panic flights by cranes several times a day in fields near the end of Skyline Drive because of marauding eagles habituated to this area by a neighbor who regularly feeds eagles during winter. Avoidance of eagles was repeatedly observed by others elsewhere as well. I also witnessed an adult eagle take a crane in flight. Harassment by eagles prior to fall migration causes birds to expend much needed energy unnecessarily.

The overall population of eagles in the Kachemak Bay area has been increasing for many years because of winter-feeding on the Homer Spit and now in some residential areas. The eagle population is undoubtedly well above carrying capacity and is reportedly also adversely affecting waterfowl. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service press releases, the American Eagle Foundation, Alaska Audubon Society, the Raptor Center in Sitka, the Bird Treatment Center in Anchorage and every wildlife biologist contacted disapprove of feeding wild eagles or other apex predators. Also, some eagles that kill small pets and poultry sometimes are shot. Feeding wild eagles should be unlawful, except in special situations. Feeding eagles also attracts common ravens and other scavengers and can facilitate the transmission of diseases.

Another factor that may be limiting local crane numbers is hunting. Anecdotally, some are killed in September when the waterfowl season opens, prior to migration. Additional birds may be shot during migration at rest/feeding stops. Alaska is one of only 13 states which permits crane hunting. Cranes cannot legally be hunted in California, where they supposedly winter. Although hunting currently poses no overall threat to sandhill cranes, even a few losses of Kachemak Bay cranes here or elsewhere in Alaska during their migration may be significant. If hunting is allowed locally despite our small crane population, ADF&G and/or U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service should have baseline population data and should monitor population trends. Furthermore, some cranes need to be color banded, and several birds should be equipped with transmitters so that their diurnal movements, migration routes, stopover locations, and ultimate wintering site(s) can be tracked by satellite.

It will be a long seven months before we again hear the wondrous calls of Sandhill Cranes in Kachemak Bay, heralding the arrival of yet another spring.

Edgar Bailey is a longtime Homer resident and conservationist