Sandhill Cranes


Our resident male Sandhill Crane

Head of the current resident female crane.
Male tending the 2011 nest
Female crane with two-day old chick 2010.

Fall gatherings of cranes

Sandhill Cranes at the Sanctuary

Sandhill cranes are very tall wading birds with a wingspan of close to 2 meters. The nearest species in size and shape is the Great Blue Heron. Although they are similar, the two species can be told apart by head colouring and  posture. Sandhill Cranes have a red patch of unfeathered skin on their forehead and a generally grey body. During the breeding season, cranes dab mud on their feathers and are often stained a rusty colour on their bodies as a result.

There are fossil remains dating back 2.5 million years ago identical to modern sandhills of today. They are named after their representative habitat,  the sandhills of Nebraska, where over 500,000 cranes congregate during migration. This is the largest sand dune formation in the western hemisphere, consisting of more than 50,000 hectares of rangeland and native prairie vegetation covering sand deposits drifted from the past ice age. It is dotted with hundreds of small wetlands, and the underlying  Ogalla Aquifer provides water for 20% of the irrigated land in the USA.
In Canada, the greater majority of cranes migrate through the central prairies and winter in the southern states. In BC, cranes pass through the central interior, migrating between wintering areas in Texas and nesting areas in the bogs and marshes of Alaska and the Yukon.  Along the coast, migrant cranes pass over Vancouver Island and the Queen Charlottes. In the Lower Mainland, we see small migrant crane flocks during the fall and winter stopping for  brief visits to the Sanctuary or nearby fields of the Fraser River Delta.

When it comes to nesting, cranes are selective and need very large territories (up to 100 hectares) in large open wetlands. In the Lower Mainland, this species has generally chosen the wilder peatlands of the Pitt Valley, Douglas Island, Derby Reach , Burns Bog, and parts of Richmond.

There have been cranes here for over 30 years. Two "imprinted" cranes were brought here after being hatched in captivity and bonding to people instead of their own kind. Neither of these initial cranes nested successfully and they have long since died, but they did manage to attract wild cranes to the place. A wild male crane joined one of these birds in 1992 and eventually brought its own mate to the Sanctuary and took up year-round residency, nesting sucessfully in 2000. Sandhill Cranes are very protective of nest sites, their mate and young, and can attack visitors if a threat is perceived. It is sometimes necessary to close trails during the nesting season for the safety of visitors and the crane family. Please respect all signs and barriers related to these birds.

Sandhill Cranes keep their young with them until the following spring. The young cranes or "colts" have provided Sanctuary visitors with endless entertainment as they learn how to feed, fly, find shelter during winter weather and mimic the courtship dance and calls of the parent birds. By the time they are 2 months old, crane chicks are able to fly. By the time they are 10 or 11 months old, they are off on their own away from their parents. For the next couple of years, they will join groups of other non-breeding cranes, and when they reach maturity at 3 to 5 years of age, they are ready to mate and nest.

Other cranes congregate here from late summer to early winter during the non-breeding season. By November, numbers generally drop to just our resident pair plus a select small group of visiting birds (less than 10 usually) that then spend the winter together. In the spring our pair chases out all other cranes, including their own young from the previous year, and defend the 300 hectare Sanctuary as their territory.

Identifying Individual Cranes- an update as of May16th, 2014.

For those of you who enjoy watching the cranes on regular visits, here are a few clues to help you recognize some of the individual birds. If there are just two birds, there is a very high probability you are looking at our resident pair. There is a gang of five additional non-breeding Sandhill Cranes born 2010, 2011, and 2012 from either our pair or the pair that nests in Richmond. None of them are mature enough to nest yet, but they spend endless hours practicing courtship dances and are regularly chased around by our resident pair. For most of the winter, we also had the visiting family from Richmond, consisting of two adults and two 2013 chicks or "colts", plus a bird released here by Wildlife Rescue Association in early November. The latter has joined our "gang" but is the youngest and most likely to be chased around by the older birds.

Although we can tell most of them apart most of the time, very few of the cranes are marked for positive identification, with the exception of the birds below.

The male bird of our resident pair has very little of the white "mask" on its face, and has been at the Sanctuary since 1992 and tried to pair with an imprinted crane for a few years. This bird is fairly aggressive during nesting season. This bird is not banded. His first successful Sanctuary nesting was with a wild female bird in 2000. The latter died in 2006 and in 2007, he began nesting with a second wild female. This bird is the most likel to be aggressive to people and other cranes from March on through their nesting season.

This is one of the visiting non-breeding birds which have been present since the 2012 nesting season and is part of the wintering group. Our resident male has tried to chase this bird and its gang of young cranes away every summer. This particular non-breeding bird has remarkably-similar facial colouration to our resident male, possibly being the Sanctuary's 2010 chick, now mature and likely to nest in the next year or so.

This female crane is a research bird banded and fitted with a satellite transmitter in 2008. The technology showed that it wintered in Sacramento California several winters and probably still does now. It summers in the Fraser delta, but has not yet been seen nesting or consistently paired. In the fall of 2011, it kept company with a pair and their two colts. We think this family is the pair nesting in Richmond. "Satellite Bird" might be one of their colts born prior to 2008. Note the orange and blue plastic and one metal band on one leg and a blue battery pack and antennae on the other leg. It usually leaves in the fall (2011, 2012 and 2013) with migrant flocks but we expect to see it sometime this upcoming spring again briefly, then again in the fall gathering.

A bird was banded at the David Hancock Wildlife Center in South Surrey in May 2011. We suspect this was a young bird that spent the 2010/11 winter visiting the Sanctuary with its parents, as our resident pair had three extra birds with them for the winter. The visiting family may have been the Richmond group (see above). This bird was chased out of the Sanctuary by our pair and ended up over in South Surrey to be captured at the wildlife center in 2011. It has a metal band on one leg and small narrow black plastic band on the other leg. A feather sample was taken when it was banded, and we know from the DNA analysis that this a male bird. It has been seen here several times over the past few years, often associating with Satellite bird (above) during fall gatherings.

A young crane rescued near Merville, Vancouver Island in late October 2011 by Mountainaire Avian Rescue. This bird seemed to have lost its flock during migration, so it was banded by the Canadian Wildlife Service and then colour-marked and released at the Sanctuary amid some wild cranes October 27th, 2011. It has not been spotted recently but is a small younger bird with two colour bands (yellow and orange) on one leg and a metal band on the other leg.

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