The Sandhill Cranes of Fairbanks, Alaska

When the sandhill cranes arrive in the fall in Fairbanks, Alaska it is a marker of the passing of a season. It means fall is beginning, and the birds that have nested on the tundra for the summer are shipping out to warmer latitudes. If you have ever head the raucous call of the sandhill, you’ll know their presence is trumpeted for miles, and that it is unmistakable for any other sound!

Sandhill cranes are a beautiful, elegant, and striking bird. Look at that red crest and orange eye!
Sandhill cranes are a beautiful, elegant, and striking bird. Look at that red crest and orange eye!

Of the 15 crane species in the world, sandhill cranes are the only ones which are not endangered or threatened in some way (Creamers Field Billboard). Across their global range, cranes were threatened by habitat loss and market hunting. In the early 20th century market hunters nearly exterminated whooping cranes. Their numbers dropped as low as 23 individuals in the 1940s, but thanks to the International Crane Foundation and the work of many other agencies, numbers hover around 600 currently.

Low sunlight put this crane in a mosaic of shadows.
Low sunlight put this crane in a mosaic of shadows.

Sandhill cranes are actually omnivores and spend their days eating grains, seeds, insects and small rodents. In fact, in larger concentrations of cranes I believe they can temporarily clear a field of pesky, small rodents. Of course that’s just me being an optimist. Sandhills can have long migrations and breed on the tundra of Canada and Alaska, but can also be found in breeding populations in the western United States (All About Birds.org)

A sandhill crane caught in the golden glow of low sunlight at Creamer's Field, Fairbanks, Alaska
A sandhill crane caught in the golden glow of low sunlight at Creamer’s Field, Fairbanks, Alaska
When flying the legs of the crane stick straight out behind them, pretty impressive if you think about it!
When flying the legs of the crane stick straight out behind them, pretty impressive if you think about it!
It seems that the pastures are always greener for the sandhill somewhere. It was very normal for them to transfer feeding locations or swap groups.
It seems that the pastures are always greener for the sandhill somewhere. It was very normal for them to transfer feeding locations or swap groups.

Each fall hundreds of cranes pass through Creamers Field National Waterfowl Refuge . The fields and water sources there bring in many ducks, geese (snow, white-fronted, canada, cackling) and of course the Sandhill Cranes. In fact, it’s such an event that each year the Sandhill Crane Festival brings in hundreds of visitors. The cranes are fascinating to watch and the power of any large migration event such of this can be overwhelming!

A sandhill settles in among the group.
A sandhill settles in among the group.

When observing the cranes there’s a lot of things to notice, and a lot of questions to answer. The cranes with chicks still maintain their family groups, and chicks may stay with the parents for up to 10 months! Also, the cranes seem to be very territorial and are always squabbling with each other. They may point their beaks straight into the area and verbally duel each other, or hop towards each other beating their wings either to intimidate or strike. I don’t know why, in an area with such plentifiul food, they are so territorial! I guess they’re a cantankerous species. If you are lucky enough to see a courting crane pair they may ‘dance’ with each other trying to win a mate.

The young-of-the-year are a noticeable shade of orange which separates them from the parents.
The young-of-the-year are a noticeable shade of orange which separates them from the parents.
Even though the migration is 'on' the young of the year still hang in family groups and learn (I presume) from their parents.
Even though the migration is ‘on’ the young of the year still hang in family groups and learn (I presume) from their parents.

This fall I spent a lot of evenings enjoying the cranes. There is always new behavior to watch, and the roads which bisect and border the fields at Creamer’s Field offer first class seats to watch and listen. Here’s a montage of some crane behavior including the magnitude of their call, the family groups, grooming, feeding, and defending territories. The cranes departed in Mid-September along with most of their avian comrades, but I certainly will look forward to their return!

 

10 thoughts on “The Sandhill Cranes of Fairbanks, Alaska”

  1. I often travel from Saco to Norway for the company I work for. There is a hill top field where we see several Sandhill Cranes in and around June. I’m told we are starting to have a resident population in Maine.

    1. Lee, yes! They have been establishing a population slowly in Maine! I never actually got to see them there, but if you are in the right area they can be pretty ‘common’. That’s great you got to see them!

  2. I felt as though I were right there in the field watching those characters. They are both lovely and lively. We have cranes here in Saco right on Goosefare Brook, but I do not know what kind of cranes they are. I am glad that there is something here that keeps them visiting because they are so different from all of the other birds. Thank you!

    1. They’re almost certainly sandhills! As Lee mentioned, there have been more and more in Maine. They are unique, and a ton of fun to watch! Are they on protected land, by chance? Just curious.

  3. I feel fortunate to be a first-hand witness to some of the photos above, Darla, ian and myself visited Creamers Field twice during our recent Fairbanks sojourn. Unique…physically and vocally. Their calls are penetrating and seem omni-directional. Not sure if I recall any “boos” during our Creamerizing…but very effective.

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