Story last updated at 2:49 PM on Thursday, October 21, 2004

Cranes watched, reported throughout Kachemak Bay area

Special to the Homer News

  Photo provided
Photo provided Sandhill cranes take a walk near Skyline Drive in Homer.  
Two lesser sandhill cranes at Beluga Lake on April 17 symbolically heralded the arrival of spring. Nine more appeared the following day, and numbers increased thereafter in May with the largest known spring flock of 53 sighted on May 31 in hayfields near the east end of Skyline Drive.

Based on personal observations and anecdotal reports from others, the overall crane population in the Kachemak Bay area was markedly lower than the previous five years for which some records were kept. During the summer of 2003 many more cranes were seen at certain locations compared to this past summer.

To observe sandhill cranes in other areas around Homer, a slow, low-flying surveillance aircraft was chartered on July 27. Only 46 cranes were noted during two hours of flying between the Fox River Flats and North Fork Road. A replicate aerial survey with a different aircraft flown on Aug. 14 revealed only 33 sandhill cranes. Flocks seen in cut fields generally represent non-breeders or failed breeders. It is difficult to see cranes with colts (chicks) since they usually stay in territories near cover.

Unfortunately since no known prior aerial crane surveys of the Kachemak Bay area have been flown by either the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, no comparisons with previous crane numbers were possible. I believe there are four main reasons for the evidently declining crane population in this region.

1. Because of extensive winter-feeding in increasingly more neighborhoods and mainly on the Spit, reportedly 500 pounds per day, the local bald eagle population has burgeoned! Eagles harass and prey on cranes. This summer bald eagles were witnessed attacking and killing two adult sandhill cranes in flight at different locations. According to the International Crane Foundation, eagles are major predators on cranes and often disrupt migration.

2. Loose dogs often kill colts and injure defending adults. Since the summer of 2000, dogs reportedly have killed 10 sandhill cranes.

3. As more fields are being subdivided, crane habitat is being lost.

4. Another mortality factor is hunting, which is difficult to assess with no local harvest or baseline population data available. Once sandhills migrate out of Alaska, they are safe from legal hunting. British Columbia, Washington, Oregon and California, where Kachemak Bay's cranes presumably winter, do not permit crane hunting. Alaska is one of only 12 states allowing hunting of cranes. Population and harvest data are needed to justify continued hunting in the Homer area.

Despite the overall apparent decline of local sandhill cranes, more colts (29) were reported this summer than last year (11). Whether this represented an actual increase, or was due to discovery of more nesting pairs this year, or because of additional reports resulting from publicity on KBBI radio is unknown. Regrettably, dogs killed at least two colts.

As usual, fall migration began in late August preceded by some family groups joining nonbreeding flocks. The largest observed flock was 55 on Aug. 25 in a field near the east end of Skyline Drive. The last known departure of local cranes was on Sept. 16 when all but one of a lingering pair with two colts was forced to leave because of marauding eagles. The remaining injured parent had a strand of fishing line, part of a snare, or some other cord wound around its left leg, rendering the leg useless. This crippled bird was still present near certain homes on Oct. 10 and is the last known crane in this area.

The first reported high-flying cranes migrating southeastward probably from the Alaska Peninsula, Bristol Bay or the Matanuska-Susitna Valley were sighted on Sept. 12 near Kachemak Drive. The following afternoon approximately 3,500 cranes in waves of about 50 to 200 birds flew southeast over the bluff near the end of Skyline Drive at an estimated 3,000-foot elevation. Additional flocks appeared the next three days. All together roughly 4,700 fall migrants aided by strong, persistent northwest tailwinds were observed from eastern Skyline Drive. Other flocks were noted passing overhead elsewhere around Homer.

It will be seven months before the skies again resonate with the enchanting calls of sandhill cranes, signaling the arrival of another spring. Nearly 70 years ago Aldo Leopold profoundly expressed the mystique of cranes: "When we hear his call we hear no mere bird. We hear the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution. He is the symbol of our untamable past, of that incredible sweep of millennia which underlies and conditions the daily affairs of birds and men."

Edgar Bailey is a longtime Homer resident and conservationist.