Bird watchers are a unique breed. They are willing to brave cold, rainy weather standing for hours with binoculars in hand searching for a bird they have haven’t seen before. They are patient even when they don’t see the species they drove so far to encounter.
On a recent winter day a group of 30 avian enthusiasts bundled up against the chill of California’s Central Valley sipped hot chocolate and wondered where their quarry was. But minutes later their patience was rewarded by the sound of loud trilling from a flock of graceful birds landing in a nearby flooded field.
The Sandhill cranes had arrived and it was all worth it.
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife offers free tours of Sandhill Crane habitat from September through February when the birds are wintering at the Woodbridge Ecological Reserve near Lodi. Volunteer docents lead the excursions which begin in late afternoon when the birds return from foraging and end at sundown.
After hearing a brief talk at an interpretative site, guests caravan by car along a dirt road to a building used as a blind. A former duck club, the structure is surrounded by a fence with viewing ports so that bird watchers can see without disturbing the cranes. The cold conditions are offset by the knowledgeable docents who describe what guests are seeing and have free coffee, hot chocolate and tea available to ward off the chill.
Sandhills are a very old species with a fossil record that dates back 2.5 million years. They predate most living bird species which evolved during the Pleistocene era around 1.8 million years ago. Cranes live in family units and feed no more than two miles from their roost sites. They feed on corn or rice stubble and roost standing in shallow water which acts like an early warning system against predators. The state prepares their winter habitat each year by flooding fields with water from the Mokelumne River
Their long wings give the birds a graceful appearance as they fly in formation and glide into the water. They announce their presence with a deep, almost musical trilling sound used to communicate with family members and delight human onlookers like Kathy Low, a Lodi elementary school teacher and docent for 13 years.
“It’s really magical once you hear the cranes and their call,” she said. “It’s something that kind of sticks with you and is very distinct. You actually hear the cranes before you see them. You look up and gosh there they are.’’
Rich Chambers came to Lodi from Lake Tahoe to see the birds. He is an experienced “birder’’ who was planning to take part in the National Audubon Society’s Christmas bird count this year. He became involved in bird watching when flocks of grosbeaks came into the yard of his former home in North Carolina. “We had a couple of hundred in our yard for the winter and that just kind of got me started,” he said. “It’s fun to go out and see what you can see on a hike.”
Protecting the cranes is part of the department of fish and wildlife‘s work in the 340 acre Woodbridge reserve which also contains other birds including black neck stilts, ducks and snow geese said Interpretative Service Manager David Moore. Visiting the reserve gives the public some idea of what the central valley was like hundreds of years ago, he said.
Tours book up fast and visitors can get tickets two months in advance. If you cannot get tickets online at the department’s website, you can take a chance on any possible cancellations, Moore said. Visitors can also stay at the gathering site for a self-guided tour and view the birds as they fly over. Your chance of getting a good look also depends on the birds themselves who keep to their own time schedule.
When you go, wear layers of warm clothing and rain gear depending upon the weather forecast. Because the birds land a good distance from the blind, a strong set of binoculars or a spotting scope is a necessity. But then most bird watchers already know that.