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GREEN SCENE: A marvel of nature - the cranes' dance

Like some lucky people during spring break, we were out of town on a short holiday.

Like some lucky people during spring break, we were out of town on a short holiday. But the timing of our trip had little to do with school holidays; rather, it was all about being able to witness one of North America's most thrilling wildlife spectacles.

Every March, thousands of sandhill cranes converge on the Platte River in Nebraska, where they feed and rest for a few weeks before heading to more remote and secluded northern areas of the continent for the nesting season.

The congregation of cranes on the Platte River is the largest gathering of cranes in the world. Imagine half a million cranes concentrated together, calling ceaselessly to one another in an almost purring manner when feeding in fields or filling the skies each day at dusk and dawn when they fly to and from their nightly roosts on the river.

Occasionally, we observed cranes dancing together in a most elegant fashion. The highlight was watching seemingly endless flocks of cranes descending in circles in front of a glowing sunset on to the shallow Platte, where they can rest safely at night. The sky was filled with their trumpeting and, above us, in all directions, the sky overflowed with cranes.

One can't help but feel the world is a serenely beautiful place after sharing a sunset with so many sandhill cranes.

The highly braided Platte River was described by pioneers on the Oregon Trail (which went along its banks) as a river that was a mile wide but only an inch deep. Now, to mainly meet the needs of farmers, 70% of its flows are diverted and the river has been channelized, with loss of many of its sandbars, which the cranes relied on as safe roosting sites.

On the plus side, leftovers from the corn harvest provide a substitute food (albeit a more carbohydrate-rich one) for the plentiful invertebrates once found in the River. The highly endangered whooping cranes also use this area of the Platte River a little later in the spring.

Because the U.S. has strong and effective endangered species legislation, there is now a Platte River recovery plan to maintain flows to benefit wildlife and safeguard the sandbars as critical roosting habitat. Hopefully, the Platte will remain a crane paradise and an inspiring display of one of nature's most awesome wonders.

Locally, great blue herons are occasionally misidentified as cranes. While the two birds are somewhat similar in appearance, with long legs and necks, cranes fly with necks outstretched while herons fly with necks retracted. Great blue herons are a much more common sight locally because the Lower Mainland supports several large heron nesting colonies while crane habitat has been mostly destroyed. Although cranes and great blue herons appear to be similar in size, sandhill cranes actually have a much heavier body and weigh up to 4 kg, compared to 2.5 kg for a typical adult heron.

Once, the Lower Mainland was a much smaller version of paradise for sandhill cranes. Stories from the Katzie First Nation in Pitt Meadows describe hundreds of sandhill cranes nesting in the wetlands of the Pitt Polder. They named the month of March after these cranes because that is when they arrived from California to breed here. For the Katzie people, the tall, elegant cranes were their guardian spirits.

Unfortunately, these wetlands, like so many in the lower Fraser valley, have now mostly been drained and converted to agriculture. By the 1970s, this crane population had diminished to only 20 birds; today, two or three breeding pairs are thought to still use this area and are occasionally seen at DeBoville Slough.

Sandhill cranes, which require nesting areas safe from human disturbance, were also known to nest at Delta's Burns Bog in the past. Now, in the fall, sandhill cranes that have nested further north in B.C. and Alaska use the bog as resting area on their southward migration. Unfortunately, new highway construction on the perimeter of Burns Bog will encroach upon the area they use. It seems the people of B.C. are not good guardians of sandhill cranes.

The one reliable place to view sandhill cranes in the Lower Mainland is the Reifel Bird Sanctuary in Delta. There, in the 1990s, a tame wing-clipped sandhill crane attracted a wild mate from the few birds that migrate through. Although the tame female subsequently died, the male attracted a wild mate and, since that time, this pair has apparently nested every year. They and their offspring stay year-round at Reifel and are joined each fall by wild birds migrating further south.

Seeing a small group of rather tame cranes hardly compares with viewing a half million wild ones but, at least, it is a taste of what we have lost.

Elaine Golds is a Port Moody environmentalist who is vice-president of Burke Mountain Naturalists, chair of the Colony Farm Park Association and past president of the PoMo Ecological Society.