Crowds of area residents and visitors are heading to Creamer’s Field Migratory Bird Refuge this weekend to attend the 22nd annual Tanana Valley Sandhill Crane Festival. The festival — a celebration of migratory birds that inhabit the refuge — is hosted by the nonprofit group Friends of Creamer’s Field. The activities include various walks and tours of the grounds, family-friendly competitions, workshops and more.
Lissa Hughes has been executive director of Friends of Creamer’s Field for roughly a year and a half, but she is not new to the refuge. Hughes’ career has come full-circle; her first job in Fairbanks was volunteer coordinator for Friends of Creamer’s Field, a position she landed in 1998.
“So we’ve got a number of different activities throughout the whole weekend for the whole family,” she said.
On Saturday morning, the Crane Walk with Gary Ivey, the featured guest, commenced. About an hour later, Bill O’Malley, one of the Camp Habitat staff members, led the Kid’s Crane Walk, Hughes said.
“That was a great opportunity for kids and their families to get out and enjoy the cranes,” she said.
Highes said that the organization was expecting as many as 2,000 people to take part in the festival over the weekend and said that, every year, the festival is “getting bigger and better.”
“It’s planned to coincide with the fall migration of the sandhill cranes,” she said. “In the springtime, we have cranes that come through and they head up through Fairbanks, they go out to western Alaska and Siberia to nest. And when they come back in the fall, they have their chicks with them.”
Later on Saturday, Creamer’s Field volunteer Bud Marschner hosted a photography workshop at 3 p.m.; a Tex-Mex Food Fiesta was held, with a suggested donation of $10; and Gary Ivey gave a talk at Wedgewood Resort’s Taiga Center titled “Travels & Traditions of Sandhill Cranes.”
Hughes said, beyond Friends of Creamer's Field, partners that support the festival include the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (which manages the refuge), Arctic Audubon, Alaska Songbird Institute, and others.
“It’s really lucky that we’ve got this place right in the middle of town. Some people refer to it as the ‘Central Park’ of Fairbanks,” Hughes said. “There’s people walking their dogs, spending time with their families, reading, taking photographs. This is really the one place that I think connects all of Fairbanks.”
While all festival activities are free, donations are appreciated. Hughes said that all the proceeds go toward supporting Friends of Creamer’s Field, which hosts free events and educational programs throughout the year (the only event for which there is a charge is the annual Camp Habitat, an educational nature and ecology youth camp).
“In order to make those programs free and available to the public, we rely on donations,” she said. “We don’t get any government funding. We get office space from Fish and Game, in the farmhouse. It’s donations that really keep us going.”
At 10 a.m. Saturday, roughly 20 people took the Crane Walk, which was led by guest speaker Gary Ivey and Mark Ross, a state biologist who works at the refuge. Shortly after, the group meandered its way to the first wooden platform and the sun broke through the clouds, warming the participants as they listened to Ivey and Ross wax lyrical.
Ross pointed to a few birds flying overhead and explained that, as cranes get older, they lose the feathers at the top of their heads, which become red and rugose. He threw the subject over to Ivey, who said that the birds can manipulate the patch of skin and use it to signal to other cranes.
“That’s one of the ways they communicate. The position and color of their crown, their body language, different postures they take. They have different sounds they make,” Ivey said. “I think, personally, they can talk as well as we can.”
The topics of discussion included crane physiology and what their flesh tastes like.
“Hunters call them flying ribeye,” Ivey said. “What they taste like depends on what they eat, I think. If they eat a lot of mice and earthworms, you probably wouldn’t want to eat them. But in the fall, they tend to eat vegetation like seeds, grains …”
At that moment, a passing car prompted a dance of cranes to take off and fly collectively overhead. Those present were encouraged to listen closely and try to distinguish the whistlelike call of the juveniles from the rattling cry of the adults.
Ross explained that an average adult crane’s trachea is more than 40 inches long — longer than its body. It fits within the sternum by coiling around in loops. The reason the young crane’s cry sounds so different is that the trachea takes a long time to develop to full size.
Near the end of the walk, the crowd had dwindled to just a few people who were lingering near Ivey and peppering him with questions. Among them was Rita Osborne, a Fairbanks resident who said this was her fifth time attending the festival. She said she looks forward to it every year.
“It’s just wonderful to be outside,” she said. “It looked like it was going to be very chilly and gloomy, but it turned into a lovely day. And it’s great to be out here with the cranes. They look so majestic when they fly. And I learned a few things too, which is always wonderful.”
Not all of those on the Crane Walk were local. Ronnie and Kiki Cyrier, a married couple from northern Florida, have spent the past couple of months traveling across Alaska. The pair are avid outdoorists. They said they’ve been in Fairbanks for three weeks and were passing by when they saw that the festival was happening.
“Somebody was telling us about the festival and then we saw that the 10 a.m. bird walk was today,” said Kiki Cyrier, before enthusing over Ivey’s knowledge and amicability. “We learned lots!”
Ronnie Cyrier noted that there are herons and cranes in Florida.
“But nothing like this,” he said, peering across the field to a flock of cranes. “And not with this density of population, either.”
Ivey, who lives in Bend, Oregon, has been studying sandhill cranes since 1979. Ivey said he worked on bird conservation management in national wildlife refuges for roughly 20 years and is associated with three nonprofit conservation organizations, including the International Crane Foundation and the Trumpeter Swan Society. This weekend is Ivey’s first time in Fairbanks.
“I’m very excited to come to Fairbanks to see Creamer’s Field. I was invited to speak about swans and cranes and my experiences,” he said. “Basically I’m going to talk about cranes around north America and some of their ecology and behavior.”
Ivey said he’s been interested in birds since he was a youth growing up in central California. He used to raise chickens — “As pets, mostly,” he said — and would often encounter migratory birds during trips into the wilderness with his father.
“My dad was an avid outdoorsman. He liked to hunt and fish. I spent a lot of time with him, mostly fishing,” he said. “And I remember seeing cranes on their wintering grounds.”
After his work with refuges, Ivey went to graduate school at Oregon State University and earned a master’s degree and Ph.D. studying the breeding ecology of cranes and their wintering ecology.
Ivey has been engaged with trumpeter swans for as long as he’s been studying cranes. He’s the lead on the Trumpeter Swan Society’s Oregon Trumpeter Swan Restoration Program.
“We’re trying to build a viable flock in Oregon and restore them to part of their historic range,” he said. “They were almost extinct at the turn of the last century, and now there’s about 60,000 at the last count. So they’re doing much better, but there are still some issues. For example, they’re almost extinct in Yellowstone National Park and some of the other Western refuges.”
Given the breadth of knowledge on sandhill cranes he exhibits, it’s easy to forget that Saturday was Ivey’s first time visiting Creamer’s Field.
“It’s great. It’s fantastic. What a wonderful place for people to get out and interact. These birds are kind of tuned in to the disturbance here, and they’re willing to tolerate people pretty close to them, which is good. It’s a really great resource for your local citizens here,” he said.
Ivey will give the second of two lectures on trumpeter swans, “Recovery of Trumpeter Swans across North America,” at 2 p.m. today at Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center, 101 Dunkel St. To see the other activities scheduled for today, the final day of the Tanana Valley Sandhill Crane Festival, visit bit.ly/2Zf90IX.
Contact staff writer Alistair Gardiner at 459-7575. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMoutdoors.
Correction: This article originally included incorrect information regarding which partners support the Sandhill Crane Festival and has since been updated.