A favorite of bird watchers, sandhill cranes appear to have had their fill of this Alaska summer and are beginning their journey south to New Mexico and other wintering spots. That’s a long trip, and a bird weighing up to 12 pounds has to rest enroute. Earlier this week, several had stopped in a Mat-Su Valley field to fuel up enroute.
Weighing up to 12 pounds, sandhill cranes are Alaska’s largest game bird, and the first few arrivals in Southcentral Alaska are a sure sign that summer is on the wane statewide.
Sandhill cranes, the most numerous of the world's 15 crane species, combine a dignified appearance in flight with what some people consider a comical mating dance, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Their cry has been described as a loud, rolling, musical rattle, a prehistoric yodel that hearkens back to the time at the end of the Pleistocene ice age. And they’re not shy about vocalizing.
Alaska hosts two distinct groups of sandhill cranes each summer. The more populous northern group breeds in Interior Alaska, on the broad Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, and along coastal areas throughout western and northern Alaska. These birds, along with others from Siberia and Canada, form the Mid-continent Population that winters in Texas, the southwestern United States, and Mexico. A smaller group, the Pacific Flyway Population, winters in California and breeds on the Alaska Peninsula, in the Bristol Bay lowlands, and in the Cook Inlet-Susitna Valley region.
When taking flight, cranes vault themselves into the air with a running start a few steps long, then ascend together in great circling columns, riding thermal currents of rising air, before forming “V” formations. On the ground, they stand about 3 feet tall, and boast a wingspan of 6 feet. They can fly exceptionally high and cover as many as 350 miles a day.
There is a fall hunting season for lesser sandhill cranes in Alaska, corresponding with the regular waterfowl season. Cranes are harvested conservatively because these long-lived birds have a low reproductive rate.
Habitat conservation measures are considered critical by biologists to protect cranes’ migration stopovers and local roosting areas.