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Queen Charlottes


A report prepared for the West Coast Crane Working Group

Margo Hearne; Peter Hamel, M.E.S. Ma. (Cantab.)  May, 2003


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

Text Box: Kumdis Bay, Haida Gwaii


Text Box: Photo:  M. Hearne


Text Box: Nest site


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 

Text Box: Photo:  M. Hearne


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.

Distraction behavior 

If disturbance becomes too intrusive, the ‘guard’ adult exhibits distraction behavior, calling loudly and ‘mantling’ to draw the intruder away. 


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

Text Box: Photo: M. Hearne



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. [i]

Nesting Materials

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. 

Crane colors

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.

Crane Habitat

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 their Habitat

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 island-wide.

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. 

Text Box: Argonaut Plain, Naikoon Provincial Park.  Cranes have been seen and heard here in summer



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 lunch.

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 either.  

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, B.C.

Lat: N 54o 00.86; Long: W 132o 07.62

 A crane nest has never been found in Delkatla Wildlife Sanctuary, it is used as a feeding and social gathering area. Easy access.

 Kumdis Bay

Lat:      N 53o 41.80; Long:    W 132o 08.24

 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.

 Yakoun Estuary

Lat: N 53o 39.92; Long: W 132o 10.12

 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 48.53

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 05.95

 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 going.

Text Box: Cranes feeding in Delkatla May 6 2003 Photo: Margo Hearne





[i] 1996 Northern Goshawk Population Inventory for the Queen Charlotte islands/Haida Gwaii. March 1997


PTT Study Lower Colorado Queen Charlottes Conboy Lake NWR Central Valley Subspecies Whooping Cranes


The West Coast Crane Working Group is a regional technical workgroup of the North American Crane Working Group (NACWG). The NACWG is a member of the Crane Specialist Group of the Species Survival Commission of The World Conservation Union (IUCN) based in Gland, Switzerland. 


The WCCWG receives support from The Paul L King Charitable Foundation, The Foley/Frischkorn Wildlife and Conservation Fund, and Chevron Research and Technology Company and other appreciated supporters.

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