Summer has come and gone and Sandhill Cranes are heading south after another successful year nesting in the Kachemak Bay area. A citizen scientist group that counts the cranes each fall reports their numbers are in keeping with past years. But, KBBI’s Quinton Chandler reports crane lovers are worried by what awaits the birds in drought stricken California.
In the last 13 years that Kachemak Crane Watch has recorded sightings of Greater Sandhill Cranes the birds have never returned from their winter migration earlier than April 2nd and never later than April 21st.
"So they were on the late end this year because they showed up on April 21st which kind of was surprising given that we had such an early spring,” says Faust.
Nina Faust is the Co-founder of Crane Watch. She says the timing of the birds return depends on a number of variables like weather and food scarcity.
“Sandhill cranes that come to Homer come from the Central Valley of California. They follow the Pacific Flyway up through Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, and then up through the Inside Passage. [They fly] all the way up to Prince William Sound and then all the way into the Homer area,” says Faust.
Kachemak Crane Watch relies on volunteers to mark the birds’ arrival each spring and to gather an unofficial count of their population during the fall just before the birds leave for the winter.
“You don’t get a precise number. What you get is a range of observations during the course of the day. You try to pick out the most that were seen at any one given time to try and figure out sort of a ball park figure,” says Faust. “We still think we’re in the range of about 200 or so cranes in the Homer-Anchor Point area.”
Faust says that’s consistent with what the group has seen in past years and she’s taking the count as evidence the birds are sustaining their population. Another reliable indicator is the number of newborn colts that fledged, or took flight, for the first time.
“We confirmed 19 nests this year and we confirmed 29 colts, but we only got a report of 17 fledging,” says Faust.
Last year there were 24 confirmed fledglings, but Faust says that doesn’t necessarily mean there’s been a significant drop in the number of successful colts.
“I think part of it is that our reporting is not as good because we don’t have a hired biologist running around documenting and following up and making sure that all the reported nests were followed up completely through the end of the season,” says Faust.
According to Faust, Crane Watch will double down on its efforts to improve accuracy. They’re especially motivated by concerns that this year Sandhill Cranes could have a tougher time living in their winter homes in the Central Valley of California.
“There are serious problems with drought and fires. With the drought being so extended, there’s a lot of concern that there [won’t] be enough water to flood fields and keep the wetlands on the refuges and other areas where they use agricultural lands for roosts and for feeding,” says Faust.
She says if the wetlands the cranes typically use aren’t able to feed them the birds will have to migrate farther until they find the resources they need.
“They’re going to be stressed and they’re not going to be able to put on the body fat that they need. It means that when they come back they won’t have the fitness level they would normally have. [That] makes them more susceptible to diseases but it also may keep them from breeding or make it so their colts won’t thrive,” says Faust.
There is a group of California crane watchers organized under the name Save Our Sandhill Cranes. Faust plans to stay in touch with the organization to find out how well the Greater Sandhill Cranes handle California’s environmental shifts. Kachemak Crane Watch reports most cranes were seen departing the Homer and Anchor Point areas on September 12th.