A trio of Sandhill Cranes wear reddish brown on their feathers after preening with iron-rich mud. (Margo Hearne/Haida Gwaii Observer)

On the Wing: Night migration and crane colours

By Margo Hearne

A small flock of White-fronted geese flew over this week. It’s the first group we’ve seen this fall; the usual skeins that laugh and call overhead have not yet materialised. When we used to walk our dog at midnight we would often hear the birds coming in from the storm to land in Delkatla. It was both eerie and heartening – good to know they were still around and strange to think they were in the air in the middle of the night.

Some naturalists debate whether or not some birds actually migrate at night. Of course, we know the small ones do. Sadly, they die by the thousand from hitting bright city lights. But the big ones? Some years ago, when we were doing the Breeding Bird Atlas, we reported on the Sandhill Cranes that flew through the mountain passes in Smithers during spring migration. When we visited there in spring, their calls woke us up as they flew low over town. When we reported this the editors questioned whether or not cranes migrated at night and wondered if, in fact, we were hearing things. We were. Just last week some visitors from Smithers told us how they would hear Sandhill Cranes throughout the night during migration almost every year. They were hearing things too.

Speaking of cranes, they seem to have gone south. The last sighting was on Thanksgiving weekend when what was possibly a family of three were seen along the banks of the Chown River and the flock that fed with the cattle in the farm north of Port Clements was gone by the first week in October. The birds were a source of keen interest and excitement for many island visitors who had never seen cranes before. There they were, just beside the highway, visible for all to see.

The cranes’ natural grey feathering returned before they left, after we had become accustomed to seeing them brownish-red all summer. Apparently, they preen by rubbing mud on their feathers. The mud is usually reddish here from the iron-rich soil and the brown drainage from the muskeg bogs. The feathers soak up the mud’s color like a sponge and it lasts all summer. Cranes might do this as camouflage during the nesting season to help them hide as they sit on the nest. After nesting season the rusty red wears off and the bird’s grey colouring returns.

Some years ago, the West Coast Crane Working Group (WCC) from Washington was interested in the cranes of Haida Gwaii. They thought the ones that nested here were black, but they are not. We still don’t know where “our” cranes come from or where they go in winter; none of the cranes the WCC banded showed up here although they nested along the mainland coast.

A chill wind is blowing again. The dreaded northeaster. Birds hunker against it and the sanctuary waits to give them shelter from the storm.

Just Posted

President and CEO leaving Coast Mountain College

Burt will say goodbye to CMNT come September

Marathon day on Haida Gwaii

Totem to Totem race looks to set another participation record

World’s largest animal spotted off coast of Haida Gwaii

Fisheries and Oceans Canada spotted the animal during their Science At-Sea mission

Two monumental poles return home to Haida Gwaii

The artifacts ended up in Vancouver by being taken, appropriated, stolen, or sold through the years

Northern B.C.’s Ridley coal terminal sold, Canada divests, First Nations to own portion

Ten per cent of shares transferred to the Lax Kw’alaams Band and the Metlakatla First Nation

Rich the Vegan scoots across Canada for the animals

Rich Adams is riding his push scooter across Canada to bring awareness to the dog meat trade in Asia

CN train derailment between Terrace and Prince Rupert

The CN mainline is now open, following a train derailment

Couple found dead along northern B.C. highway in double homicide

Woman from the U.S. and man from Australia found dead near Liard Hot Springs

Injured fawn at B.C. vet will be euthanized Friday night unless claimed by sanctuary

Gilbert the deer is currently being treated at West Kelowna’s Rose Valley Veterinary Hospital

BC Wildfire Service warns wet weather no reason to be complacent

Fire risk currently low for much of B.C. compared to same time over last two years.

Bank of Canada lowers qualifying rate used in mortgage stress tests

Home sales softened last year after the federal government introduced new stress test rules for uninsured mortgages

B.C. man pleads guilty in snake venom death of toddler

Plea comes more than five years after the incident in North Vancouver

Trudeau says Ottawa open to proposals for B.C. refinery as gas prices soar

Prime minister says he knows B.C. residents are struggling and the federal government is open to ideas

Clock’s ticking to share how you feel about Daylight Saving Time in B.C.

Provincial public survey ends at 4 p.m. on Friday

Most Read