Sandhill Cranes Foraging and Vocalizing – Alaska Peninsula

Barbra’s school year ended on May 1st. With a new home waiting for us in Newhalen, Alaska, we could have left Chignik Lake the following day. But bears are waking, buds are bursting and springtime’s migrant birds have begun to return, so we’ll remain at The Lake till late June. We’ve been loving our decision. In the past few days we’ve scored photo upgrades of several Chignik species including Northern Pintails, American Widgeons and Harlequins. We just missed adding photos of a skittish dark morph Rough-legged Hawk as well, but we got nice American Robin photos (the ones that pass through the Chigniks are considerably more wary than the suburban birds we’ve known) and…

…our first really good photos of Chignik’s Sandhill Cranes.

The more we photograph birds, the more we appreciate how difficult it can be to predict their behavior. Years ago, we had a photo op with a pair of Sandhill Cranes foraging on a lawn in Homer. While Barbra crept around the yard with our “fledgling” camera gear snapping photos, the cranes very casually walked off a few paces to let her know when she got too close. After that, Barbra tucked in and shot away. We left before the birds did. We weren’t birders in those days. The encounter was one of our first with cranes, and so we concluded that cranes must not be particularly wary.

Years later and multiple mind’s eye images of Sandhills that saw us long before we saw them gliding off toward the horizon on six or seven foot wingspans have prompted revisions of our earlier ideas about these magnificent birds. Cranes are hunted, and like most species that are hunted, they can be exceedingly wary. Unless the cranes have located themselves in a refuge of some sort, it seems that your best chance of getting close enough for a decent look at them is to a) stay quiet and b) don’t look like a human.

The other day while birding, we lucked out. Using a truck as a blind, we were able to observe a pair of foraging cranes for about 15 minutes – plenty of time to add quality photographs to our library and to make a short video which, happily, caught them vocalizing. The male in this video stands over four feet tall. From now till September, their brassy, ratchety calls will echo through the Chigniks, carrying as much as two-and-a-half miles. In addition to the full-throated vocalizations, listen for the little croak the male gives early in the video. And incidentally, the songbird in the background is one of our recently-returned Sooty Fox Sparrows. (The chirping is the modified sound of Jack’s camera shutter.)