The magnificent migratory sandhill cranes made an earlier than usual fall return to their seasonal wetland habitats in the Central Valley.
On Aug. 25, the first sightings occurred in north San Joaquin County when Department of Fish and Game (DFG) Wetland Tour Program docent Esther Milnes-Schmierer, spotted a group of eight to 10 cranes feeding. Shortly after that, other sightings were reported.
In prior years, devoted bird enthusiasts could expect their first sightings in mid-September. With the August arrival, 2012 has turned out to be a very special year.
“I think 2012 sets a record for earliest arrival,” said the International Crane Foundation’s Western Conversation Manager Gary Ivey. “It has been a very dry year for cranes in their breeding areas and that may be why they left early.”
In 2000, Ivey conducted an extensive survey of distribution of greater sandhill crane pairs in California. At the time, he reported a total of 465 pairs recorded at 127 sites, an increase of 68 percent from a statewide survey in 1988. He plans to pursue another study this year.
With their large, silver-feathered stature and red crowns, sandhill cranes provide attractive wildlife watching for California’s growing ranks of birders. The social interactions seen and heard within crane communities hold a fascination for people of all ages.
By mid-September, the birds will be appearing in larger numbers with public viewing available at DFG’s Woodbridge Ecological Reserve and Cosumnes River Preserve near Lodi.
DFG will also be offering scheduled tours the first three weekends of each month from October through February. Registration is available online at dfg.ca.gov/delta/cranetour/. DFG recommends that interested parties plan in advance. A donation of $10 per adult is suggested.