In our own Backyard

Story last updated at 2:42 PM on Wednesday, May 2, 2012


By Michael Armstrong
Staff Writer


Photo by Michael Armstrong

A pair of sandhill cranes feeds in Beluga Slough last Thursday evening, April 19. Patches of rusty-brown on their backs come from mud the cranes cover themselves with as camouflage.

Homer has many signs of spring: the first telephone ringing call of the varied thrush, the first time a KBBI disc jockey plays the Beatles' "Here Comes the Sun" and the first time a Spit Rat camps on the Homer Spit. For many, the definite, it's-finally-here sign of spring comes with the arrival of Kachemak Bay's most beloved bird, the honking, squawking, goofy-looking lesser sandhill crane.

For confessed craniac Mavis Muller, it's as if sandhill cranes carry a calendar in their pockets. They always arrive by April 22.

"Sometimes they make me a little nervous they're going to make a liar out of me," Muller said from her home, Cranehaven, on East End Road. "It has never happened. I see them on or before Earth Day."

This year, the cranes arrived even earlier. According to reports received by Nina Faust and Edgar Bailey of Kachemak Crane Watch, the first crane seen was on April 11, with the first landings of large flocks on April 18 at Beluga Slough. Cranes have arrived as early as April 3, according to its records.

Video by Nina Faust

About 200 sandhill cranes are estimated to summer around Kachemak Bay after spending the winter in the Sacramento River valley in California. Nesting pairs can be seen in town from the wildlife boardwalk on Beluga Slough and at Lighthouse Village at the base of Homer Spit. Faust and Bailey have a nesting pair at their home, Inspiration Ridge, on Skyline Drive, as does Muller.

Like humans, cranes mate for life, but also like humans, well, relationships get messy and cranes sometimes split up. By now, nesting pairs have established or re-established territories. Males are called roans and females are called mares, with their chicks called colts. Faust said their pair arrived this year with last summer's colt, now a young adult. Parents with boomerang children who don't know how to leave home might take some pointers from sandhill cranes.

"They kind of ostracized the kid," Faust said of the parents. "It was like, 'Good-bye, kid.' They guide them home and tell them to get lost."

Muller said couples have already started a spring ritual, the painting of their feathers with brown, rusty colored mud. She's noticed that younger cranes aren't as quick to paint themselves, standing out by their gray color.

With a good, muddy pond at Cranehaven, Muller sees up to 80 cranes at a time during the spring migration. Within days cranes have dyed their feathers so as to blend in better in the brown winter grass.

Faust said she's continually amazed at the intelligence of sandhill cranes. In 2010, the couple at her place didn't breed. Instead, they spent the summer checking out food sources, the paint spots and islands in a pond for roosting. Faust saw that strategy pay off in 2011, when a loose dog chased one colt and coyotes started calling. The cranes disappeared for several days with the other colt before returning.

"I think they had an escape route planned," she said. "These guys are real planners. They're incredible."

Sandhill cranes have characteristics that make it easy for humans to identify with them, Muller said.

"They're tall. They walk around on two legs that bend with a knee," she said. "Because of that we humans have come to assert certain human virtues and stories to them."

"Some people would call me anthropomorphizing," Faust said. "I think there's an innate intelligence there I don't understand."

As an artist and writer, Muller became inspired by cranes decades ago, back when puffins seemed to be all the rage in Homer. Not anymore. Cranes are cool, with crane art in galleries and as a dominant theme in the Homer Public Library's public art collection.

"It didn't take me long before they reeled me in as one of their biggest fans," Muller said.

Other birds, while fascinating, pass through like the shorebirds or breed quickly like robins. Cranes stay here until September.

"I think people are really in love with these beautiful birds," Faust said. "They are magnificent and they are iconic."

Next week for the 20th annual Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival, people can learn more about sandhill cranes and other cranes. Faust and Bailey show their film, "Raising Kid Colt," on May 10. Keynote speaker Dr. George Archibald, founder of the International Crane Foundation, gives two talks on cranes. Muller also will bring out a revised edition of her book, "Crane Teachings."

Faust cautions that as well as cranes might have it in Kachemak Bay, they still face threats here from predators like loose dogs. Habitat loss is a problem here and in California, where corn fields are getting turned into subdivisions or wine grape orchards.

They're worth protecting, Muller said.

"I think the cranes are here to teach us how to be more human," she said. "To be more compassionately human."

Lesser sandhill cranes

Grus canadensis canadensis

Winter range:Sacramento River valley, California

Kachemak Bay population: about 200

Earliest arrival: April 3, 2008

Latest departure: Sept. 19, 2011

Size: 3 to 3.5 feet tall

Weight: 6 to 7 pounds

Life span: up to 84 years in captivity, 40 years in wild

Diet: voles, crayfish, earthworms, corn, smaller birds

Predators: Bald eagles, coyotes and loose dogs

Upcoming crane events: n "Raising Kid Colt," 4 p.m. May 10, Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center, a film by Nina Faust and Edgar Bailey on the raising of a sandhill crane.

• "Cranes of the World," 5:30 p.m. May 12, Mariner Theatre, Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival keynote address by Dr. George Archibald, International Crane Foundation.

• "The Remarkable Recovery of the Whooping Crane," 10:30 a.m., May 13, Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center, keynote address by Dr. George Archibald

Report sightings: to Nina Faust and Edgar Bailey, Kachemak Crane Watch, 235-6262 or,

Michael Armstrong can be reached at