THE SANDHILL CRANES OF
A report prepared for the West Coast Crane Working
Margo Hearne; Peter Hamel, M.E.S. Ma. (Cantab.)
Sandhill Cranes return to Haida Gwaii Around late April
each year. Their rolling, prehistoric call rings across the wetlands and
meadows they call home.
Crane nest site at Kumdis Bay
Small groups of five or six land and begin to feed in
open meadows beside river estuaries, along sand dunes and on intertidal
wetlands. They dig up roots and have been seen feeding in patches of
Potentilla anserina (Silverweed), especially in Delkatla Wildlife
Sanctuary. They also feed along the flat upper shoreline beside the
Yakoun River Estuary and on the fairways of the Dixon Entrance Golf Course.
Their diet in other places consists of insects, roots and intertidal
invertebrates so it is presumed, but not conclusive, that their diet is
similar on Haida Gwaii.
Shortly after their arrival, small groups begin to
exhibit mating behavior. One will jump into the air, then another, and
there is much mutual bowing and loud calling. They will settle back to
feed, then begin to dance again.
Crane near nest site
Pairs begin to separate and make their way to their
nesting territories, often to the same site year after year. Fresh water
is key to their survival, and meadows adjacent to lowland streams or river
estuaries are their preferred nesting territory.
On guard near the nest site
Once the nest is built, Cranes become very secretive.
While one adult sits on the nest, the other stands guard.
If disturbance becomes too intrusive, the ‘guard’ adult
exhibits distraction behavior, calling loudly and ‘mantling’ to draw the
Crane nest May 11th 1990
Two eggs were laid in this nest at Kumdis. All
photographs were taken in May 1990. One chick hatched from nest.
Same nest 23rd May 1990
This photograph was taken on 23rd May, 1990.
One chick had hatched (observed at a great distance later in the season) and
the other egg was abandoned. The family remained in the general area of
the nest, they had been seen feeding together in the soft, swampy grasslands
near the nest site.
A total of three possible Sandhill Crane nesting areas
were identified during the 1996 field season by the Northern Goshawk
Population Inventory team. One of these areas was at Kumdis Slough.
Local observers noted Sandhill Cranes throughout the breeding season, as well
as in the past four summers.
As seen in the photograph, cranes nest on the ground
using dry grasses, some feathers, dry sticks and other bits of wood.
There is a shotgun shell (arrow) in this nest. The author has no idea
how it got there.
When adult Cranes first arrive on Haida Gwaii they are
more gray than rust and seem to get darker as the season develops. We
have not observed ‘black’ cranes.
Habitat varies from upper sand dunes to open meadow and
intertidal areas. They are also seen occasionally on beaches.
Their preferred sites are open lowlands that afford a clear view all around.
They have not been recorded in forests, although they nest adjacent to forest.
An interesting aspect of Cranes on Haida Gwaii during the nesting season is
the number of birds seen yearly on Delkatla Wildlife Sanctuary in Masset
throughout June and July. Upwards of 40 birds feed there. We don’t
know if they are failed nesters or juvenile birds too young to nest.
During the mid-1980’s when studies were undertaken on the nesting behavior of
Least Sandpipers in Delkatla, researchers noted that the Cranes may have eaten
some eggs and chicks. Least Sandpiper nests simply disappeared after a
small flock of 6-7 Cranes had moved through.
Discussion of possible threats to Sandhill Cranes and
The main threats to Sandhill Cranes are, of course,
ourselves, as we move our habitation closer and closer to their nesting areas.
The nest in the attached photograph was abandoned after the first egg hatched.
The authors were in the vicinity of the nest for less than half an hour on a
weekly basis. Other than the one time only photograph of the two eggs in
the nest, authors remained concealed in the adjacent forest while
photographing the adult bird by the nest, so were not a constant threat.
It is very unlikely that hunters shot the bird, as an adult with young was
seen in the same vicinity the following year, and the Goshawk Survey group
also observed the birds in the same general area in 1996.
Other introduced species, however, pose a real danger.
Raccoons were introduced to Haida Gwaii in the early 1940’s and have
spread throughout the island. Many ground nesting birds, are very
vulnerable to this particular predator, as they eat both eggs and young.
There are no plans underway at the moment to deal with this unfortunate pest
The Haida Weasel, an indigenous island species,
could pose a threat as they eat eggs, however both Cranes and Weasels have
existed here for some time and Cranes still nest here.
More insidious are Beavers, introduced in the
mid-20th Century. Beavers build dams in the muskeg rivulets
and streams and create ponds were there were none before. This
diminishes the amount of habitat available for successful nesting, especially
in the Argonaut Plain lowlands of Naikoon Provincial Park where Cranes are
seen in summer.
Cats, squirrels and muskrats, all introduced species,
could be a problem, although Cranes are big birds and could munch them for
Regarding the other sites on the B.C. coast. I spoke to
a number of first nations people who live in Kitkatla and other places along
the coast, however, they confused cranes with herons so I haven’t any more
information yet. Interesting that Banks Island had cranes. It’s uninhabited,
as is McCauley Island. We will be in Prince Rupert, Port Edward and Kitkatla
from May 20th to 25th and will investigate further the
reports of cranes in those areas and see if we can pin down exact locations.
I have also contacted a birder friend in Kitimat to see if he has observed
cranes on his ‘turf’.
During his years as consultant for National Affairs for
the Anglican Church of Canada, Peter, my husband, spend many years traveling
to most of the first nations villages and has never seen any Cranes in the
Naas Valley north of here. There is a wonderful estuary at Stewart, (just
across the border from Hyder, Alaska) but we saw no evidence of cranes there
Bella Bella would be the jumping off point for Princess
Royal Island and Dowager Islands, huge islands as they are, and very remote.
I used to travel the coast during my time as co-owner of a gillnet fishing
boat, fishing for sockeye, chum salmon and herring and have some familiarity
with it. Boats or planes are the only way in.
The work you have done in quite fascinating, and most
interesting is the fact that none of your birds made it to Haida Gwaii, yet
they went to the Alaskan Panhandle. We are really only discovering the
connections between the islands and the mainland and have recently discovered
a migrant group of Marbled Godwits which stop here every year but don’t stop
on the mainland, on their way to the Aleutian Islands.
Sandhill Cranes returned to Haida Gwaii on or around
April 13th 2003. Four were observed in Delkatla Wildlife Sanctuary
on that date. Numbers have increased since then, with 14 counted in Delkatla
the following week.
Delkatla Wildlife Sanctuary, Masset,
Lat: N 54o 00.86; Long: W 132o
A crane nest has never been found in Delkatla Wildlife
Sanctuary, it is used as a feeding and social gathering area. Easy access.
Lat: N 53o 41.80; Long: W 132o
Three adult Sandhill Cranes were observed at Kumdis Bay
on May 5th 2003, close to their home territory. They did not
appear to have a nest site as yet, when we saw them last evening one was
standing on the bank of the Bay and two more joined it. They began to feed in
the soft mud. Access depends on whether or not they nest on ‘this side’ of
the Bay, otherwise it’s a longish hike (2 or more hours) or a boat trip.
Lat: N 53o 39.92; Long: W 132o
Cranes have historically nested in the Estuary region,
however, none have been observed there yet this year. During the River
Sockeye Salmon fishery in May, Haida fishermen have reported to us that they
see cranes at the Yakoun every year. We also see cranes with young every
summer feeding on the other side of the estuary in July. Access can be
challenging, it’s across a small creek, navigable at low tide, or a few hour’s
hike down the riverbank.
Sandspit Golf Course
Lat: N 53o 14.58; Long: W 131o
Cranes with young were reported at the north end of the
Sandspit Golf Course in July 2002. They have been seen in the vicinity
regularly for the past five summers. (Personal comment; Brian Charmen,
proprietor). Easy access.
MacIntosh Meadows, Masset, B.C.
Lat: N 54o 01.33; Long: W 132o
Two chicks with parent birds were seen in early summer,
2002 at MacIntosh Meadows just outside Masset. There are accounts of cranes
nesting in these meadows every summer for the past twenty-five years. Access
is about an hour’s walk down a long trail to the meadow, but is fairly easy