Sandhill cranes are very tall wading birds with a wingspan of close to 2 meters. The nearest species in size and shape is the Great Blue Heron. Although they are similar, the two species can be told apart by head colouring and posture. Sandhill Cranes have a red patch of unfeathered skin on their forehead and a generally grey body. During the breeding season, cranes dab mud on their feathers and are often stained a rusty colour on their bodies as a result.
There are fossil remains dating back 2.5 million years ago identical to modern sandhills of today. They are named after their representative habitat, the sandhills of Nebraska, where over 500,000 cranes congregate during migration. This is the largest sand dune formation in the western hemisphere, consisting of more than 50,000 hectares of rangeland and native prairie vegetation covering sand deposits drifted from the past ice age. It is dotted with hundreds of small wetlands, and the underlying Ogallala Aquifer provides water for 20% of the irrigated land in the USA.
In Canada, the greater majority of cranes migrate through the central prairies and winter in the southern states. In BC, cranes pass through the central interior, migrating between wintering areas in Texas and nesting areas in the bogs and marshes of Alaska and the Yukon. Along the coast, migrant cranes pass over Vancouver Island and the Queen Charlottes. In the Lower Mainland, we see small migrant crane flocks during the fall and winter stopping for brief visits to the Sanctuary or nearby fields of the Fraser River Delta.
When it comes to nesting, cranes are selective and need very large territories (often several hundred hectares) in large open wetlands. In the Lower Mainland, this species has generally chosen the wilder peatlands of the Pitt Valley, Douglas Island, Derby Reach , Burns Bog, and parts of Richmond. There have been cranes here at the Sanctuary for over 30 years. Two "imprinted" cranes were brought here after being hatched in captivity and bonding to people instead of their own kind. Neither of these initial cranes nested successfully and they have long since died, but they did manage to attract wild cranes to the place. A wild male crane joined one of these birds in 1992 and eventually brought its own mate to the Sanctuary and took up year-round residency, nesting sucessfully in 2000. This wild male remained at the Sanctuary until he died in early 2017. We think he was at least 27 years old. The resident female now has a very young mate as a replacement, and the pair nested in 2017, but the young resulting colt did not survive.
In addition to our resident pair of cranes, we generally have as many as 6 or 7 additional birds throughout the year which are young from previous years or young from a related pair nesting in Richmond. Other cranes also congregate here from late summer to late fall prior to migration. By November, numbers generally drop to just our resident pair plus a select small group of visiting birds (less than 10 usually) that then spend the winter together. In the spring our pair chases out all other cranes, including their own young from previous years, and defend the 300 hectare Sanctuary as their territory.