A Sandhill Crane (Grus canadensis)

I am pleased to announce that I recently had my first encounter with a sandhill crane.

I have never gone to the Crane and Sheep Festival in Faro, which is held in May, and the time and place when the cranes fly over the town. Years ago, I saw flocks of sandhill cranes in November in New Mexico and I still remember the sound and sight of them.

Still, I might not recognize a flock if it flew over my house, as it rarely happens. Big bird flocks that fly over the Mendenhall (and Whitehorse) area are mainly swans or geese.

Talking cranes, my husband, Don, now wonders if he saw a flock of cranes flying above Cracker Creek the other day. Whatever the birds were, they were really high up in the sky and made a distinctive rattling sound, more of chirping, is what he said, unlike the trumpeting of swans or the honking of geese.

Sandhill crane migration in the Yukon is mostly known to follow the Tintina Trench with the cranes flying from Coastal Alaska to Nebraska, in the fall, and reversing that route in the spring.

There is also a smaller group of cranes that follows the Pacific flyway. This is a north-south route birds fly, from Alaska to California. Mary Whitley, an avid birder, who you might know from the Faro festival, happened to be with me on that eventful day we saw the crane. She suggested it could be a bird from that route, going from Homer to San Francisco.

A young crane is called a colt and the bird we met was clearly a juvenile. It was as big as an adult, but brownish in colour, not having the adult plumage of grey feathers with a bright red patch on the forehead.

Walking across the sandy mud expanse of the Takhini Salt Flats, I first thought I saw a fox. Then I shrieked out something like, “Maybe it’s a crane!” – but as I had never seen a crane up close before, I wondered if it was a blue heron. It was bigger than a heron, quite fat looking, more like an ostrich.

The bird was not too alarmed seeing us and kept pecking at the ground. It was probably eating the sparse vegetation on the flats, since sandhill cranes are mainly plant eaters. Cranes migrate in large flocks and apparently the colts stay with their parents until the following spring.

This colt had clearly lost its flock. I hope it will spot another flock traveling south to join, or that it will retrace its path back to the coast to find a flock there.

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