Joanne Thordarson stopped by to photograph the sandhill cranes that are seasonal residents in our neighborhood. Joanne is a professional wildlife photographer and another of the 30-plus member-owners of Ptarmigan Arts gallery in Homer, Alaska. Joanne’s wonderful prints and cards are popular items at Ptarmigan. I am especially fond of her photo of a Long-Tailed Duck, which you can view along with many others at her website (J. Thordarson Photography). We appreciate Joanne’s sharing her photos with us.
Our home is built in an area that used to be a large hayfield. Ted and I wish we had more trees, but the lack of trees and the wide open spaces make our neighborhood an attractive spot for sandhill cranes. The cranes seem to feel safe from predators, although they are constantly aware of their surroundings and keep a watchful eye for eagles.
Our records show that the first cranes show up at our place around April 21 or 22. After their long flight from their winter grounds in California, the cranes are eager to settle down and enjoy the cracked corn and fresh water that we put out for them. The spring arrivals are skittish, although the cranes we recognize from years past are more at home in their surroundings and almost seem to remember us. And how do we recognize our old friends? Some have unusual plumage patterns; others carry numbered radio transmitters and colored leg bands which are easy to recognize.
The spring visitors are a mix of mated pairs that will breed and raise their families in the Homer area, singletons who are looking to find a mate, and young adults who are content to hang out and, well, be cranes. Much as I love seeing the cranes and having them as part of our seasonal family, they are the kiss of death for my favorite flowerbed where I keep trying to plant flats of annuals (carefully grown from seed and tended for months) only to have them dug up and flung out in the yard. I have finally conceded that bed to them and will re-plant it next spring with large, sturdy perennials that can withstand the cranes’ big feet and stabbing bills.
By mid-June, the breeding pairs have moved on to their area nesting grounds and the adolescents go somewhere, location unknown to us, until late July or early August. The young, single cranes return first, followed several weeks later by the breeding pairs and their new families. The crane “chicks” are called colts. This year, we have two visiting families – one with a single colt, and the other with twins.
Those same cranes that were shy and cautious in the spring are, by now, relaxed and totally into grooming, eating, and napping in the sun. Do they mind sharing our yard with us? Not at all. I have had cranes come up behind me, while I was working in a flowerbed, and look over my shoulder. Do they scare easily? Hardly! A trio of adult cranes trotted up to me today, while I was walking back from the greenhouse, as if to say “Where’s our corn?” We enjoy watching them, and they seem to enjoy watching us.
In this third week of August, we have about 40 cranes in residence. If this year is like previous years, that number will grow to well over 100 as the cranes gather to prepare for their fall migration. By about the second week of September, the cranes will begin their long journey back to central California. We will miss their silly antics, their early-morning wake-up calls (I’m talking about way too early) and the awesome sight of cranes parachuting in for a pin-point landing.