Sandhill cranes form up for the long journey south

Wednesday, October 10, 2012 - 12:25
Sandhill cranes are Alaska’s largest game bird.

One morning a few weeks ago while reading the newspaper, I was disturbed by high-pitched cries coming from outside of my house. At first I thought it was one of my neighbor’s dogs. “If it is,” I thought, “it sounds like that lynx I saw recently has gotten a hold of him.”

But before long, I realized there were multiple cries, and they were coming from high above my home. I dashed outside, glanced up and beheld more than 100 large birds soaring and maneuvering in a seemingly haphazard, unorganized fashion. I’m no ornithologist, but because of their size, it was easy to identify them as Sandhill cranes rather than Canada geese.

According the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s (ADF&G) Wildlife Notebook Series, the reason Sandhill crane’s calls are so distinctive is that their windpipe forms a loop within the breastbone, producing a great resonance. Their cry has been described as a loud, rolling. musical rattle.

This was the largest grouping of Sandhill cranes that I have ever seen near Eagle River. According to Mike Petrula, a biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G), they are part of the Pacific Flyway Population, one of two major populations that migrate into Alaska each spring for nesting. Petrula says the Pacific Flyway Population, numbering about 20,000-25,000, breeds in the Bristol Bay lowlands, on the Alaska Peninsula and in the Cook Inlet-Susitna Valley region; and winters in the Central Valley (San Joaquin) of California.

Tracking studies have shown that on the average, it takes birds in the Pacific Flyway Population about 27 days to make the 2,000-mile journey from southern Alaska to California. They are known to fly very high, migrating mostly during daylight and on fair weather days.

The more populous Mid-Continent Population breeds on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, in Alaska’s Interior, and along coastal areas of western and northern Alaska. This group of birds, along with others from Siberia and Canada, winters in Texas, southwestern U.S. and Mexico.

Cranes breeding and migrating in Alaska are lesser sandhill cranes, smaller than the greater sandhill cranes found in southern Canada and the lower 48 states.

They leave their southern overwintering areas in April and reach their northern nesting sites about mid-May.

According to ADF&G, the Sandhill crane (Grus Canadensis) is Alaska’s largest game bird, and it has sometimes been called by Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta residents the “Sunday turkey.” They are wading birds that have long black legs, long necks, and black chisel-shaped bills. Adults stand almost three feet tall and have a wing span of about six feet or more. Mature birds are an ash-gray color with a bright red forehead.

Seen from above: One of my most memorable sightings of these impressive birds was from the ridge leading up to Pepper Peak, above Eklutna Lake. I was at about 4,500 feet and the large formation was actually below me. The reflected light of the sun glistened off the top of their wings as they flew out of Eklutna Valley to the north. At first I thought they had their directions mixed up, but I later learned from an ADF&G report that one of their migration routes to the Gulf of Alaska coast follows the Knik Glacier through the mountains to Prince William Sound. Had I been able to follow their flight, I would have probably seen them make a big turn to the right, or east, past Pioneer Peak and toward the Knik Glacier.

Whenever I see Sandhill cranes, Canada geese and other birds beginning their southern migration, I can’t help but feel a little envious. I have friends who do the “snowbird” migration each winter, spending a few months in sunny locales like Arizona, Nevada and California. I must admit that travelling south in avian fashion is a better way of shortening the Alaska winter than my personal calendar recalibration, which has winter starting November 1st and ending February 1st.

But as the years roll by, my ability to fool myself seems to diminish. Meteorologists say that weather patterns seem to be set up to give us a repeat performance of last winter. I’m beginning to think the Sandhill cranes have the right idea.


Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River. To reach Frank: [email protected].

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