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‘Kachemak Crane Watch depends on citizen science:’ Homer’s Crane Count kicks off Saturday

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Courtesy of Nina Faust
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Kachemak Crane Watch
Three adult lesser sandhill cranes hanging out at Inspiration Ridge Preserve in front of Grewingk Glacier in Kachemak Bay State Park.

It’s time to count cranes again in Homer.

Homer’s Crane Count starts back up on Saturday, and the event — put on by Kachemak Crane Watch — needs residents to help spot the large, long-legged birds.

“Kachemak Crane Watch depends on citizen science to do what it does,” said Nina Faust, the project’s cofounder.

The bird-counting event has been held annually for about five years to get up-to-date local data on the once-threatened species.

During the last two Saturdays of August and into early September, organizers ask Homerites to track how many sandhill cranes they spot and report those numbers before the birds migrate south along the Pacific Flyway to central California for the winter.

Faust said it’s important to count the cranes to get updated numbers for the area.

The subspecies that touch down in Homer — and that residents will tally Saturday — is called the lesser sandhill crane. The birds come up from California every spring, flying up the Pacific coastline. Some of them, Faust said, head to the Alaska Peninsula and places further up in western Alaska.

But there’s also a contingent that drops into the Homer area and goes back to the same place year after year to nest and hatch their chicks – known as colts.

“The cranes come to Homer mid-April,” she said. “That's the thing that kind of heralds the beginning of spring for many people.”

And by early fall, when the colts have strengthened their wings, the birds prepare to head back down to California.

Faust described the impressive birds as “elegant” and “intelligent,” standing nearly three-feet tall, with six-foot wingspans and bright red foreheads.

Faust is a self-described “craniak” and has been tracking the local population for more than two decades.

“I think cranes are amazing creatures,” she said. “And I think a lot of people agree with me. There's a lot of ‘crainiaks’ in the community who just love these birds.”

While sandhill cranes were once threatened, due to over-hunting and draining of wetlands during European settlement in the late 1800s and early 1900s, researchers say numbers seem to have now stabilized – and they know that because of crane counts.

The crane counts are important for other reasons too, said Anne Lacy, the senior manager in the North America programs at the International Crane Foundation, based in Wisconsin.

She said by doing annual counts of anything – be it plants, animals, insects – researchers can begin to note trends. And while ups and downs in populations are natural, she said tracking something like a steady decline in numbers could help them head off a catastrophe before it happens.

“With [species] like cranes, they're easy to count. They're big, and they're loud, and they're visible. And so we can kind of get an idea of how their population is growing or not,” Lacy said.

She said learning more about the health of the crane population also helps scientists understand how healthy the surrounding wetlands may be.

“So if the crane population is doing well, that means that our wetlands are doing well, and they're nesting and that wetland is sustaining them,” she said.

These days, Faust thinks there are at least 300 to 400 lesser sandhill cranes in the wider Homer area. But, she said, that’s likely an underestimate.

“The trends seem to look to me, from what I've been seeing over the years, that our population is at least stable, but I think it's actually increasing,” she said.

Faust said Kachemak Crane Watch would like to know about specific crane sightings in the Homer area for the next three Saturdays: Aug. 20, Aug. 27 and Sept. 3.

You can report the number of adults, colts, or banded cranes seen by location, time and day – along with your name and contact information – by emailing Faust at reports@cranewatch.org, or by calling her at (907) 235-6262.

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In 2019, Hope moved to Unalaska/Dutch Harbor to work for Alaska's Energy Desk and KUCB — the westernmost public radio newsroom in the country. She has lived, worked and filed stories from California, New York, Bolivia, Peru, Cuba and Alaska.
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