The South Coastal Sandhill Crane Project
The South Coastal Sandhill Crane project is an initiative to obtain a better understanding of the highly unique and threatened population of Sandhill Cranes that inhabits the Fraser Valley and south coast portion of British Columbia.
This subpopulation is unique for several reasons:
It is the northernmost, non-migratory population of Sandhill Cranes anywhere in the world.
It has faced some of the most extensive habitat loss and degradation of any species within British Columbia.
The population has been facing incredible human-induced pressures since the early 1900's when most bogs and wetlands were drained and converted to agricultural or commercial use.
Until our efforts in June 2019, this subpopulation has never been formally surveyed to obtain a population estimate.
The genetic and subspecific status of this population remains largely unknown without further study.
The goals of the project are three-fold:
To deploy coloured leg bands on birds to help develop a population estimate for the Fraser Valley and South Coast based upon mark-resighting data and citizen science observations. No formal estimate has ever been undertaken for this unique subpopulation and only through this method or aerial surveys can one be developed.
Utilize citizen scientists, birders, photographers and naturalists to help document sightings of marked and unmarked Sandhill Cranes within the South Coast of British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest.
To deploy telemetry units on select birds to gain a better understanding of the local, regional and international movements of this population using the same technology as that used on the endangered Whooping Crane. To date, we do not know what proportion or demographic of the population migrates south during the winter and which portion resides year around in the Fraser Valley. There is some preliminary evidence to suggest that some birds may overwinter in Sacramento, CA with birds from the central coast of British Columbia, but these data are based on a single subadult bird.
Using telemetry data to obtain fine-scale habitat use of wetlands, bogs and marshes within the Fraser Valley to ensure that critical feeding, roosting and breeding areas are protected and preserved.
Engage with the general public, community groups, regional, provincial and federal government bodies to help bring awareness and attention to the plight of this unique population.
Help develop mitigation options for golf courses and other suboptimal landscapes that cranes have been forced to occupy
Engage with local Indigenous groups to help re-establish the traditional role and significance Sandhill Cranes played in oral history and stories.
Indigenous and cultural significance
Within the Lower Fraser, one of the last strongholds for the Sandhill Crane is found within the Pitt-Addington Wildlife Management area, part of the Katzie First Nations historic territory. According to Katzie oral history, the Sandhill Crane was one of the most important animals in their culture and was highly revered, with their name for the crane being "haha´w " which means "superior in everything".
In March, thousands of Sandhill Cranes would stop over in their traditional territories along the Pitt River and stage prior to moving north, and they termed March the "month of the crane" or " li-´mƏs " in their traditional language.
Close to Sheridan Hill, Khaals (the creator) came upon the two sandhill-crane sisters, Swaneset’s first wives, still digging up Arrowleaf potato. He asked them, ‘Do you eat these potatoes that you dig up?’
‘Yes, we have nothing else to eat.’
‘ Very well. You shall become birds.’
They laughed at him mockingly, but he added, ‘You laugh, but now you shall fly, you shall become Sandhill Cranes. Henceforth, you shall roam over the meadows as you do now.’ He raised his hand and transformed them into cranes.
So now cranes laugh and dance after they root up the ground, just as the two sisters laughed and danced when they dug up their Arrowhead potatoes.
-- Extract from Suttles, W. 1955. Katzie ethnographic notes.
A number of threats face the South Coastal population of Sandhill Cranes, these include:
Loss and conversion of wetland habitats into agricultural or commercial, residential or industrial use. The Fraser Valley has lost nearly all of its original bog habitats except for a handful scattered throughout the Lower Fraser; those being Burns Bog, Langley Bog and the Pitt Polder.
Poor recruitment into the breeding population as a result of low chick survival.
Predation pressures due to increases in mammalian and avian predators such as coyotes, raccoons and Bald Eagles.
Injuries and deaths as a result of golf ball strikes for birds nesting or foraging on golf courses in the Fraser Valley. At least 5 adult birds and one chick are known to have been injured or killed as a direct result of foraging and occupying golf courses, particularly in Richmond. The near complete loss of original wetlands in the south coast has forced Sandhill Cranes to utilize these suboptimal landscapes which have proven to be highly dangerous.
HISTORIC HABITAT LOSS- Sumas lake
One of the largest and most dramatic changes in the Fraser Valley was the draining of Sumas Lake located between east Abbotsford and Chilliwack today. At freshet, it represented the second largest lake in the region, second only to Harrison Lake reaching a size of 30,000 acres in May and June. This incredible wetland was the crown jewel of the Fraser Valley in terms of its ecological significance to wildlife in the area. It was unique in that it was a shallow, tidally influenced lake that allowed for incredible marsh and wetlands, ephemeral ponds, meandering streams, and rivulets.
It was drained in the 1920s and the lake bed converted to agricultural use by settlers in the area. The loss of Sumas Lake represents one of the biggest ecological travesties of the Pacific Northwest during the 21st century. Below are some historic photographs of Sumas Lake along with a map showings its historic boundaries before and after freshet events.
Submit your crane observations!
Do you think you have seen a Sandhill Crane along the South Coast of BC? We are collecting these observations to help with our ongoing monitoring efforts.
Click Here to submit your observations!