SMITHERS, BC — It’s springtime here in the Kispiox Valley. That means steelhead trout coming up to spawn and smolt (juvenile salmon) swimming downstream and out to the ocean. It also means the arrival of the sandhill cranes as they journey further north to Alaska. They are easy to spot and hear as they fly above you. Their distinctive warbling ripples through the sky as they fly in flocks of two dozen or more.
I am standing along the Skeena River in Old Hazelton, a historic pioneering town on Gitxsan territory in northern British Columbia when I encounter the cranes for the first time. I hear the cranes before I see them. Squinting up into the brightness of the sky, I spot a ball of dark spots, spiraling in a loose amalgamation above me. Uncertain, I ask the couple standing next to me, also peering up into the sky. They confirm my query as I pull out my microphone but the bird calls are too faint. Coasting on a thermal current, the flock floats further and higher away from us.
The cranes won’t stick around this area for long. The Kispiox valley is just a rest stop for them, on their long journey up to Alaska. Sandhill cranes return to the same place year after year, making it relatively easy for bird watchers and researchers to observe them.
Back when I was staying in Bella Bella in mid-February, I discovered that my host, Krista Roessingh, who works for Pacific Wild, studies the coastal sandhill cranes. Her testimony to the Joint Review Panel during the Enbridge Northern Gateway oral hearings included her concerns of the negative impacts of a tanker oil spill on the crane’s habitat should oil tankers begin traveling down the British Columbia coast, carrying bitumen via the Northern Gateway pipeline. I called her up recently to talk about her research and ongoing work with the cranes. Here is an edited version of our conversation:
Video footage courtesy of Pacific Wild.
How did you get started studying the sandhill cranes?
I was just coming back from studying elephant corridors in India, looking for an opportunity for further graduate work. Raincoast Conservation Foundation had done a pilot project to locate crane breeding habitat on British Columbia’s central coast the year before and was looking for a student to continue the project. I started in the spring of 2007 with a helicopter survey. It took some practice to get a mental search image of a well-camouflaged crane sitting tight on a nest — they look like a ball of moss or a rock. We went back on foot to verify nest sites after the nesting period, so as not to disturb the cranes during nesting time.
Are the nests distinctive looking?
On the islands of the central coast, they nest in the bog pools on little moss islets. They choose islets that will stay dry. Flooding is a major cause of nest failure in lots of other Sandhill Crane habitats but not here.
Do flocks return to the same spot, year after year?
Here, I found that some do go back to the same spot but others return to the same type of small wetlands complex and not necessarily the exact same spot.
The two summers that I did my fieldwork, I was working as an intern at the Ministry of Environment. We mapped out wildlife habitat area proposals for all the breeding and roosting sites we found, including a forested corridor to the beaches closest to nests where we observed cranes and their pre-fledged young. About half of these sites (11 nests and roost sites) are now protected from logging and mining. Cranes were delisted in British Columbia before the second set of proposals were approved.
How much research on the coastal cranes had been done prior to yours?
Not much. There was a small study done on Haida Gwaii and one on the north end of Vancouver Island.
Can you talk about the migration?
The coastal breeding cranes are part of the much bigger Pacific Flyaway Population of Sandhill Cranes, most of which travel inland of the coast mountains and breed further north. These cranes winter in the Central Valley of California, and some may winter or stage in the Lower Columbia River area. The coastal cranes fly straight up the coast, over the Olympic peninsula in Washington State, up Vancouver Island, passing Bella Bella and going as far as southeast Alaska. They arrive here in early April and leave in September once the young ones are ready to fly the long distance. We think there is a distinction between the coastal route takers and the cranes that travel inland. We are currently in the midst of a genetic study to try and determine whether this is the case.
Do the sandhill cranes appear in Heiltsuk oral histories?
The Heiltsuk name for crane is c’idawai, which is also used for heron. There are historical accounts of people harvesting eggs, but they were so sparsely distributed around here that cranes and their eggs were probably never a significant food source.
What are some possible things that could affect their habitat?
Of course, oil spills will have a big impact. These are the only cranes in North America that feed on the beach regularly. They eat the little invertebrates, the tiny snails and mussels that live in the seaweed on the beach. They hang out in protected beaches that don’t receive a lot of wave impact, lagoons and estuaries and where upland bogs are close by. If there was an oil spill, it will have a big impact for sure. Unlike marshes which have more frogs and related prey, bogs aren’t very productive for food so they really rely on the protein from the beach.
There is also some logging on islands where cranes have been sighted and that may increase in the longer term.
Where are you now with your research?
We are still working to locate nests to get a picture of the breeding habitat on the coast. We want to identify whether this smaller population is really different and therefore should be managed differently. These same birds are listed as threatened in California. We would like to see them listed again in British Columbia in order to increase protection for their breeding habitat.
Sandhill Cranes are a success story. They were hunted to the brink of extinction and have really rebounded because they are so adaptable. They’ve been able to adapt to all the loss of wetland habitat in the United States, feeding in cornfields and such. They are in better shape than a lot of other birds.
Krista Roessingh has started a project to collect and map recent observations of the sandhill cranes along the coast. The website for the project is www.coastalcraneatlas.wordpress.com. For more information on cranes in the Great Bear Rainforest, please see https://rainforestsandhillcrane.wordpress.com. Pacific Wild has a live streaming camera featuring nesting Sandhill Cranes. The eggs will likely hatch around the end of May.
Ann Chen is a photographer, multimedia artist and researcher from New York City. She is currently in Western Canada tracing the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline through collective storytelling, community mapping and citizen science. Read her earlier posts here or follow her project on Tumblr, Facebook, Instagram or Twitter.