Central Valley

Sandhill cranes pay annual visit to Central California

Two sandhill cranes show their wings in the wetlands near Los Banos.
Two sandhill cranes show their wings in the wetlands near Los Banos. Merced Sun-Star photo by Marci Stenberg

The sandhills are proper characters. They're early to bed, early to rise; setting their body rhythms to the sun. They're loyal mates, generally committing for life. And their perfect posture never wavers, staying straight-spined even during flight.

The sandhills aren't upper-crust Londoners, they're birds; specifically, cranes. And they are one of the highlights among waterfowl now settling into the Sacramento area as part of the annual winter migration.

"The fly-in is very spectacular to view," said Jeff Rhoades, outreach coordinator for the 46,000-acre Cosumnes River Preserve, just south of Sacramento. "It's a natural fireworks show."

California's Central Valley is part of the Pacific Flyway, a bird migration route spanning the area from Alaska to Mexico and hosting 60 percent of the country's wintering waterfowl and 20 percent of the entire U.S. waterfowl population, said Vanessa Martin of the Nature Conservancy.

The Merced National Wildlife Refuge, with approximately 20,000 cranes and 60,000 arctic nesting geese, hosts the largest wintering populations of the birds along the Pacific Flyway, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

Staten Island, the southwest point of the Cosumnes preserve, is believed to be the winter base for 15 percent of the region's sandhill cranes, which start arriving in September and are gone by April. The red-crowned birds emit a cacophony of guttural calls, can stand 5 feet tall and drift softly to the ground from flight, their feet deployed like landing gear.

At sunset, flocks of them descend on area waters, choosing to sleep afloat so the sounds of splashing can alert them to predators such as coyotes, said Rhoades.

They are gone in a winged frenzy at dawn, when they set out for the area's corn, wheat and rice fields to pick at residual grains, Rhoades said.

The greater sandhill subspecies of the cranes is considered threatened, with an estimated 7,000 in California, according to Rhoades. That is up from a low of 3,000 but still far from the 17,000 in its heyday. There are probably about 30,000 other sandhills that also winter in the region, Rhoades said.

The sandhill's civilized demeanor; the bird even takes a post-lunch siesta; doesn't make it everyone's favorite. Rhoades prefers the smaller black-and-white bufflehead; a distinctive-looking duck; because it's always easy to identify and dives underwater for its food, unlike other ducks that tend to leave their rears above water when feeding.

Holden Brink, wetlands manager with the federal Bureau of Land Management, picks the greater white-fronted goose, with its characteristic white face, as his favorite among the estimated 170 different species that use the Pacific Flyway.

There are tens of thousands of the geese at the Cosumnes preserve, compared with 1,000 sandhill cranes, he said.

"They're very normal," he said of the geese. "And they make my management efforts here look successful."

Conservation efforts keep waterfowl returning to the Central Valley, although they are just a small percentage of the estimated 30 million birds that visited the region's 4.5 million acres of wetlands in the mid-1800s, according to Marie Strassburger, regional migratory bird chief for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

Today, an average of 5.5 million birds use the remaining 5 percent of historic wetlands, she said.

Wildlife biologist Dan Airola counted 75 species of birds in almost five hours Tuesday at the Stone Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in Elk Grove on the final day of the National Audubon Society-sponsored Christmas bird count.

"It was a little cold, but you get used to it," Airola said. "I'm pretty much a fan of all birds, except some of the non-native exotic ones."