Friday, December 14, 2012

An Avian Celebration: Lodi Sandhill Crane Festival, 2012

Sandhill cranes arrive at their roosting place. In the background: Mt. Diablo.
Place: Lodi, California
Festival date: Nov. 2-3, 2012

Last year I found out about the annual Sandhill Crane Festival in Lodi, about two weeks after it was over. So when the fall of 2012 came around, I remembered and registered with my family to four of the field trips offered at the festival.
We arrived at Lodi on Friday night and stayed their until Sunday afternoon. It was a perfect weekend - the weather was sunny and warm, the activities were well organized and interesting, and most important - the birds cooperated in full and showed up in large quantity and diversity. Even our quail chikas were at their best behavior and we all had a lovely time.
So this post is one of the occasional 'no hiking but lots of birds' posts, where Mamma Quail shows off her feathered friends in Nature. We did get some good ideas for places to hike, though, sometime in the future. For now it's just birds. You can click on the photos to get a large view.

Saturday, Nov. 3, 2012,
We woke up early in the morning, gulped down some quick breakfast and hurried to Hutchins Street Square to join the group going on the Birding Hot Spots tour. Our guide, a knowledgeable bird watcher named Scott, took us to three places around Lodi. The first of which was the White Slough Wildlife Area, at the White Slough water treatment facility (38.0932, -121.3876). 

White Slough
Next to the facility there are several ponds, and all were teeming with birds, mostly waders.
Some were solitary,
Black-necked stilt
and some in groups:
American avocet
and some were standing on the side.
Greater Yellowlegs
In the nearby field awaited a surprise prize - a Merlin standing over its kill. Merlins appear as a rare winter visitor on the bird list we were furnished with at the Festival, so we were lucky indeed to have spotted one.
A merlin after a successful hunt
The merlin wasn't the only raptor there. On  the power line pole on the other side of the pond sat a peregrine falcon. Shortly, another one came flying across the pond.
Peregrine falcon (pacific, juvenile)
After White Slough we visited one of the local wineries whose name I unfortunately forgot (38.14436, -121.38777). The winery is a private property that is closed to the public, but they do allow the festival's prearranged tours to go in and walk around.
The first bird we've seen there was very conspicuous - a big black swan waddled towards us, stretching and curling her long neck in territorial gestures. Later we saw two others in the local pond. They, of course, are no native birds.
Imported black swans
Even before seeing any of the local birds I spotted this pretty spider who quickly run off its web and tried to pose as a leaf:

We didn't have to look very hard for birds. They were everywhere.
Great-tailed grackle
The winery garden has a system of ponds and sloughs surrounded by lush vegetation, some native like the tule grass and some ornamental. It was definitely a hot spot for birds. Each tree had at least one bird, or more decorating it.
Say's phoebe
Cedar waxwing is one of my favorites. They are very sleek and this one even has a sly look :-)
Cedar waxwing
The third hot spot we went too on this tour was Lodi Lake park (38.1500, -121.2904). We were almost out of time so we only walked there a little. There were fewer birds there, probably because it was nearing noon time and there were many people there. Still, we did see there one bird we haven't met before: the White-throated Sparrow:
White-throated sparrow

After the tour we had lunch and rested. By the afternoon we were ready for the big attraction of the festival: the big Crane Fly-in. 

At 4:45 we were on the tour bus going to Woodbridge Road. West of I-5 Woodbridge Road stretches between open fields and dead-ends by the Mokelumne River. Some of this fields are flooded yearly to provide roosting place for the Sandhill Cranes. Our guide, Carol, stopped the bus near one of these fields. It was still early in the afternoon and we stepped outside to look at the inhabitants of the field.  There were many dowitchers there. This long-billed waders are named after the sawing machine because of the constant up-down movement of their needle-like bill in and out of the water as they forage.
Long-billed Dowitcher
We watched the dowitchers for some time, then continued to the flooded fields further down Woodbridge Road (38.15752, -121.44498) and waited for the cranes.
38.15754, -121.44511

Last year we flew all the way to New Mexico to see the famed spectacle in Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge and failed, because we arrive there a day after a huge blizzard and the place was snowed-in throughout our stay there.
This year, however, it was a different story altogether.
Sandhill cranes - a family trio
Sandhill cranes arrive at the San Joaquin valley at the beginning of fall. Some continue all the way to Mexico, but many of the over winter in California.
The fly-in: a large flock approaching. 
During day time, the cranes feed in the valley fields. They are omnivorous and will eat vegetation, crops and small animals. They need open wetlands and open fields for feeding and roosting. Wetland in California has decreased dramatically in the past century, and crane population has dropped considerably because of that. Lately, more and more farms around Lodi are transforming into vineyards, which are incompatible with crane habitat. This trend jeopardize the cranes even more.
Cranes fly with both neck and legs stretched out.
These cranes can live for many decades - I was surprised to learn that some individuals were documented to live up to 80 years. That's like a human lifespan.
The crane family life also resemble that of humans - the sandhill cranes do 'marry' in a process that involved early age dating, courtship and leading a monogamous, years long relationship. They were thought to mate 'for life', but that too, is like humans - with incidents of adultery, divorces and swaps not too uncommon.
Cranes at sunset
It was there then that we learned that two subspecies of sandhill cranes over winter in California - the greater sandhill cranes who tower to 6 ft and of which only about 4000 individuals remain, and the more common lesser sandhill crane who are smaller and more adaptable. In the picture below there are there are both subspecies
Greater (left) and Lesser (right) sandhill cranes at the flooded fields
As the daylight waned they were coming more and more, and their cackling filled the air. They weren't the only birds to make use of the flooded fields. The place was also packed with ducks, geese, and even tundra swans. At some point a young bald eagle showed up and all of the ducks and geese rose to the air in a large and noisy cloud. The cranes and swans remained on the ground. There were many of them there.
Roosting in the water protects the cranes from land predators. When I heard my chikas pretend-play to be cranes I suggested they sleep standing up in a half-filled bath tub. Needless to say, they did not buy my idea.
Greater and Lesser sandhill cranes getting ready for the night
My biggest challenge in writing this post was to select the photos. In the age of digital cameras and large memory cards I had hundreds of great shots to choose from. I wish I could post them all.

Mt. Diablo, orange sunset and cranes. Truly poetic.
That night we went to bed early. The following morning we would go on a river cruise.

On Sunday, Nov. 4 at 7:30 am we were driving with our tour-mates to the river marina where we were split into two boats and set for the Mokelumne river. Our boat driver and guide, Jacky, took us into the nooks and crannies of the river delta, close to the trees at the river banks and among tule reeds and water hyacinth floating islets.

Tule bunches provide perfect hidings and perching spots for black phoebes and blackbirds.
The water was calm and peaceful. It was very lulling indeed.

Water Hyacinth originates in China and is an invasive species. It spreads quickly and clogs the waterways.

It also provides a good perch for the Snowy Egret:
Snowy Egret

It was on this tour where we got to see many kinds of heron. Green herons and night herons were quite numerous, standing in groups of 3 or 4 in the bushes by the water.
Green Heron

The largest member of the family - a great blue heron perched on a bridge:
Great Blue Heron

While herons made the majority of the birds we've encountered on the cruise, we were also treated by the appearance of a northern harrier: a graceful, long-tailed raptor that glided near our boat, swooping by slowly in search of voles.
Northern Harrier, adult male

It was a very peaceful and enjoyable cruise. This flock of tundra swans, their long necks stretched, flew above our heads in a perfect V. It was all that was needed to complete the pastoral dream we were cruising in.
Tundra Swans in commute
The 90 minutes we had between lunch and our final tour of the festival we spent at the Hutchins Street Square, exploring the art and information exhibits and merchant stands, and watching the chikas engage in the numerous children activities that were offered. There were also lectures and performances that we didn't get a chance to see. Much of the activities as well as the tour guiding and the organization of the festival itself was undertaken by docents and volunteers of the Lodi Sandhill Crane Association, and supported by the California Dept. of Fish and Game. At this point I want to extend my thanks to all of the people who made the festival such an enjoyable and educating experience for me and my family!

We went on our last tour, Crane Roving, with Gary Ivey, an expert on Sandhill cranes. We went to the same area in Woodbridge road to observe the cranes during day time. They were not difficult to find - nearly every open field was spotted with cranes.
Sandhill cranes, grazing
Sandhill cranes, like humans, are omnivorous. They eat many kinds of vegetation as well as small animals. When foraging in the fields they look very much like a flock of grazing goats. It is easy to tell the juvenile cranes from the adults - only the adults have the red 'cap' on their heads.
Cranes in the fields
These cranes breed in Alaska. A couple of cranes normally raise only one chick at a time. The female lays two eggs and one of the chicks usually kills the other. If food is plenty, the couple will split and each would take responsibility to raise one chick, thus bringing up both. The juvenile cranes will hung around their parents for some time, until the parents are ready to breed again and give them the boot. Juveniles will then form groups of their own until they are mature enough to breed themselves.
Cranes in flight - outstretched are the long legs and long neck - an unmistakable form.
We saw a lot more than just cranes. Here's an eagle in a cloud of blackbirds:

Being a ground bird myself, I am always impressed by the agility of expert fliers like these blackbirds and their ability to coordinate their movements together in such large groups:
A cloud of blackbirds
Another interesting bird - an ibis, easy to recognize by its sickle bill.
White-faced Ibis
The same flooded fields where the cranes roost at night were heavily populated even during day time. Of all the birds in the water I was mostly impressed with the huge and ever so graceful tundra swans.
Tundra Swans
It doesn't take much to saw panic among the water fowl - all it takes is for one eagle to fly by.
Bald Eagle, juvenile
When we were done, it felt like the festival was over too soon. On our way back home I was already planning our Thanksgiving vacation to continue on the theme of migratory birds. I could not wait to return to the California Central Valley and its rich diversity of wintering birds.


  1. so many birds...
    it's magnificent :-)

    Somehow I never think of birds migrating in America. In my mind it's always the Europe-Africa rout.

    1. To quote another traveler, a very famous one: Every planet has a North!
      And so do continents :-)