Eagle kills crane at birding festival

Posted: Friday, May 15, 2009

HOMER - A Homer resident opened her picturesque farm to bird-lovers hoping for a close-up view of sandhill cranes, but was horrified when one of the elegant birds was attacked and killed by a bald eagle.

Mossy Kilcher last week had opened her Seaside Farm for a 7 a.m. breakfast event, "Cranes and Croissants," part of the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival.

Kilcher, a lifelong Homer resident, has welcomed cranes to her farm overlooking the sea for 30 years. She gives presentations on nesting songbirds and a crane bird tour.

"They come here to photograph the cranes, and several had already arrived," Kilcher said. "Someone saw the eagle on the crane, blood and feathers everywhere. But it was too late by the time I saw what happened."

Kilcher said many people don't believe eagles will take an adult crane, which can weigh up to 14 pounds. However, cranes are more vulnerable on the ground, with their slow takeoff time to get airborne.

"There are more and more cranes every year, and there are also more eagles who harass them," Kilcher said. "They were dive-bombing, trying to get this one pair, but hadn't succeeded."

The attacking eagle was one of two that seem habituated to humans, Kilcher said. Nothing she does intimidates them.

"This pair is particularly aggressive, and they finally got a crane," she said. "Most (eagles) are shy, but these seem very used to humans. They fly several feet from me, over my head."

The same pair, she said, likely are the culprits that recently killed chickens and pheasants. To see them dive-bomb cranes was new.

Visitors who arrived for "Cranes and Croissant" didn't get to see many cranes. They did, however, get a poignant view of the dead crane's mate circling and calling.

"It took off down East End (Road) and came back a few minutes later," Kilcher said. "They mate for life, and sometimes they don't ever mate again. That's the sad thing about it."

Kilcher fears the killing will keep cranes from returning in their usual numbers. Since the event, she has not seen many cranes in her fields.

"For the past 30 years, they trusted me to be safe," she said. "Cranes are intelligent. They don't return to places, for example, where they've been shot at."

Kilcher said she has counted up to 20 eagles on the beach, playing with shorebirds in what seems to be games of "cat and mouse."

When she was growing up in the same area, she said, eagles didn't behave that way. Every spring, they took off to remote locations, not sticking around and waiting for an easy meal.

Kilcher reported the incident to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Beyond that, she was not sure what she can do to protect the cranes from predation.

"I really want to have the cranes trust my place and come here," she said.

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