I had the pleasure of recently visiting what Northern Californians call “The Delta.” It’s been a winter with abundant rain, and we saw thousands of sandhill cranes.
The Delta is a low-lying valley at the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers. Known for its fertile land, many agricultural crops are grown here; but in the winter, the fields are empty and only stubble remains.
Winter rain accumulations flood the open fields, and this is where cranes can be found. Simply slowing down and driving the back roads brought us endless delights.
Antigone canadensis spend their winter living in this mild venue, from about November to February, then head north. In February, they return to northern North America and northeastern Siberia to breed.
Primarily herbivorous, sandhill cranes prefer shallow wetlands with vegetation; they can be seen congregating in the fields, probing their long, strong bills into the flooded waters as they search for seeds and sometimes insects, frogs, or other fare.
They are tall birds, ranging in height from 41 to 48 inches (104-122 cm). Wingspan is 73-84″ (185-213 cm).
In spite of the birds’ tall stature, their light, sand-colored bodies easily camouflage. They blend into the fields.
At first all we saw was a few dozen cranes, here and there; easy to see with the levee water as a backdrop. Dazzling birds, so elegant and stately.
As birders, we scan with our binoculars constantly. The sky, telephone lines, and in this setting, the fields. Scanning, always scanning.
That’s how we found a huge, nearly invisible flock. We had come to the end of a back road, entertained by many birds.
Then with a gasp, Athena spotted a quiet flock of 2,500 cranes.
Staying quiet and standing behind the car to avoid disturbing them, we soaked up the bliss of this crane abundance for nearly an hour, listened appreciatively to their trumpeting sounds. In that time, six other cars came and went without ever noticing the large flock.
The flock didn’t photograph well, so spread out, hazy light.
Our journey to the Delta was later in the crane season this year, and it was easy to see they would be returning to their breeding grounds soon. Mating dances had started up.
This male was demonstrating his prowess by picking up dirt clods, tossing them in the air, and then fluttering skillfully into suspended animation.
How fortunate to find thousands of cranes, cavorting in the fields, safe in their winter home, fattening up before they make the long and arduous flight to their breeding grounds.
Written by Jet Eliot.
Photos by Athena Alexander.