GETTING OUT: Sandhill cranes can turn you into a bird-watcher

"In late September, 250,000 sandhill cranes return to the delta

Bird-watchers are dedicated. They compile life lists of species
they have seen, and they know the meaning of words like scapulars,
coverts and primaries. I am not a birdwatcher, but, now and then, I
do watch them
Bird-watchers are dedicated. They compile life lists of species they have seen, and they know the meaning of words like scapulars, coverts and primaries. I am not a birdwatcher, but, now and then, I do watch them — usually as part of a visit to a wetland where unusual birds congregate. Last Sunday, for the first time ever, I drove two hours just to see one particular species.

In late September, 250,000 sandhill cranes return to the delta and the Central Valley for winter. For several winters, I have wanted to go see them. Such an elegant and exotic bird in migratory hordes would be a special sight. Not knowing where the best viewing might be, I turned to Google and decided to head for the Woodbridge Ecological Reserve (a.k.a. Isenberg Sandhill Crane Reserve) just off Interstate 5 north of Stockton.

Finally, a wildlife viewing opportunity that doesn’t require a painful predawn schedule. In fact, the curtain goes up on the sandhill crane spectacle around sunset. During the day, the cranes feed in nearby farm fields and cruise the delta. But at sunset, many return to the wetlands at the preserve to roost for the night.

Fifteen miles north of Stockton, I exited Interstate 5 at Turner Road. A quick right and a quick left put me on Thornton Road. At the next stop sign, I turned left onto Woodbridge Road. Two miles out Woodbridge Road is a turnout onto the lookout point at the preserve. My heart sank. Beyond the fence, I saw only a sparse population of ducks, floating motionless like decoys in a shallow wetland. No cranes or other exotic wintering birds.

Back in the car, I explored further down Woodbridge Road. This lonely dead-end, two-lane road is bounded by a random succession of wetlands and disked farmland. Browsing in one of these empty fields, I saw my first group of cranes. These long-necked elegant birds are entirely gray except for the distinctive red crown. They might be confused with similar appearing herons and egrets. Unlike herons and egrets, though, cranes fly with their necks outstretched, not pulled back.

It soon became clear that everyone on this road was here for the same reason I was. Since Woodbridge Road has no shoulder and few pull-out areas, people cruise slowly up and down, stopping in the road where they choose to look, while other cars wishing to pass simply roll carefully by.

So on, the outline of the Coast Range to the west cut a crisp line across the sunset’s afterglow. Slowly, the activity overhead grew and grew. The sky became a chaotic mass of flying avian V’s criss-crossing overhead and in every direction. When I would sight nearby low-flying birds through my binoculars, I always saw masses of birds flying behind them far beyond the range of my naked eyesight.

And the sound; a lovely racket of bugling and honking rang out near and far. I watched snow geese, tundra swans, and thousands of sandhill cranes continually descend into the wetland by the side of the road. Individually, cranes and swans are beautiful, but, by the thousands, the power of their life force rocked me to the core. The birds weren’t “over there.” I was fully in their midst. The viewing was best when I put down the camera and the binoculars, leaned against the car and just watched.

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