Sandhill crane viewings near Lodi, California

This post covers several visits to the area near the Woodbridge Ecological Reserve, also known as the Isenberg Sandhill Crane Reserve, a sandhill crane viewing area near Lodi, California. These magnificent birds, and others, overwinter in this area. There are roosting areas near the South site of the reserve, and a viewing shelter on the North site; the latter is accessible only during docent-led tours. Around sundown the cranes return to the roosting areas from their more widespread feeding activities, and the crane fly-in is quite spectacular to see. There are a number of other bird species in the area, some of which, like the cranes, have come from their northern breeding grounds to spend the winter.

I have previously seen sandhill cranes during summertime visits with family in Wisconsin. Those sightings were unexpected opportunities to briefly observe these striking birds.

My first visit to the Woodbridge Ecological Reserve was with a docent-led tour and was a good introduction to the cranes, as well as a daylight viewing opportunity. The introduction to sandhill cranes included some demonstrations with a model crane, dubbed Ichabod. In this picture one of the other tour members and I posed with Ichabod at the viewing shelter.

picture of Ichabod the Crane and two friends

Ichabod the Crane and two friends

Perhaps since the tour was near mid-day when the cranes were mainly elsewhere feeding, we actually didn’t see many cranes. A couple of people had spotting scopes, though, which facilitated seeing other birds, such as black-necked stilts (Himantopus mexicanus).

photo of black-necked stilt

Black-necked stilt

It is worth noting that the Stockton River delta wetlands provide a large area of freshwater marsh wintering habitat, both for sandhill cranes and for other waterfowl. The South site of the reserve includes several ponds that are irrigated with water from nearby Sycamore Slough during the winter months specifically to provide water habitat for the sandhhill cranes, whose numbers in California have dropped so low that they were listed as threatened in 1983.

Since that first visit I have returned twice near sunset to observe the daily fly-in. On one of those occasions I had hiked earlier in the day in Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve and, when I finished my hike, I pleasantly realized that my onward route to Truckee would pass right by the reserve. On the way, I drove along part of the Sacramento River and passed a portion of a large farm of wind-power windmills.

image of part of a windmill farm along the Sacramento River

Part of a windmill farm along the Sacramento River

On both of my late-afternoon visits, I had some daylight time to do some birding prior to sunset. This picture shows three white swans along with some geese. The swans are tundra swans (Cygnus columbianus), with distinctive black bills. They breed in the high tundra at the far north of North America and overwinter in California’s Central Valley.

picture of tundra swan

Tundra swan

As I drove out and back on Woodbridge Rd I noticed a hawk-like bird perched on a power pole and stopped for pictures. It stayed still for long enough for me to get several pictures to assist with identification (I’m not an expert on identifying birds of prey). I think this is a juvenile sharp-shinned hawk (Accipiter striatus), based on the coloring, the streaks on the breast, and the distinctly yellow eye.

photo of juvenile sharp-shinned hawk

Juvenile sharp-shinned hawk

I also noticed a ring-necked pheasant (Phasianus colchicus) walking in the brush next to the road, nicely illuminated by the late-afternoon sun.

image of ring-necked pheasant

Ring-necked pheasant

Although the main fly-in seems to happen right at sunset, there were some sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis) feeding in the fields. Here is a close-up of one.

picture of sandhill crane

Sandhill crane

Other cranes were in pond areas and made pretty reflections.

photo of sandhill cranes

Sandhill cranes

There were brown-colored geese everywhere, it seemed (for example, with the tundra swans), with distinctive white patches on the front of their faces. These white patches, along with the dark splotches on their fronts, identify them as white-fronted geese (Anser albifrons), which also breed in the far northern tundra and overwinter in the Central Valley.

image of white-fronted geese

White-fronted geese

After driving out to the far end of Woodbridge Rd and then back to the South site of the reserve, by about 15 minutes prior to sunset I had parked and would stay in the viewing area for the rest of my visit. I was serenaded by a western meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta) which had landed in a nearby bush and sang for what seemed like several minutes.

picture of meadowlark looking around between songs

Meadowlark looking around between songs

On one of the visits there was a bit of haze, and the sun seemed to sink into the haze well before reaching the actual horizon. This picture was taken about 11 minutes prior to official sunset time.

photo of hazy sunset

Hazy sunset

Around this time the fly-in really started to intensify. It is amazingly difficult to obtain good pictures of flying waterfowl since, if they are close enough to be bigger than a speck in the picture, they move across the field of view very quickly. Here are two sandhill cranes with typically outstretched necks and legs. The wings are especially impressive.

image of sandhill cranes arriving at the daily fly-in

Sandhill cranes arriving at the daily fly-in

As the sunlight faded my camera compensated by increasing the ISO setting, and the pictures did get grainier-looking. I like to think of these as Impressionist-style photos. Here is a group of cranes reflected on the water, about 1 minute before sunset.

picture of sandhill cranes at dusk (about 1 minute before sunset)

Sandhill cranes at dusk (about 1 minute before sunset)

Every so often one of the cranes would briefly dance, spreading its wings and sometimes leaping off the ground. Cranes dance as part of the communication pattern between mates – not just during mating season. (The exposure for this picture was much too long to stop the action!)

photo of sandhill crane dancing

Sandhill crane dancing

Here is a small group of cranes feeding in a pond area.

image of sandhill cranes at dusk (about 2 minutes after sunset)

Sandhill cranes at dusk (about 2 minutes after sunset)

Zooming in even farther creates additional photographic challenges, since the cranes do not stand still to pose for photos!

picture of sandhill crane at dusk (about 3 minutes after sunset)

Sandhill crane at dusk (about 3 minutes after sunset)

This is a larger group photo.

photo of group of sandhill cranes at dusk (about 5 minutes after sunset)

Group of sandhill cranes at dusk (about 5 minutes after sunset)

Here is another small group, again with reflections on the water.

image of sandhill cranes and their reflections at dusk (about 6 minutes after sunset)

Sandhill cranes and their reflections at dusk (about 6 minutes after sunset)

On one visit Mt Diablo was clearly visible on the horizon, about 30 miles away to the southwest. Several minutes after sunset the clouds were simply brilliant.

picture of Mt Diablo sunset

Mt Diablo sunset

On the first fly-in visit I just kept taking pictures, probably long after I should have stopped. It was something of an experiment – and I’m grateful that digital “film” is essentially free! This picture was taken about 19 minutes after sunset. Cranes continued to fly in, and to walk around in the pond areas before truly settling down for the night.

photo of sandhill cranes late into dusk (about 19 minutes after sunset)

Sandhill cranes late into dusk (about 19 minutes after sunset)

On the other fly-in visit I noticed that the cranes were silhouetted against a pond area made orange by the post-sunset lighting.

image of sandhill cranes in silhouette (about 10 minutes after sunset)

Sandhill cranes in silhouette (about 10 minutes after sunset)

I continue to be in awe of the beauty and majesty of sandhill cranes, and going to watch a fly-in is a truly special experience. The other bird life in this area is also quite interesting.

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4 Responses to Sandhill crane viewings near Lodi, California

  1. Hi Trailhiker,
    Thank-you for your informative and beautiful post. I agree that the evening photos look like impressionistic art; a watercolor would be gorgeous! I wanted to drive up from Southern Cal to see some Sandhill Cranes but I wasn’t sure I could see them without going on the guided tour. I’m happy to know that I should have no problem seeing them.
    Thanks again for the post,
    Sue O.

    • trailhiker says:

      Sue, thank you for your feedback. I hope you can make it up to Lodi to see the sandhill cranes; it’s such a treat for birding-type folks. I have also seen sandhills in Wisconsin during family visits. In July we actually saw a pair of whooping cranes!! I will eventually get to writing up that visit to Horicon Marsh; it was really special.

  2. Hi Again Trailhiker,
    I noticed that the last comment I made didn’t come right up so I thought I would comment again privately. Just wanted to let you know the raptor on the power pole is a Red-tailed Hawk. Raptors can be difficult to ID. This one shows the Red-tailed “belly band” and a shorter tail than a “sharpie” would have.
    Sue

    • trailhiker says:

      Sue, thanks for the ID help, especially with how to distinguish otherwise similar species. I have trouble with raptors, probably mainly because I don’t go looking for them frequently enough to remember the specific characteristics to look for. (Well, there isn’t always time to get a good look, either!) Red-tailed hawk is certainly likely…

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