Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) travel in large, noisy migratory flocks this time of year. Often their loud, gravelly, honking voices are our first clues that they are high overhead on their long migratory journey, looking to settle or rest on the way, or have returned to the breeding grounds. Large flocks of Lesser Sandhill Cranes (A. c. canadensis) stop in eastern Washington during migration and a few thousand Canadian Sandhills (A. c. rowani) stop on lower Columbia bottomlands, but only a small number of cranes stop and nest in Washington. The cranes that nest here are Greater Sandhill Cranes (A. c. tabida) that belong to the Central Valley Population, so-called because the entire population winters in California’s Central Valley. Members of this population also nest in Oregon, northeastern California, Nevada, and the southern interior of British Columbia.
Greater Sandhills were extirpated from Washington from about 1941 until 1972; since then, their number has slowly increased to approximately 98 individuals. In 2016, 37 known territorial pairs were documented; 32 of these pairs were confirmed nesting and they produced 10 colts that survived to migrate. Most of the Washington pairs nest at Conboy Lake National Wildlife Refuge (Conboy) in Klickitat County, a few nest on state and private lands in the Conboy area, and others nest on the Yakama Reservation. Additional pairs may nest on wet meadows in Gifford Pinchot National Forest, but have not yet been documented.
Since 1996, 75 crane colts at Conboy have been captured when they reach about 8 weeks old and color-banded with unique combinations. Birds color-banded at Conboy have been observed at multiple locations in Oregon and California during migration and winter – band reporting provides good information on dispersal, survival, and recruitment for the local population. Some banded colts that have survived to adulthood have been observed at Conboy during migration in spring and fall, but typically disperse for the breeding season and may be establishing nesting territories at unknown locations in the Cascades.
In Oregon, the Greater Sandhill Crane is designated as “Sensitive” in the East Cascades, Northern Basin and Range, and West Cascades ecoregions. Oregon “Sensitive Species” have small or declining populations, are at-risk, and/or are of management concern. Implementation of conservation measures to address existing or potential threats may prevent them from declining to the point of qualifying for threatened or endangered status. The Greater Sandhill Crane is also a “Strategy Species”, or Species of Greatest Conservation Need identified in the Oregon Conservation Strategy, the official State Wildlife Action Plan for Oregon. To learn more about Greater Sandhill Cranes in Oregon, visit http://oregonconservationstrategy.org/strategy-species/greater-sandhill-crane/.
Birders and biologists are interested in breeding season – May through August – observations of cranes at locations in the Gifford Pinchot NF or elsewhere in national forests in the Cascades or northeastern Washington. Nesting begins in April, but most cranes observed earlier than May are probably migrants, just passing through. Nesting cranes are very sensitive to disturbance, and human disturbance could lead them to leave eggs or young exposed to predation, or even abandon a territory. Cranes have excellent eyesight and can perceive people as predators. Wherever possible, vehicle and foot traffic should be avoided within 400 meters (1,312 feet) of active nests or colts – a spotting scope is indispensable; if birds become uncomfortable or agitated, that’s too close. If you detect a color band from a safe distance without disturbing the birds, you can report that here .
If you record Greater Sandhill Cranes on your checklists, please also consider noting bird behaviors using the eBird codes and pay special attention to the location of your report. If you would like to report your Greater Sandhill Crane observations in greater detail in Washington, you may do so here.
Because of the small number of breeding birds, and the similarity of appearance of the subspecies, the Sandhill Crane’s current Washington status is Endangered
For more information about cranes in Washington, check out:
Article by: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW)