Photos by Robin Song
For this Earth and Beyond program, the stage is a summer-green hayfield, the actors are two lively coyotes, a pair of sedate sandhill cranes, and a bystanding horse. KTNA volunteer Robin Song is the photographer, writer, host and producer. Lyra the Aussie assisted. Audio is about 5:30 long. Text follows.
It was another lovely July summer evening on Birch Creek Ranch. I had turned Jody the mare out to graze in the first hay field and her buckskin hide stood in warm contrast to the lime green grass. I heard the pair of Sandhill Cranes calling from the vegetable garden. They are a year away from being old enough to raise their first family, so they have spent a carefree summer visiting the ranch, alternating between the hay fields and the veggie garden. Usually they start calling just before they take flight and head to their roosting area – somewhere in the northwest – for the night. I stood on the cabin porch, camera ready, hoping to get a flight shot of the pair. But they kept calling. Then I saw a movement out in the field that was definitely not a crane. I grabbed the binoculars. I caught my breath as I watched a pair of large coyotes come across the green grass, heading in the general direction of where Jody was grazing.
I jogged out to the edge of the field, keeping the barn between the animals and me so they wouldn’t see my approach. Lyra was with me, of course, so I stayed by the barn where we wouldn’t be detected. I climbed a berm east of the barn so I could have the best view. The coyotes split apart and one went on each side of Jody, who continued to graze, only glancing up once at the canines. Once past her and on out in the field, something came over them and they broke into a wild run, chasing each other. They raced close, zigzagging, tail high, ears, back, mouths open. The one in front whipped around and leaped high, sailing over its mate. They flashed back and forth, chasing each other, leaping and dodging. They moved like two over-grown, but very graceful puppies. Then they lit out across the field, running full tilt. It looked like they were just enjoying being alive on this warm summer evening.
The cranes, meanwhile, had kept calling, and now here they came, flying from the veggie garden and landing out in the hay field, not far from the streaking coyotes. The canines slowed, then stopped, watching the cranes. The birds walked slowly towards the coyotes. For the next few minutes the coyotes trotted slowly along the edge of the field with the cranes walking parallel, out near the center. Once in awhile one coyote would stop and watch the cranes, then continue on after its mate. The cranes would turn and head towards the stopped coyote, moving together, then- when the coyote would start moving again – the cranes would turn parallel again to the coyotes.
I could only guess at what was actually going on between the cranes and coyotes. It looked like the cranes were making sure the coyotes were moving on through the area, and that they knew the cranes were healthy and strong and not something to consider for a meal. The coyotes were also big and healthy, and looked like they had been getting plenty of voles to eat, among other things. Often prey animals will display to predators to let them know they are healthy and viable. I doubt coyotes would hunt cranes, knowing they can fly, and would only be attracted to them if they were injured or otherwise incapacitated. The coyotes stopped to watch the cranes out of curiosity, I’m sure. That the coyotes were playing and kept moving across the field indicated that they were not hungry and therefore not interested in hunting voles in the grass.
They disappeared into the brush at the edge of the field where the ranch’s drive divides the north and south hay fields. I got on my bike and went down to the north hay field. Lyra and I walked into the field and I stood looking out over the cut grass, which was waiting to be baled. I was hoping for another glimpse of the coyote pair, but they had gone into the forest. Biking back down the drive, I came around the last bend to find the crane pair at the edge of the field just a few yards away from where I now stopped to watch them. The sun was behind the forest to the west, and they were in full shadow, so no photo ops. That was alright- it was wonderful just to stand and watch the pair walking slowly along, picking in the grass with their long beaks, and keeping an eye on Lyra and me. I thanked them for allowing me to watch them with the coyotes, then after awhile Lyra and I headed on back to the cabin.
I had never seen an interaction between cranes and coyotes before. When I lived at the Crane Sanctuary, I had seen similar interactions between cranes and foxes. This had been a bit more dynamic, with the big coyotes playing in the green grass and the cranes flying in to land, then ‘escorting’ them on across the field. I felt immensely privileged to witness this low-tension drama between two impressive species. Yet another memory to tuck away from this spectacular Alaskan summer.
By Robin Song