‘Kachemak crane viewing depends on citizen science:’ Homer crane count begins Saturday

Time to count the cranes in Homer again.

Homer’s crane count begins again Saturday, and the event, hosted by Kachemak Crane Watch, needs residents to help spot the big, leggy birds.

“Kachemak Crane Watch depends on citizen science to do what it does,” said Nina Faust, co-founder of the project.

The bird count event has been held annually for about five years to get up-to-date local data on once-threatened species.

On the last two Saturdays of August and early September, organizers are asking Homerites to keep track of how many sandhill cranes they spot and report these numbers before the birds migrate south along the Pacific Flyway to central California for the winter.

Faust said it’s important to count the cranes to get updated numbers for the area.

The subspecies that touches down in Homer — and which residents will count Saturday — is called the lesser sandhill crane. The birds come from California every spring, flying up the Pacific coast. Some of them, Faust said, are headed for the Alaska Peninsula and places further up in western Alaska.

But there is also a contingent that stops by the Homer area and returns to the same spot year after year to nest and hatch their chicks – known as pullets.

“The cranes come to Homer in mid-April,” she said. “It’s the kind of thing that heralds the beginning of spring for a lot of people.”

And in early fall, when the foals have strengthened their wings, the birds prepare to head back to California.

Faust describes the impressive birds as “elegant” and “intelligent,” nearly three feet tall, with a six-foot wingspan and bright red foreheads.

Faust is a self-described “craniac” and has been tracking the local population for over two decades.

“I think cranes are amazing creatures,” she said. “And I think a lot of people agree with me. There are a lot of ‘wingers’ in the community who just adore these birds.”

While sandhill cranes were once endangered due to overhunting and drying up of wetlands during European settlement in the late 1800s and early 1900s, researchers say their numbers now appear to have stabilized—and they know this because the crane count.

Crane numbers are important for other reasons as well, said Anne Lacy, senior manager of North American programs at the Wisconsin-based International Crane Foundation.

She said that by taking annual counts of everything — be it plants, animals, insects — researchers can begin to note trends. And while ups and downs in populations are natural, she said tracking something like a steady decline in numbers can help them prevent a catastrophe before it happens.

“S [species] like cranes, they are easy to count. They are big, loud and visible. And so we can kind of get an idea of ​​how their population is growing or not,” Lacey said.

She said learning more about the health of the whooping crane population also helps scientists understand how healthy the surrounding wetlands can be.

“So if the whooping crane population is doing well, that means our wetlands are doing well and they nest and that wetland supports them,” she said.

These days, Faust estimates there are at least 300 to 400 lesser sandhill cranes in the greater Homer area. But, she said, that’s probably an understatement.

“The trends seem to me, from what I’ve seen over the years, that our population is at least stable, but I think it’s actually increasing,” she said.

Faust said Kachemak Crane Watch would like to know about specific sightings of cranes in the Homer area for the next three Saturdays: Aug. 20, Aug. 27 and Sept. 3.

You can report the number of adults, fledglings or banded cranes seen by location, time and day – along with your name and contact information – by emailing Faust at [email protected]or by calling her at (907) 235-6262.

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