Sandhill Cranes


JUNE 1st, 2014


Late Friday afternoon, on May 30th, the resident pair was observed standing silently along the banks of a meadow to the southeast of the portable toilet and across a channel from the main trail. After a few minutes, we reallized that a small bit of fluffy orange in the weeds might be the chick, but visibility was poor. Yesterday, on the 31st, we remained hopeful upon entering the trail system, but found the pair in the same spot, and the fluff certainly seemed to be a dead chick. The two birds appeared to be standing watch, and stayed in the vicinity until about noon, when they proceeded to walk towards the Sanctuary's entrance area, and put the run on the 5 non-breeding cranes. They then spent most of the afternoon in the short secluded grassy trail north of their favourite meadow. We do not know the cause of death of the chick, but had observed that the combination of tall grass (and possible predators such as mink), and the steep sides of the channel and dense algae and pondweeds made for an exhausting workout for the chick.

The summary of its short nineteen day life will stay on line for a while (see below), but then we will need to move to more happy thoughts.

The 2014 Chick Summary:

The Sandhill Cranes incubated two eggs on their nest island in the center of the Sanctuary. The first egg was laid April 9th, and the second sometime either late on the 11th or very early on the 12th. Incubation is usually 31-33 days. Both eggs showed small holes as of 12: 34 pm Saturday May10th. On the 11th, the first chick hatched at about 8:00 am and the second at 4:30 pm. The first chick fell off the nest island and had difficulty getting out of the water and eventually weakened and drowned. The second chick hatched later the same day, and spent all of the 12th on the island with its parents feeding it small creatures from the logs and dirt.

On Tuesday the 13th, it had its official swim over to the trails, with both parents walking beside it. It spent the day on the trails with its parents catching damselflies and spiders and other things and bringing them over to it. The family swam back to the island to spend the night at the nest. The same thing happened again the next day.The chick seems to have lots of energy and is doing well. We have barricaded off the main trail to the south and north of the nest island, but people can come into a special viewing area that overlooks the main trail, and the crane family has obliged many times by stopping for photos right in front of the barricade at the viewing spot.

Thursday the 15th, the whole family made a break for it and went through the viewing area barricade and into the mucky meadow to the east. Once they were there, they became a bit territorial about ownership of the grassy trail nearby, so the viewing area by the bench barrier was temporarily off limits for most of the day. No point in causing them more alarm than necessary. The chick probably finds it a bit tiring to climb through the cattail to open meadow areas, so the parent birds are just more vigilant where the nice open gras sof the trail meets the jungle of the meadow. At the end of the day, they returned to the main trail and swam back to the island to sleep at the nest overnight.

Friday the 16th, the crane family had a late start, swimming eventually over to the shoreline at about 840 am. They spent about an hour on the main trail, then went through the barricade of benches again and spent a little time in the meadow, and a little time on the grassy trail, then went back to the main trail by noon. At about 1 pm, they came through the barricade again, but two ladies who were trying not to be noticed at the benches then ended up trapped with the cranes between them and freedom. The visitors settled in one corner of the benches and waited to be rescued, but as nobody could see them, it was a full hour before the problem was noticed and resolved amidst much outraged yelling and poking of a defenseless purse as a distracting technique. Hmm. The chick had a very active day, probably putting in at least .5 km of walking in and out of trail areas, and by late afternoon, it looked tired, so we closed the whole area at 4 pm to leave them some peace. It was very wind and chilly. They were back on the island at 6 pm.

Saturday the 17th was a busy day with lots of visitors. It started off humid and overcast, and the crane family left their island at 750 am, but the chick looked cold for the first hour or so and had several sessions of warming up under the female along the main trail. By 11 am the weather had improved and we had sunshine for most of the rest of the day. The family went out into the meadow for a good hour or so, and then spent another hour on the grassy trail with photographers clicking away not too far from them under the supervision of a volunteer. Eventually the cranes went through the benches again and out into the main trail. The chick had lots of energy to keep up with its parents this afternoon and was eating and begging more consistently than in the morning. The highlight for afternoon watchers was when the parent birds caught a vole and fed bits of it to the chick.

Sunday the 18th once again proved the weatherman wrong by being only lightly overcast at first then then turning into a warm, muggy, sunny day. The day was full of new adventures. An initial attempt by us to let people into the grassy trail was foiled by the crane family slowly walking towards everyone until all people had retreated beyond the gate. Okay, the cranes win. After making their point, though, the birds spent nearly all of the day in the meadow exploring parts not yet visited. To the delight of everyone, they paraded along the southern edge of the marsh, giving a clear view of them from the other trails. The chick was observed eating a small fish, swimming across a channel, climbing onto the main trail using its parent's beak as a foot hold, and walking across sticky mudflats at great effort. A beautiful natural setting for these birds. One of last visitors to leave reported that a Mallard had flushed out of the marsh right in front of the adult male, who consequently took offense and attacked it, pounding it somewhat into the mud of the nearby channel. They thought perhaps there was a corpse out there.

Monday, the 19th and the last of the long weekend, also started out cool and overcast and turned out warm and sunny. Before the crane family moved over to the trails, the meadow was checked for mallard corpses, and nothing was found except a tuft or two of feathers. However, the cranes may have eaten significant numbers of voles, not just the one seen a few days ago. Part of the meadow was all turned up with the vole tunnels all exposed. The crane family left the island by 8 am and spent nearly all day in the meadow, although there might have been a significant nap-attack mid afternoon with all of them lying down out of sight. Mid-afternoon, the younger pair of cranes made a loud territorial call from closer to the entrance, and the male crane left his mate and offspring, striding off across the pond and down the trail, obvlivious to visitors, and found and chased the pack of extra cranes out of the Sanctuary. All in a days work.

Tuesday, the 20th and far few visitors but a dilemna about whether to let the Portapotty service truck disrupt "craneville". We decided not to, but instead brought in an extra toilet, as the other one will now have to wait for servicing two weeks from now. The cranes spent all day in the meadow again, going in and out of view depending where they were in relation to patches of cattail. Lots of things eaten, a nap-attack mid-day, and the male left briefly to go address those upstart other cranes down the trail, and came back looking pleased with himself. All in all pretty much like yesterday. At the end of the afternoon, the family came through a channel of very black ooze and up to the dyke. The chick looked a bit ..... sticky after that. All present and accounted for on the island at 7 pm.

Wednesday, the 21st was sort of muggy weather and nearly all birds, including all of the cranes, seemed to be sleepy most of the day. The family spent nearly all day in the meadow, inconveniently in the middle, where Junior couldn't be seen very well. All is well, though. On the 22nd, the family did much the same thing, and provided for many excellent photos at the south end of the meadow when the young one tried to do a bath in the mud. Hm.

Friday, the 23rd, and it was raining in the morning but all seems fine and the sun has come out. The chick was walking briefly along the main trail earlier, then opted for some time under the female bird, presumably to dry out then spent the afternoon in the meadow with the family almost up to the open trail. NINE other cranes flew over at the start of the day, with 5 spiralling down to the parking lot (our usual "gang"), and four others circling then going off to the southeast. Saturday was much the same. The family is into a bit of a routine.

Sunday the 25th is the two-week mark for the new chick and a poor drizzly day but everything seems fine. The crane family was up on the opne pathway at lunchtime and went back to the marsh later on. If people are wondering whether this day to day report will continue, the answer is no, or at least only if something really significant happens. After the next few days, we will not continue daily reports, but assume no news is good news. For the past two years, the chicks have died very early (at one week and two weeks old), so this year we have been watching the chick very closely for signs of illness, and we have also upgraded barriers to eliminate disturbance or crowding by people as a stressing factor. The chick and its parents crossed over from the meadow to the open trail a couple of times in the past few days and seem more relaxed about people being present, so we will be taking away the barriers soon and letting everyone mingle (respectfully, though). Hopefully, the above reports have been educational about the lives of cranes and what they do for food and shelter when a small chick or "colt" is involved.

Monday the 26th had heavy rain in the early morning, and turned out nice and warm in the afternoon. The crane family has gotten quite used to being in the open section of grassy trails, so we have opened the main gravel trail to the tower for people to take that route rather than disturb them. Photographers, please keep your distance and do not keep advancing upon them. If you stay still they often come back and walk right by people, but constant following seems to cause them some anxiety. One day of open trail and already a visitor has been evicted by the male bird! On the 27th, they ended up walking ahead of someone all the way to the tower, and as soon as there was a clear trail, they tried to make it back to the center, but encountered people and cameras coming from both directions. On the 28th, they also avoided people by leaving the main trail and exploring the meadow closer to the portable toilet near the tower. The young one seems to be keeping up with Mom and Dad just fine. On the 29th and again on the 30th, a couple of things seemed to be happening. The gang of five non-breeders were seen encroaching on the meadow and grassy trails several times, and the family was observed exploring the meadow to the north and the peninsula behind their nest island to the west instead of using the flatter more accessible meadow of past weeks. We do not know for sure, but suspect that the presence of these other cranes caused the family to move to less optimal places. On the 31st, as visitors kept shutting and opening the gates, we took them down.


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.


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 (or in the next few months, two birds and a tiny chick), there is a very high probability you are looking at our resident pair. They currently have a very small new young with them at all times, and visitors should not approach this family unit. There is a gang of four 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.

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.

Back to Home Page

©The British Columbia Waterfowl Society, 5191 Robertson Road, Delta, BC V4K 3N2. Phone: 604-946-6980.  Last updated June 1, 2014 . Please report any website problems to our webmaster.