Lesser Sandhill Crane – April 2018 Bird of the Month

Lesser Sandhill Crane

(Antigone canadensis canadensis)

Sandhill Crane (Photo by Nina Faust)

General Information

There are 15 crane species in the world.  Two of those species – the Sandhill Crane and Whooping Crane – breed in the United States.  There are five subspecies of the Sandhill Crane: Greater, Lesser, Mississippi, Florida, and Cuba.  Our Homer Cranes are of the Lesser Sandhill Crane subspecies.

The Sandhill Crane is a member of the Gruidae family; and was formerly in the genus Grus, but was recently reclassified to the Antigone genus.  The species remains the canadensis. 

Range:  There are two flyways for the Lesser Sandhill Crane: Central and Pacific. 

The Central Flyway population spends summers in Canada, northern Alaska, and the Siberian Peninsula; overwintering in Mexico, Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico. 

The summer breeding grounds for the Pacific Flyway population is Southcentral Alaska (including Homer) and along the Alaska Peninsula.  This population overwinters in the Central Valley of California – Sacramento area.

Migration Map – Sandhill Cranes (all subspecies)

Source: International Crane Foundation.

Alaska Range Map

Source:  Alaska Department of Fish and Game. 

Bird Biology:

Characteristics: Cranes are large, wading birds with long necks and legs, and a characteristic feathered tail bonnet, red crown, and long menacing beak.  Their legs are black, and their plumage varies from shades of grey, brown, and rust.  Juveniles have cinnamon-brown feathers and lack the red crown. 

Lesser Sandhill Cranes typically weigh around 7.5 lbs and reach a shoulder height of 34-48 inches.  Males and females are generally indistinguishable; here’s a tip: when giving an alert call or territorial call the males bring their head back 90 degrees (beak straight up in the air), while the female brings her head back only about 45 degrees (See photo below). 

Lesser Sandhill Cranes have an impressive wingspan of 6-8 feet.   When spotted flying overhead, look for slow rolling downbeats, and quick upbeats of those large wings.  You can generally tell when cranes are ready to fly as they may show agitation, ‘crane’ their neck, and then take a few steps prior to taking off. 

In the wild, a crane that survives the first year, generally has a life span of around 20-30 years.  Cranes do not begin breeding until around four years of age. 

Cranes use an iron oxide mud to paint their feathers.  Painting, is believed to help camouflage the cranes from predators especially while the crane is on the nest.  The crane will take a bundle of grass and dip it in the mud and then apply the mud to its feathers.

Preferred Habitat: Cranes inhabit a variety of open wetland and upland habitats for nesting and loafing.  For roosting, cranes seek out wet areas or islands, which are safer from predators.

Crane Display:  Cranes have a variety of display postures to signal different activities, including:

  • When to fly
  • Attack and threat
  • Receptivity to breeding

And, how we enjoy watching cranes dance, especially during courtships as they jump and hop while spreading their wings, with an animated bowing to another crane – often like mirror images. 

Sandhill Cranes Displaying (photo by Nina Faust)

Want to learn more about Sandhill Crane displays?  Check out the Sandhill Crane Display Dictionary: What Cranes Say with Their Body Language, by Yunker Happ.  Go to: www.AlaskaSandhillCrane.com   This field pamphlet is available at the Homer Bookstore, the Islands and Ocean Visitor Center, or Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies.

 

Reproduction:  Cranes form pair bonds and mate for life (divorce does happen and a crane that loses a mate will bond again).  Breeding begins around four years of age.  They have low reproductive rates, in part, due to being long-lived birds. 

Breeding Season:  In the Homer area, the breeding season begins soon after the long-anticipated arrival of the cranes in late April/early May.

Nesting:  The nest is nothing fancy, the main criteria is camouflage.  Cranes are ground nesters, building simple nests of dry grasses and feathers, in the shape of a shallow depression. 

The preferred nest site is an area protected from predators, with a preference for wetlands and islands.  However, cranes in the Homer area haven’t read the memo and are found nesting in upland areas as well.  A three-year crane nesting survey of the Homer Area, from 2011-2013, found 30 known nesting pairs and the probability that more remote nests were never reported or found. 

Crane on a nest (Photo by Michelle Michaud)
Crane on a Nest in Beluga Slough (Photo by Michelle Michaud)

A master of camouflage – look carefully above the piece of wood on the lower right side of the photo. 

Eggs and Incubation:  The female generally lays two eggs, and if a crane pair experiences nest disturbance/abandonment early in the incubation period, they may nest again and lay additional eggs.  Chicks hatch within 30 days. 

Both parents incubate the eggs, however, the male’s primary task is to maintain the integrity of the territory. Incubating pairs trade places about every two hours during daylight hours. This gives each bird a chance to stretch, exercise, and feed. At night, the female incubates while the male stands guard. The male is often the first to feed the chicks.

The photos below show various crane nests; one with an egg; one with egg shell fragments (all photos by Michelle Michaud).

Nesting success is often dependent on habitat selection.  Egg loss can be due to abandonment, or predation (eagles, ravens, crows, gulls, dogs, coyotes, and lynx), or being stepped on by moose.

Prior to fledging, the colt is flightless and very susceptible to predation.  Colt loss can be due to a number of factors:  predation, especially by eagles and dogs, lack of food, or parental neglect; or exceptionally bad weather, like wind and rain or snow in early spring.  Photos by Nina Faust.

Fledging: Colts fledge within 60-70 days.  They stay with their parents for 9-10 months.  When the parents return to the breeding grounds, the adults chase off the colts to start a new family.  These colts have now gained the red coloring on their heads, as well as the yellow eyes of an adult, and will join a group of non-breeding subadults — the crane equivalent of a roaming band of juveniles. 

Not all crane colts survive to fledging.  In Homer in 2017, 29 known breeding pairs produced 54 colts, of which only 34 colts fledged.

Food Preferences:  Cranes are omnivores – eating frogs, voles, shrews, insects, bulbs, seeds, berries, and even baby ducklings.

Homer cranes are habituated to humans, especially when fed whole or cracked corn. Such feeding, however, is not necessary.  There is sufficient food available in the wild for the cranes to obtain the nutrients needed for growth and survival.  Feeding Cranes in an urban setting can be detrimental to the crane as it exposes them to predators, especially dogs and eagles.  The urban habitat often lacks good nesting sites and natural sources of protein necessary for chick development.  Other urban hazards affecting crane mortality include collisions with electrical power lines and vehicles, attacks by roaming neighborhood dogs, and poisoning from pesticides used on lawns.  Also cranes can become aggressive protecting their young and can injure pets or humans. 

Roosting:  Cranes roost in large flocks, generally in shallow bodies of water to avoid predation.  Cranes with colts that have yet to fledge roost separately, generally near the nest site (within their breeding territory). 

Population Estimate:  According to Kachemak Crane Watch, the Sandhill Crane population in the Homer Area (Anchor Point south to Kachemak Bay) is stable at around 200-250 individuals recorded annually.

Migration:  In 2008, a study sponsored by Kachemak Crane Watch and conducted by the International Crane Foundation, sought to discover the migration route and wintering grounds of Homer area Sandhill Cranes.  Ten (10) cranes were captured and fitted with satellite and radio transmitters.  The study revealed several key findings:  migration route, where the cranes winter (Central Valley of California), amount of time needed to reach their breeding and wintering grounds, and where they stopped during migration to refuel (See Figure 1 below).  The journey from Homer to the Central Valley of California is approximately 2,400 miles – one way!   The cranes take approximately one month during the fall migration to reach the Central Valley of California and approximately two months during spring migration return to Homer.  They may spend up to a week or more at a staging area along the route in order to “refuel” for the long journey.

Sandhill Crane in flight (Photo by Nina Faust)

Figure 1: Map showing the transmitter data of the migration route of the Homer area banded cranes, including the different staging areas where they spent some stop-over time en-route to their breeding and wintering grounds.  You can find this figure at: http://cranewatch.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/annual_travels_sh_cranes_homer_map.pdf

Vocalizations:  Sandhill Cranes have several calls, but the most distinctive is the unison call – a loud, resonant bugle.    

Cranes performing “unison” call.  The male is in the middle, the female to the left.  (Photo by Nina Faust)

 Listen now to the unison call

Threats:  Habitat loss is a primary threat – loss of wetlands, grasslands and agricultural fields being developed, conflicts with agriculture, afforestation (trees taking over grasslands), conflicts with living in urban areas.  Other threats include; drought, predation, impacts with vehicles, pesticide use on lawns and gardens, and collisions with power lines. 

Sandhill Crane family walking down the street in Old Town, Homer.  Drive carefully.  Photo by Nina Faust.

Hunting:  Sandhill Cranes are hunted in Alaska for sport and subsistence, although they are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA).  Hunting season begins in September, prior to migration.  A number of other states also allow hunting of Sandhill Cranes, including Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.  

Fun Facts:

  • Sandhill Crane chicks are called “colts”.
  • Three pairs of Sandhill Cranes breed in Beluga Slough. One pair breeds near the boardwalk trail by the Islands and Ocean Visitor Center.  You can watch this pair raise their colt(s) during the summer months. 
  • Kachemak Crane Watch co-founder Nina Faust is an accomplished videographer of Homer Sandhill Cranes. Nina produced a wonderful video called “Raising Kid Colt: A Story of a Young Sandhill Crane.” You will experience, up close, the intimate world of a Sandhill Crane’s family life, which includes seldom-seen perspectives of raising crane colts, as well as a progression of colt development over the summer. You can check out all her crane videos by going to the Kachemak Crane Watch website:  cranewatch.org.
  • Prior to fall migration, cranes will begin gathering in large groups. When the September weather conditions present a high pressure bringing upper air currents from the northwest, the cranes will circle the sky – called ‘kettling’ and the gathering group will then head towards their wintering grounds – a spectacle to see.
  • Our Homer Cranes typically migrate south by the middle of September. You can enjoy the nightly “fly-in” of cranes at Beluga Slough as they begin to gather prior to migration.
  • The Tanana Valley Sandhill Crane Festival (Fairbanks) is held every year in late August. This three-day event features field trips, workshops, and a great opportunity to see and learn more about Sandhill Cranes.    
  • A crane fossil was found in Nebraska dating from the Pliocene period (5.3-2.6 million years ago). The fossil appears structurally identical to the modern Sandhill Crane.  That would make the Sandhill Crane one of the oldest known bird species!

Conservation Status:  The Sandhill Crane is a species of Least Concern, with populations generally increasing.  Of concern is habitat loss and drought in California’s Central Valley, which significantly affects the Pacific Flyway population of Sandhill Cranes.   The Pacific Flyway population is much smaller (approximately 20,000 birds) than the Central Flyway population (approximately 450,000 birds).  The Central Flyway population are those cranes that make their way north through the Platte River in Nebraska. 

In Homer, Kachemak Crane Watch (KCW) is dedicated to the protection of Sandhill Cranes and their habitat in the Kachemak Bay area.   

The 2018 breeding season is fast approaching.  Become a “Citizen Scientist”- KCW has been monitoring the Homer area crane population for over 15 years with the help of citizen scientists.   With your help, KCW seeks information on:

  • distribution and abundance of cranes from Anchor Point to the head of Kachemak Bay;
  • nests and colts (chicks);
  • population numbers;
  • arrival and departure dates; and
  • mortality due to eagle predation, dogs, and other causes.

Report your observations to Kachemak Crane Watch at 907-235-6262 or email report@ cranewatch.org. 

Crane Species in Alaska:  Only the Lesser Sandhill Crane subspecies is found in Alaska. 

More Information:

For more information about Homer area Sandhill Cranes go to: www.cranewatch.org

For more information about all subspecies of Sandhill Cranes go to International Crane Foundation at: https://www.savingcranes.org/species-field-guide/sandhill-crane/.

Sources of Information:

Alaska Department of Fish and Game.  Species Profile: Sandhill Crane.  http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=sandhillcrane.main

All About Birds.  2017.  Cornell Lab of Ornithology.  https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Sandhill_Crane/

Bailey, E. and Faust, N. 2017.  Lesser Sandhill Cranes, Annual Summary.  Homer, Alaska, Summer 2017.  http://cranewatch.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/Annual-Summary-2017.pdf

International Crane Foundation. Sandhill Crane.  2018. https://www.savingcranes.org/species-field-guide/sandhill-crane/

International Union for Conservation of Nature.  The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2017-3. <www.iucnredlist.org>. Downloaded on 15 March 2018.

Sibley, David Allen.  2003.  The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America.  Andrew Stewart Publishing, Inc.

Todd, Frank S.  1994. 10,001 Titillating Tidbits of Avian Trivia. Ibis Publishing Company.

Yunker Happ, C.  2015.  Sandhill Crane Display Dictionary: What Cranes Say with Their Body Language.  Waterford Press.     

IT’S A GREAT DAY TO BIRD

March – Downy Woodpecker

Welcome to “Bird of the Month”.  Each month we will be presenting a different bird species.  We hope you enjoy it. 

March – Downy Woodpecker

Male Downy Woodpecker (Photo by Robin Edwards)
Female Downy Woodpecker (Photo by MIchelle Michaud)

The Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) is the smallest North American woodpecker, weighing in at around 1.0 ounce (yes, that’s right – ounce), and only 6.75 inches in length.   In comparison, the Hairy Woodpecker, which is most often confused with the Downy Woodpecker, and can also be found in the Homer Area,  weighs in at around 2.3  to 2.5 ounces,  and measures 9.25 inches in length.  The Hairy Woodpecker has a longer, sharper bill, and lacks the black spots on the white outer tail feathers that are found on the Downy.

The Downy Woodpecker can be found and enjoyed in every state.  In Homer, you want to search for the Downy Woodpecker in forested areas – after all, woodpeckers like trees, but remember, don’t ignore the small branches on bushes for the Downy. 

Source: Cornell Lab of Ornithology – https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Downy_Woodpecker/maps-range

Bird Biology:

Characteristics:  Both male and female of the species are black and white, however, the male is distinguished from the female with the presence of a red patch on the back of its head.  Downy Woodpeckers pair-bond and are considered monogamous, however, during the non-breeding season, the pair may live alone. 

Preferred Habitat: The habitat preferences of the Downy Woodpecker are less specialized than that of the Hairy Woodpecker.  The Downy is generally found in open woodlands (especially deciduous trees – think Aspen and Birch –  and brushy or weedy edges).  They can also be frequently found in urban areas as a popular presence at a bird feeder or within city parks, backyards, and vacant wooded lots.

If you see a small black and white woodpecker on a low bush it is a Downy Woodpecker.

Breeding Season:  The breeding season begins in early April in the southern United States and up to late May in the northern portion of its range – waiting for spring, just like us. 

Nesting: Downy Woodpeckers are cavity nesters, utilizing a dead tree to excavate a cavity.  The cavity is generally 8-12 inches deep and takes the pair  13-20 days to excavate. 

Eggs and Incubation: Between 3-6 eggs are laid (although normally 4-5).  Both pair will incubate the eggs, with the male assigned night duty.  Incubation lasts around 12 days.  The pair will typically fledge one brood per year. 

Fledging:  Both parents feed the young, with the young fledging within 20-22 days.  Even following fledgling, the young depend upon their parents for up to three additional weeks for food. 

Food Preferences:  The Downy forages for insects, larva, and seeds.  Have a Downy in your area and want a closer look, then put out a suet feeder and chances are a Downy will come to grace your feeder.

Female Downy Woodpecker at a suet feeder (Photo by Michelle Michaud)

Feeding Methodology:  The Downy feeds by an acrobatic ability to cling to tree trunks and branches, utilizing its specialized feet and tail feathers.  The Downy can explore for insects along branches the size of twigs.  Remember they only weigh an ounce. 

The Downy works its way up a tree trunk in a series of rapid, jerky, stop-and-go movements.  It can often be seen hanging upside down. The males tend to feed in the tops of trees on small diameter branches, while females feed midlevel or lower on large diameter branches. 

Roosting:  Downy Woodpeckers roost in tree cavities.

Migration: Downy Woodpeckers are permanent residents meaning they do not migrate, although there may be some movement in the winter with birds at higher elevations moving to lower elevations. 

Want to see a Downy Woodpecker? Then you are in luck as the Downy Woodpecker can be found year-round in the Homer area. 

Vocalizations:

Song:   Sorry, no song.  After all, Downy Woodpeckers are not Passerines, which are our songbirds.  The Downy is a drummer.

Call:  The call is a sharp “pik” sound.  The call may vary in pitch and volume. 

Drumming:  While drumming is persistent, but there is a lag time of 10-15 seconds between drum sequences. 

Even if the Downy doesn’t sing, who doesn’t get excited when hearing a woodpecker drumming and then anxiously looking for the source?

Fun Facts:

  • The Downy Woodpecker got its name due to its soft, downy plumage. Its scientific species name “pubescens” means “having hair-like feathers or “with hair of puberty”. 
  • A group of woodpeckers is called a “descent” or “drumming”.
  • Downy Woodpeckers can drill in dead trees or limbs as small as 4 inches around, so they can live in a far wider range of habitats than other woodpeckers, and thus are not dependent on larger trees.

Conservation Status:  The ‘Good News’ – the Downy Woodpecker is considered a species of Least Concern.  The Downy Woodpecker is doing well in Alaska and does not appear on Audubon Alaska’s 2017 Watch List. 

Woodpecker Species in Alaska:  Other Woodpecker species found in the Homer area include the Hairy Woodpecker, American Three-toed Woodpecker, Black-backed Woodpecker, and the Northern Flicker.  The last three, are uncommon to rare in the Homer area, but you may have been one of the fortunate birders to have seen the Three-toed and Black-backed Woodpeckers in the Homer area this past winter.

More Information:  For more information about the Downy Woodpecker go to All About Birds (Cornell Lab of Ornithology) at: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Downy_Woodpecker/id/

Sources of Information:

All About Birds.  2017.  Cornell Lab of Ornithology. https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Downy_Woodpecker/id/

Baicich, Paul J. and Harrison, Colin J.O. 1997.  Nests, Eggs, and Nestlings of North American Birds, 2nd Edition. Princeton Field Guides.

Dunne, Pete.  2006.  Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion:  Comprehensive Resource for Identifying North American Birds.  Houghton Mifflin Company. 

Mayntz, Melissa. 2017.  Collective Nouns to Describe Bird Flocks.  2017. https://www.thespruce.com/flock-names-of-groups-of-birds-386827

National Audubon Society.  Edited by Elphick, C., Dunning, Jr. J.B., and Sibley, D.A.  2001.  The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior.  2001.  Alfred A. Knopf Inc.   

Sibley, David Allen.  2003.  The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America.  Andrew Stewart Publishing Inc. 

Todd, Frank S.  1994. 10,001 Titillating Tidbits of Avian Trivia. Ibis Publishing Company.

Warnock, N. 2017. The Alaska WatchList 2017. Audubon Alaska, Anchorage, AK 99501.