A truly elegant and delightful bird, the sandhill crane visits us every winter. I don’t know if it’s their elusiveness, beauty, or dramatic mating dances that I find so attractive, but I can never seem to get enough of this four foot tall bird. This is the third and final part of my Pacific Flyway series. Here is Part 1 and here is Part 2.
Winter in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta region is not sandy beaches and surfers, that’s southern California. Although we’re not inundated by a million feet of snow and ice like in other parts of the world right now, it is often raining and in the 40s between October and March. It hasn’t rained enough this winter, but that’s another story.
The cranes love our rainy, foggy winters in California’s Sacramento Valley. To a long-legged bird that prefers open grasslands and freshwater marshes, the rice fields in this area are particularly attractive. There are four sub-species of the sandhill cranes and they primarily live in Canada during the warm seasons. In the winter they migrate to warmer climates where they can be seen feeding on their grain-filled diet. We saw over 500 cranes on this visit.
Although cranes are very skittish, the best viewing time is at dawn when they are leaving their nighttime fields to go out feeding for the day. You can also watch them coming in to roost at dusk. There have been many times when I was in the really dense fog, so dense that I could not see the cranes, but I could still hear them. The sound is sort of like a gobbling turkey, but with bugling and rattling. If you stand there long enough, soggy and dripping, they eventually descend through the fog and become visible just as they’re landing. By then it’s too dark for photos, but you can marvel in their invisible cloaking act. I am happy to say I still have their familiar sounds in my mind from our recent rendezvous. Here’s a recording.
On the last morning of our crane adventure, all three of my mates were photographing so I volunteered to drive them around, a sort of crane safari. We found six or seven cranes in a field with picturesque morning light and stopped immediately, set up the equipment. Because of the nature of sandhill cranes, the birds were quite far away and, as usual, tricky to photograph. We parked as close as possible, separated from the field by a deep levy.
I’m not a photographer. In fact the dozen or so photos you have seen in this 3 part series have all been by my partner Athena. But I was content to stay quiet, observing, while my mates recorded the crane activity. There was no wind this morning, so our friend with the video camera could do some decent videography; while the two photographers stood at their tripods patiently clicking away.
We stayed here for two hours. In that time dozens more cranes came in, gingerly stepping across the watery field, as you can see in this photograph. One crane at a time, they walked through the water lifting their legs high, in order to eat on the other side of the field. All three photographers quietly worked at their skills, changing positions and lenses, recording the grace and wonder of these lovely birds.
I stood elevated on the car’s running board with binoculars, watching raptors perch for hunting, becoming overly-familiar with the car roof. Ducks and geese filled the air, honking endlessly, and a giant flock of red-winged blackbirds flashed in the sunlight, gurgling their melodic meadow song.
Then a rather spastic jackrabbit came on the scene. He raced past us on the levy, first down the field, then back up again, did this a few times in fierce pursuit. He seemed to think that every occasional passing car was chasing him. He was too fast to photograph but we had a fun laugh watching him. The last time he shot past us we caught the glint of his pink ears, translucent in the morning sun.
As he disappeared behind a thatch of tall reeds, I vowed to come back again next year, as I have for the last 21 winters.