by KTNA Staff ~ May 20th, 2013
photos by Robin Song
Earth and Beyond host and producer Robin Song makes a visit to Saunders’ Field Crane Sanctuary in Trapper Creek, and shares the experience. Text follows audio. Audio runs 6 minutes.
A spur-of-the-moment decision wound up paying off in a big way for me on May 12th. I needed to make a trip to the store and while I was at the “Y” I decided to go see if there was any waterfowl at the Mile 101 lake. I pulled off the Parks highway and stood beside my rig, glassing a pair of Pintail Ducks and Green-winged Teals. It was pretty quiet, there, and when I got back in the car, I decided a trip up to Saunder’s Crane Sanctuary might brighten my day. I had planned to go there after I returned from an up-coming birding trip to Homer, but the Mountain was “out”, as we say when we can see Denali. The sun was shining, and I knew there was still snow on the barley fields, which makes for a nice backdrop for crane photos. Lyra was agreeable, as always, to my plans, so off we went.
I drove around to the south end of the fields, which gives the view of Denali above the tree line. Lesser Sandhill Cranes dotted the barley fields amongst patches of snow and ice. I estimated 250 to 300 cranes were on the ground, most sinking their long bills through the soft snow and standing water, seeking barley seeds. I spent the next two and ½ hours absorbed with the spectacle before me. A lot of wildlife was concentrated on the 70+ acres of cleared land, and the activity was non-stop. The cranes were intent on eating. Very little courting was going on. A few preened and some napped with long necks curved around and heads tucked into back feathers. But the main focus was getting to those barley seeds buried under the water, snow and ice. Some cranes stabbed their beaks into clumps of exposed grass and flipped them into the air, shaking out seeds in the process. Bonded pairs moved in unison, feeding side by side. Here and there disputes erupted.
While courting cranes perform a graceful dance of leaps, twirls and bows, tussles are quite different. A crane will lunge at another, wings spread. If the attacked crane turns to fight, both birds spring into the air, wings spread, legs striking at each other. Though I haven’t witnessed cranes actually hurting each other, tussles can last a few minutes and seem quite intense. When the birds finally break apart, one or both will curve their head over, neck feathers erect, beak almost touching the ground, holding this display posture for a few moments to underscore dominance. If one crane doesn’t back down to this display, the fight can begin again.
In amongst the cranes was a flock of Pectoral Sandpipers. The cranes towered over these graceful little “peeps”, which plied the standing water for food. A few were near me and I got to study them through binoculars, marveling at the intricate patterns of their feathers.
Conspicuous by its absence was the song of the Fox Sparrow. I had always heard this lovely singer in the forests ringing the barley fields in years past, lending its song to the scene while I watched the cranes. Not so this year.
American Widgeons and Northern Shoveler Ducks were also nearby and farther out in the field I could see Pintails, Mallards, and Green-winged Teals. Canada Geese were also present in large numbers, along with a few Mew Gulls. Three times an adult Bald Eagle arrived and sent the nervous geese, ducks and peeps into the air. A few cranes joined them, though most stayed on the ground. When an eagle was present, the sky would fill with birds, and I scrambled to take photos of the circling flocks going in different directions.
Because I hadn’t planned this trip, I didn’t take an extra camera card, and used up the existing space on my card fairly quickly. (Note to self: always keep an extra card in my camera bag- especially during bird migrations!) Just as I was heading back to the car, a Northern Harrier Hawk came winging in low over the field, startling the peeps and ducks into flight. I quickly deleted as many photos as I dared, in order to photograph one of my favorite raptors. I was rewarded with one precious shot of the Harrier with Denali as a backdrop. The hawk soon glided out of my view to the west end of the field, and I knew it was time to tear myself away and head home. As I drove slowly along the edge of the field, watching the continuous activity, I thought what a gift this Sanctuary is. I’ll never get to Africa, but I imagine I’d feel this same excitement watching the wildlife drama there. And maybe it’s a bit more special, knowing these birds have migrated such a long distance, through all kinds of weather and obstacles to come to this very field, counting on this food source to be here. The people who respect Dale Saunders’ legacy to continue to provide food for the cranes have put the barley here, and so the birds come. And those who love birds come to watch the spectacle, grateful for the opportunity. May it always be so.
By Robin Song 5-19-2013