FAIRBANKS - A few hundred thousand lesser sandhill cranes migrated along the north face of the Alaska Range this year in the week prior to Sept. 10, when the photograph at left was taken. The following day, visitors along the Wood River north of Waugaman Mountain, pictured above at sunrise, heard only a few stragglers calling.
The cranes were catching strong updrafts above the Alaska Range foothills as they streamed eastward. Groups of several thousand cranes would circle upward in a single updraft, bugling as they rose. “They call that kettling, when they swirl around,” said retired Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist John Wright of Fairbanks.
The lesser sandhills are slightly smaller than the sandhill cranes that live in the Interior and visit Creamer’s Field, Wright said. Between 200,000 and 250,000 lesser sandhills nest and raise their young mostly in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta and Siberia, Wright said. When they head south, they usually fly along the northern edge of the Alaska Range. They’re bound for wintering grounds in West Texas, where they will arrive in late November.
The lesser sandhills fly north from Texas in late February and early March and collect with most of North America’s other sandhill cranes along the Platte River in Colorado, where 500,000 to 600,000 birds can be found at once.
“It’s one of the wildlife spectacles of the world, really,” Wright said. The sandhill population appears to be stable or increasing, he said. “It definitely grew over the last 30 to 50 years.”
People who want to watch Alaska’s own spectacular migration in coming Septembers can drive south to near Donnelly Dome, where the cranes often cross above the Richardson Highway, Wright said.
— Sam Bishop