By Jean Jackman
What’s there not to like about sandhill cranes? They are huge, 3 to 4 feet high, and easy to identify. They dance year -round. Their unusual rattle/bugle/gargled call can be heard for more than a mile. Their majestic 6- to 7-foot wingspan is impressive.
I am drawn to revisit them each year. See them now, as it is almost time for them to migrate north to nesting grounds. October and November is actually the best time to view them when they come here to winter, but I saw them close-up just a week ago.
There is an efficient way to see them close up. Forget the sign-up-months-in-advance tour. You can leave Davis for the Lodi area at 3:30 p.m. and get close-up viewing by traveling to the Woodbridge Ecological Reserve/Isenberg Sandhill Crane Reserve, where you will see large tour groups.
Drive right on past and travel slowly down Woodbridge Road. Look closely for groups/families of cranes foraging in fields. Then stop and use your binoculars through your open car window. You probably will see birds at closer range than those viewed by the tour group. Drive all the way down to the dead end (6 miles) and back again.
As darkness falls, this is the good time to go to the tour staging area. Families of cranes will fly in gradually from all directions to roost together in a nearby pond. The sounds send shivers up my spine. In the west, Mount Diablo is the distant backdrop as the big birds come flying in.
This year, my viewing was greatly enriched because on Feb. 2, I attended the Yolo Basin Foundation’s Flyway Night Lecture series for an evening with crane biologist Paul Tebbel. His presentation gave me a totally different way of watching the cranes. He has worked with cranes since 1975 and for 11 years was the manager of the Audubon’s Sanctuary on the Platte River, where 60,000 cranes roost every night during spring migration.
The family unit is the key to sandhill survival and is the key to watching their behavior. Notice that you will usually see three or four birds grouped together: mom, dad and one or two youths.
Dad is usually the one standing at make-himself-real-tall alert. Mom and kids are foraging. These mostly monogamous birds pair bond. One studied couple has been together 26 years.
They can’t perch in trees like egrets and great blue herons, because they don’t have a thumb. So they work as a family unit and roost in groups at night. The parents are the only protectors of the young since they cannot fly. They grow fast and learn everything from the parents, including the migration route.
The cranes are gray with rust stains. The rust color is a result of the cranes painting themselves with iron oxide. They preen it into the feathers and the stain remains as long as the feathers do. This color serves as camouflage, may make them more attractive and keeps parasites down. The young do not paint.
The cranes have red on their heads, which is actually bare skin. They can engorge it with blood when they are unhappy or are going to mate or to signal other cranes.
You don’t usually see a sandhill crane flying solo. One decides to leave and signals the rest by bowing almost horizontal to the ground as if to say, “OK, get ready. I’m about to go. Are you ready? Here we go.” And by the time one flies up, the rest follow.
There is the greater sandhill and the lesser. The greater are mainly the ones around Woodbridge.
Each year I visit, it seems there is less foraging area for the cranes. Thank goodness for the Woodbridge Reserve. The Modesto/Fresno/Galt area is all under pressure for development. It seems a lot of land is being converted to vineyards. And vineyards are useless to cranes.
Greater sandhills, a threatened species, are very traditional about their nesting grounds, so it is troubling to see habitat disappear. Of the 15 species of cranes in the world, almost all are endangered.
This year, at Davis’ West Pond, you can do some pretty amazing birding and watch the hares, river otters and who knows what else. Go to Facebook’s Friends of West Pond page, and you can see the amazing critters they have spotted and admire the beautiful photographs taken by many.
Gene Trapp, biology professor emeritus, and Jo Ellen Ryan, organized the Friends of West Pond, and five years ago the friends planted a hummingbird and butterfly garden.
Feb. 17-20 was the Great Backyard Bird Count. The Friends of West Pond organized two days of counting outings. Twenty people spotted 42 species on one day. Ten Friends of the Pond spotted 46 species the next day. They plan to make this an annual event for all ages. Mark your calendars now for Feb. 15-18, 2013, and check their Facebook page for details so that you, too, can become a part of this great citizen-as-scientist activity.
This year, across Canada and the United States, 605 species were observed. New York submitted the most lists and Canada came in second.
Swainson’s hawks are returning. Ryan spotted one at the pond as well as the first raven there. Alan Jackman spotted a Swainson’s hawk in Covell Park. Almonds are blossoming, daffodils are blooming and fields are greening. Enjoy our early spring and kiss each day.
— Jean Jackman is a Davis resident; her columns are published monthly. Got a comment, question, story? Contact her at [email protected]