From October through February, thousands of the large cranes return to California’s Central Valley near Lodi to spend the winter foraging dormant farmlands and their open grasslands, meadows and marshes. The return of the sandhill cranes attracts equally large numbers of people to watch one of nature’s most magnificent creatures, beginning with the Sandhill Crane Festival, Nov. 2 and 3 in Lodi.
Jane Adams, a Sandhill Crane Reserve volunteer docent, says she had never seen a bird this large “up-close-and-personal” until she saw her first fly-in of sandhill cranes. That’s when the birds land in the water each night. She knew then and there that, “they were something special.”
On many return visits, Adams came to learn and appreciated their distinctive call (a deep rolling trumpet and rattle) and fascinating behaviors, including dancing, bowing, jumping, running, stick or grass tossing and wing flapping, often all part of a mating ritual, but mostly a normal part of their development, relieving tension, thwarting aggression and bonding with their mates.
Greater sandhill cranes stand three to five feet tall, weigh between 9 and 10 pounds and have a wing span of five to six feet. Both genders look alike, though males are a bit larger. These ancient (2.5 million-year-old fossils have been found), grey-brown birds with white cheeks and a splash of red across their foreheads are magnificent flyers. Their large wings pump fluidly and purposefully as they soar, aloft, covering great distances in a day. Upon landing, they stand on black, stilt-like legs, often lifting their long, pointed beaks toward the sky as they dance or call to one another.
Mated pairs of sandhill cranes do what’s called unison calling, in which one crane starts the call by trumpeting a sharp “Caw.” The other crane replies with a rolling rattle “a-r-r-r-r-oo”. The two calls come together like the swimming pool game of Marco Polo in a quick succession of “Caw/a-r-r-r-r-oo, Caw/a-r-r-r-r-oo, Caw/a-r-r-r-r-oo.”
A pair of sandhill cranes will stay together, year round. They live to as old as 20, dining on a diet of plant tubers, grains, insects, mice and snakes. Area farmers help the migration by not turning their fields, which means corn, grain, and bugs remain plentiful, attracting the cranes. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife further helps by pumping water onto farmlands within the Woodbridge Ecological Reserve/Isenberg Sandhill Crane Reserve, to provide a safe place for nighttime roosting (since the birds cannot roost in trees).
While a twilight fly-in is a favorite time to view the cranes, another special moment to be at the reserve is at first light. The day begins quietly, then the cranes begin their distinctive unison calls breaking the morning stillness which Adams describes as, “breathtaking.” After spending the day foraging on surrounding fields, the cranes return to the marshes at sunset. In addition to sandhill cranes, snow geese, many kinds of ducks, white faced Ibis, and stilts are common, as are hawks and owls, though Adams explains, “Once you’ve seen sandhill cranes, they’re very easy to identify on the ground or in flight.”
The best viewing occurs at the Woodbridge/Isenberg reserve where interpretative signs and a viewing mound provides elevated views of the birds. For the best viewing experience, birders recommend limiting movement, keeping at least 400 yards distant, being quiet and patient. Binoculars or spotting scopes help with seeing the birds closer. Adams said to expect crowds during the festival and while that might bother you, she says “the birds don’t seem to mind.”
Sandhill crane volunteers lead tours and share information regarding conservation, crane behavior, and how visitors to the reserve can help protect California wildlife. Adams said, “The docents come from a variety of backgrounds, though we all share a love of cranes. People interested in volunteering can contact David W. Moore Interpretive Services Supervisor for the CDF&W Bay Delta Region at 707-766-8380.
Viewing sandhill cranes is just one of the activities occurring at the Lodi Sandhill Crane Festival (Hutchins St. Square, Nov. 2 and 3). In addition to guided field trips to see the cranes, there’ll be seminars, art shows, performances and wildlife presentations. The festival also includes a number of fun activities for kids that excite them about nature. Admission to the festival is free. Sandhill Crane tours cost $15 adult, $10 youth and $5 child and should be reserved now, as they fill quickly (http://www.cranefestival.com/tours.php). More about the Sandhill Crane Festival is found at cranefestival.com.
From October through February, the Woodbridge Ecological Reserve/Isenberg Sandhill Crane Reserve is open daily. It’s located 45 minutes south of Sacramento off I-5 at Peltier Rd. Tours of its South and North units are held the first three weekends of each month, by reservation (http://www.dfg.ca.gov/CraneReg/default.aspx). Tours are now full through December, though reservations for January tours open in mid-November. Greater and lesser sandhill cranes can also be seen at Sacramento County’s Cosumnes River Preserve (cosumnes.org).
John Poimiroo of El Dorado Hills is a travel writer who specializes in California destinations.