There’s a truly rare event now underway at the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, and staff there do not want you to come see.
A pair of sandhill cranes built a nest and hatched one or two eggs in the refuge. That’s extremely unusual for sandhill cranes, which are known to stop off in Ridgefield while migrating to California, but usually return to the British Columbia coast for nesting, according to project manager Eric Anderson of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
This is only the third known “nesting attempt” by cranes anywhere in the lower Columbia River region, Anderson said. Even rarer, refuge staff have been able to watch the attempt score at least one success.
“We saw the nest, we saw an egg or maybe two, and we’ve had the good fortune to see the young,” Anderson said.
What can’t be determined by peering from a distance at a waterborne nest protected by tall grasses is whether there are two crane babies or just one, he said.
Anderson and the rest of the refuge staff are staying a good distance away from the rare birds. Trails and other facilities in the refuge just reopened this weekend after months of closure because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the particular trail that goes near the nest — which we won’t name here — will stay closed and be monitored for crane-curious scofflaws, he said.
Why all the secrecy and security? Anderson said sandhill cranes are on the state endangered species list, with a total population in Washington of about 50,000 — and perhaps as few as 5,000 of the Canadian subspecies that’s nesting in Ridgefield now.
Famous for flocking in huge numbers while migrating, sandhill cranes become reclusive and shy when nesting, he said.
“They tear off from the flock with a life mate and find a spot to start nesting,” Anderson said. They build nests out of moss, sticks and other vegetation in shallow water. Sometimes the nests even float.
“Cranes often lay two eggs but a lot of times they don’t raise any young,” Anderson said. The eggs incubate for 28 to 32 days, he said, and then the hatchlings — called “colts” — take 10 more weeks to thrive and fly on their own.
It’s a precarious period for the whole crane family. A nest that’s an island in the water is protected from certain four-footed predators, like raccoons, but it remains vulnerable to plenty more, including coyotes, minks, eagles and owls, Anderson said. Frequent disturbance of a nest can result in total abandonment.
“They look at humans as another predator to worry about,” he said. “I want all their attention to be on the colts and any actual predators. I want to give them the space to be successful.”
If they are successful, Anderson said, “the same pair could come back to that immediate area and try again next year. Generally, male offspring come back to the area where they hatched. It’s imprinted on them that this is their home. This could be the seed of the future here.”
That’s why Anderson hopes you’ll adopt true family values and stay away from the cranes — despite their incredible good looks.
“They’re majestic. They’re stately. They’re big birds, great parents, particularly intelligent. They dance,” he said. “I’ve been drawn to them over the years.”
Catching, banding and releasing sandhill cranes at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Oregon nearly 30 years ago is what convinced Anderson to pursue a career in biology and wildlife management, he said.
“I’ve only worked with wintering birds at Ridgefield, until now,” he said. “To have this nesting bird was entirely unforeseen. It’s a huge capstone to my career.”
Did those highly sensitive cranes decide to settle down in the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge because, due to its pandemic closure, the place is more peaceful and less visited now?
Very likely, Anderson said.
“I suspect the cranes would have nested somewhere around here, and they took the opportunity because it happened to be quiet,” he said. “It could have been two wetlands over, if not for the situation we’re in.”
Here in Clark County and all around the world, some wildlife watchers say they’ve noted a resurgence of birds and animals thanks to a sudden reduction in noise, pollution and travel around the landscape. National media have highlighted animals having the run of shuttered national parks for a few weeks now; Anderson has seen evidence of that in Ridgefield.
“Clearly the birds are acting slightly different,” he said. “I notice an abundance of poop on the road. The birds are picking grit off the road. That’s nothing beyond casual observation, but everything is upside-down now.”
Wilson Cady, an expert local birder and Vancouver Audubon Society officer, agreed that there might be anecdotal evidence of bird resurgence in quieter public places, but that might also be balanced by fewer birds in busier private spaces.
“The nesting season has just begun and any changes in bird populations will not be apparent immediately and perhaps not at all,” he wrote in an email. “There will be less disturbance of nesting birds in some public areas, but there will also be increased human activity in urban and suburban areas, with people recreating at home and spending more time working in our yards and gardens.”
Data is being collected on the pandemic’s effect on birds by the University of Washington Quantitative Ecology Lab, Cady said, but it will take another year to reach any real conclusions. If you would like to volunteer to help the effort before this end of this month by logging local bird sightings, visit https://ebird.org/pnw/news/impact-of-social-distancing-on-bird-activity.
Pamela Gunn, a birder who lives on Officers Row, said she’s enjoyed a definite bird resurgence on the Fort Vancouver campus thanks to fewer people, deferred mowing and the quiet of nearby highways.
“I noticed a dramatic change in the air, which no longer had a petroleum smell but instead was sweet and clean,” she wrote in an email. “The very next thing I noticed was an influx of more singing and migrating species. It has been fantastic.”