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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
I also noticed a ring-necked pheasant (Phasianus colchicus) walking in the brush next to the road, nicely illuminated by the late-afternoon sun.
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.
Other cranes were in pond areas and made pretty reflections.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!)
Here is a small group of cranes feeding in a pond area.
Zooming in even farther creates additional photographic challenges, since the cranes do not stand still to pose for photos!
This is a larger group photo.
Here is another small group, again with reflections on the water.
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.
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.
On the other fly-in visit I noticed that the cranes were silhouetted against a pond area made orange by the post-sunset lighting.
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.