Story last updated at 3:18 p.m. Thursday, October 31, 2002

Kachemak Crane Watch seeking volunteer birders
by Edgar Bailey
For the Homer News

Although the last lesser sandhill cranes sighted in the Kachemak Bay area were reportedly seen on Sept. 20, and most people now have forgotten about them, plans are under way for closely monitoring them when they return next spring.

After observing cranes all summer and talking to more than 30 others who watch cranes at or near their homes, disturbing information was noted. Many people feel that fewer summer resident cranes were present than in past years. Our summer flocks and breeding pairs are distinct from the large flocks migrating high overhead to and from breeding areas west and north of Kachemak Bay.

Also, it is very upsetting to learn that several colts (crane chicks) were killed by dogs this summer and in past years. Unfortunately there is no animal control ordinance in the Kenai Peninsula Borough outside of the Homer city limits, and some irresponsible owners let their dogs and cats wander about and harass and kill wildlife.

In fact, one owner of a dog that killed two colts just prior to fledging, cavalierly dismissed the incident by telling the person who witnessed the killing on his own land that he moved to Alaska so his dogs could roam free. Hopefully such atrocious disregard for wildlife is not prevalent.

Some natural mortality from coyotes, eagles and other predators also occurs.

Cranes are the oldest living family of birds on earth. Sandhills have been around for about 9 million years and are only one of the seven species of 15 cranes that are not endangered.

They can live 20 years or longer in the wild, but they have a very low reproductive potential and do not breed until they are 2 or 3 years old, producing only one or two young a year. Sandhill crane recruitment rate is only about 10 percent per year. Additional mortality due to dogs and human disturbance can cause significant population declines and local extirpation.

Another major threat to the Kachemak Bay crane population is continuing loss of habitat. Each year more hayfields and other open areas are being subdivided. Moreover, human population increase and development result in yet more loose dogs.

Degradation and loss of vital wetlands also are occurring. Preservation of the ecological integrity of the Anchor River/Fritz Creek and Fox River critical habitat areas is vital for the survival of our cranes, since they evidently roost at night in marshes, and some reportedly nest there.

Many residents are dismayed to learn that, beginning Sept. 1, some people legally hunt cranes. The number of cranes killed locally by hunters is unknown. Regrettably, Alaska is one of 13 states and two Canadian provinces that allows shooting cranes.

Hunting for subsistence in the bush is understandable, but in areas like Kachemak Bay, the joy most people derive from watching, hearing and photographing them far outweighs permitting sport hunting of cranes in this area, especially since they are so habituated to humans here. Hunting also may be a significant factor wherever our cranes stop over during migration and winter.

Our local crane population may ultimately slowly disappear, as did our willow ptarmigan and hoary marmots. Nobody contacted has ever seen a banded or color-marked crane here, which strongly suggests that no person or agency is doing any studies on the local or seasonal movements of Kachemak Bay birds. In fact, little is known in general about the Pacific Flyway population, which nests in the Bristol Bay area and Upper Cook Inlet. We do not even know how many cranes spend their summers in Kachemak Bay, nor are their diurnal movements or nighttime communal roosts known.

How many nesting pairs are there and how many colts survive in different years? Where does our local crane population winter and where are their staging areas during spring and fall migration? What are their migrational routes? When and where are the locations and dates of first arrivals and last departures?

Obviously, a dire need for monitoring and research exists. Unless the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, or another agency or graduate students fill this void, a "Kachemak Crane Watch" comprised of residents will aid in keep records of observations and aid in censusing, hopefully banding, and other efforts. A local ultralight aircraft pilot has already been contacted for aerial surveys next spring. The Kachemak Bay Conservation Society will sponsor "Kachemak Crane Watch" as a special project to help preserve our greatly admired summer crane population. Surely this is a goal most of the community will support. Anyone interested in participating should contact Ed Bailey at 235-6262.

For now, we must wait more than seven months to again hear the ethereal call of sandhills heralding the arrival of spring. Peter Matthiessen, author of Birds of Heaven, profoundly sums up the mystique of cranes: Perhaps more than any other living creatures, cranes evoke the retreating wilderness, the vanishing horizons of clean water, earth and air upon which their species -- and ours, too -- must ultimately depend for survival.

Edgar Bailey is a retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist and a longtime member of the Kachemak Bay Conservation Society Board of Directors.