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Spectacular Journey: The Lesser Sandhill Cranes Migration

Updated: 2 days ago

Planning to observe the Lesser Sandhill Cranes migration?

Secure the best spots and times for stunning views of these birds in Homer from

mid-April to early May. 

Visit from May to August to observe Lesser Sandhill Cranes Families.

  • Annually, Lesser Sandhill Cranes migrate to Homer, Alaska. Peak viewing of the incoming migration is from mid-April to early May; Beluga Slough and Inspiration Ridge Preserve are prime bird-watching locations.

  • Conservation efforts, underpinned by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and organizations like Kachemak Crane Watch and the Audubon Society, are critical for protecting the Cranes in Homer; community engagement through citizen science is encouraged for conservation.

  • Climate change poses substantial threats to migration by altering habitats and introducing environmental challenges, necessitating adaptive measures in conservation and local initiatives to mitigate impacts on the birds' migratory patterns.

How are the Lesser Sandhill Cranes Different from Sandhill Cranes?

Lesser Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis canadensis) and Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) are subspecies of the same species, the Sandhill Crane. 

Here are some key differences between them:

Size: Lesser Sandhill Cranes are generally smaller than Sandhill Cranes. They have a wingspan of around 5 to 6 feet and stand about 3 to 4 feet tall, while Sandhill Cranes typically have a wingspan of 6 to 7 feet and stand around 4 to 5 feet tall.

Geographic Range: Lesser Sandhill Cranes breed primarily in northern North America, including Alaska and Canada, and migrate through the western United States. 

On the other hand, Sandhill Cranes have a more comprehensive breeding range, extending across North America, from Canada to the southern United States, and they also migrate through various regions.

Plumage: While both subspecies have similar plumage patterns, there may be slight differences in coloration and markings, particularly in the shade of gray on their feathers.

Vocalizations: While both subspecies have loud, trumpeting calls, there may be subtle differences in their vocalizations that ornithologists use to distinguish between them.

Tracking the Migration to Homer, Alaska

Every year, the skies over Homer, Alaska, are graced by the awe-inspiring sight of Lesser Sandhill Cranes flying in formation. 

These majestic birds embark on an arduous journey of thousands of miles from wintering grounds into breeding grounds in Alaska. 

The Cranes' arrival in Homer, Alaska, is a much-anticipated event. It marks the start of a vibrant season of bird-watching and community celebration.

The Pacific Flyway population of Lesser Sandhill Cranes draws enthusiasts from across the globe. Their migration route spans from the Copper River Delta in Eastern Alaska, across the Alaska Peninsula, to Kodiak Island and the Homer, Alaska area. 

The Kachemak Crane Watch, a local organization, diligently monitors these Cranes' migration, providing valuable insights into their patterns and behaviors. 

Peak Viewing Season in Homer, Alaska

The peak viewing season for the incoming migration of Lesser Sandhill Cranes in Homer, Alaska, falls between mid-to-late April and early May. The crane families are here during summer and can be observed then.

Timing your visit to coincide with the arrival period can provide an unparalleled experience, allowing you to enjoy these magnificent birds in large numbers.

During this time, the skies over Homer, Alaska, come alive with the sight of the Cranes gracefully gliding through the air, their long legs trailing behind, and their haunting calls echoing across the landscape. 

It's a sight that leaves an indelible mark on the hearts of those fortunate enough to experience it.

Lesser Sandhill Cranes Nesting and Breeding Grounds

The Cranes prefer nesting in diverse habitats in the Homer, Alaska region. These habitats range from:

  • upland areas with native vegetation like pushkie, grasses, and fireweed

  • islands within ponds for isolation and safety from predators

  • Areas near human dwellings may inadvertently offer protection from natural predators such as bald eagles and coyotes.

During the breeding season, Lesser Sandhill Cranes are territorial and will defend their nesting territories against intruders.

See Lesser Sandhill Cranes and other birds at Beluga Slough
Beluga Slough is a nesting ground for Lesser Sandhill Cranes

Prime Locations for Crane Watching

Beluga Slough is one of the prime locations for watching Cranes in Homer, Alaska. This diverse area attracts many migratory birds, drawing visitors from around the globe. During migration periods, Beluga Slough hosts not only sandhill cranes but also:

  • white-fronted geese

  • snow geese

  • Canada geese

  • cackling geese

  • various migrating shorebirds

Another excellent spot for watching the Cranes is Inspiration Ridge Preserve. Managed by the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies, this 693-acre wildlife habitat offers guided tours that allow visitors to learn about the area's natural history and spot local wildlife, including Lesser Sandhill Cranes.

The Life Cycle of Lesser Sandhill Cranes

The Cranes have a unique life cycle that begins in their varied nesting habitats in Homer, Alaska. 

These habitats range from upland areas with native vegetation to islands within ponds, which offer isolation and safety from predators. 

In addition to natural habitats, Cranes often nest near human dwellings, inadvertently protecting them from natural predators such as bald eagles and coyotes.

From Egg to Fledgling

The growth of Lesser Sandhill Cranes from egg to fledgling is a marvel of nature. Each nesting pair typically lays two eggs, with both parents sharing the responsibility of incubation until hatching occurs after approximately 30 days.

Upon hatching, Cranes are immediately capable of walking. They are covered in a downy plumage that juvenile feathers will replace as they grow.

Within about two to two-and-a-half months, young Cranes learn to feed themselves with some assistance from their parents and develop sufficiently to fledge and prepare for migration.

Conservation Efforts and Community Involvement

Conservation efforts are crucial to the survival and prosperity of Lesser Sandhill Cranes in Homer. 

From protecting migration stopovers and local roosting areas to monitoring crane populations and their migratory patterns, these efforts are integral to maintaining the bird populations. 

The community in Homer actively participates in these efforts, with local organizations leading the charge in conserving the Cranes.

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act plays a significant role in these efforts, regulating both subsistence and sport hunting of sandhill cranes to promote safe and sustainable migration patterns. 

Organizations like Kachemak Crane Watch tirelessly protect the Cranes' habitats and support their migratory routes.

Role of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act is a vital legal framework for conserving Lesser Sandhill Cranes in Alaska. It prohibits the following actions without proper authorization:

  • hunting

  • capturing

  • killing

  • selling

This protection also extends to the bird's feathers or eggs, making it illegal to possess these items without a valid permit.

This law significantly regulates subsistence and sport hunting of Cranes, ensuring their safe and sustainable migration patterns. 

It helps maintain healthy crane populations and safeguards their critical habitats.

Contributions of Organizations

Several organizations, including the International Crane Foundation, are crucial in conserving Lesser Sandhill Cranes in Homer. 

Kachemak Crane Watch is committed to protecting these birds and their habitats in and around the Kachemak Bay area. The organization monitors the Cranes' migration, providing valuable insights into their patterns and behaviors.

Similarly, the Audubon Society works tirelessly to protect critical habitats across Alaska. Their efforts are a backbone in creating climate sanctuaries that benefit various bird species, including Lesser Sandhill Cranes.

Engaging the Public

Kachemak Crane Watch promotes citizen science by requesting public reports on the sighting of Lesser Sandhill Cranes, including details on:

  • the number of birds observed

  • their specific locations

  • behaviors

  • the types of habitats in which they are found.

This engagement fosters a sense of stewardship within the community, encouraging active participation in conserving these magnificent birds.

Migration Patterns and Challenges

Lesser Sandhill Cranes use the Pacific Flyway for migration to and from the Central Valley in California, Texas, Mexico, and New Mexico.

However, migration has its challenges. These cranes can cover as much as 350 miles daily, ascending on thermal currents before forming into 'V’-formations for efficient travel. 

Changing climate patterns and human activities along the migration corridors have raised the risk, increasing collisions with buildings and vehicles that impact crane survival during migration.

The Impact of Climate and Environment on Migration

Climate change and environmental factors significantly impact the migration patterns of Lesser Sandhill Cranes. 

Alaska has warmed more than twice as fast as the rest of the United States, with average air temperatures increasing by 3 degrees Fahrenheit. These changes have led to a multitude of threats, including:

  • coastline erosion

  • thawing permafrost

  • loss of protective sea ice

  • increasing ocean acidity

  • rising sea temperatures

  • wildfires

  • insect outbreaks

These threats are leading to the loss of geographic range for many bird species in Alaska, forcing them to search for new suitable habitats and climate conditions.

Adaptive Measures and Future Prospects

As the effects of climate change continue to impact the Lesser Sandhill cranes' habitats, conservation efforts are increasingly focusing on adaptive measures. 

These measures include the conservation of migration stopovers and local roosting areas, which are becoming increasingly significant as a management strategy to support the species' adaptation to environmental changes.

See the Lesser Sandhill Cranes in Homer, Alaska

Spring and Summer in Homer, Alaska, mark the Cranes' migration and breeding season. 

Mated pairs diligently tend to their nests, often built in secluded marshes or wetlands near water sources. Here, they incubate their eggs, carefully safeguarding them until they hatch. The parents then devote themselves to nurturing their offspring, teaching them essential skills for survival in their environment.

Throughout the summer, the air is filled with the resonant calls of these majestic birds as they communicate with one another and their young. 

Their graceful movements across the landscape add to Homer's natural beauty, captivating the hearts of residents and visitors alike. 

As the season progresses, these cranes play an important role, contributing to the balance and diversity of the Alaskan wilderness.

Observing the Lesser Sandhill Cranes in their natural habitat is a unique experience and a great way to experience Homer, Alaska.

One of the highlights of the bird-watching season in Homer is the annual Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival.

Held in early May, this event celebrates the migration of various shorebirds, with Lesser Sandhill Cranes among the celebrated species. Since its inception in 1993, the festival has offered a range of activities such as:

  • bird-watching

  • guided tours

  • educational seminars

  • children's workshops

You can walk or hike Homer's beautiful beaches and landscapes to observe the shorebird migration and wading birds.

Frequently Asked Questions

Where do Lesser Sandhill Cranes in Alaska migrate to?

Some of the common wintering grounds include parts of California's Central Valley, the Klamath Basin in Oregon and California, and the southwestern United States, including areas in New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas.

What are some of the challenges faced by Lesser Sandhill Cranes during migration?

Increased risk of collisions with buildings and vehicles due to changing climate patterns and human activities along migration corridors can put the Cranes at risk during migration.

How is the Homer, Alaska, community involved in conserving Lesser Sandhill Cranes?

The Homer, Alaska, community is actively involved in conservation through organizations like Kachemak Crane Watch, which leads the efforts to protect the Cranes. Their active participation demonstrates a solid commitment to conservation efforts.


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