Photo Credit: Lon Yarbrough
By Tina Suarez-Murias of Save Our Sandhill Cranes | February 2022
Tina Suarez-Murias, AICP, is a certified planner by profession and a Board Member of Save Our Sandhill Cranes (SOSC), based in Sacramento.
On behalf of those who were able to visit the Isenberg Preserve on the ECOS Field Trip on January 21, I’d like to thank Mike Savino, a trained docent for the CA Department of Fish & Wildlife. He was able to take us into the restricted research/study area of the Woodbridge Ecological Reserve to observe the “evening fly-in” to one of the cranes’ overnight roosting areas. Mike also explained frequently observed crane behaviors and the special anatomical adaptions of these large, but elegant birds. Generally, the cranes arrive by October and stay through February, before flying north, as far as Alaska, where they breed and fledge their young during the summer.
The Reserve, also known as the Isenberg Sandhill Crane Reserve, honors Phil & Marilyn Isenberg for their efforts to protect this habitat for the Greater and Lesser Sandhill Cranes that migrate to this region every fall to overwinter until spring. The Reserve is split in two parts along Woodbridge Road off I-5, south of Galt. The northern portion is restricted to docent-led tours, but the southern portion is always open to the public for viewing the Sandhill Cranes and other waterbirds that utilize the large shallow ponds near the parking area.
It’s a visual and audible treat to be on the southern side of Woodbridge an hour before dusk when hundreds of cranes fly in after a day of foraging in nearby harvested farm fields. The viewing area has beautiful educational signs about the cranes and their behaviors, so you can share what you learn with your friends as you watch cranes land and dance. Cameras and simple binoculars add to the fun. With a higher-powered scope you can see the adult crane’s red head – which is blood-filled skin, not feathers! Watch for the resident barn owls that occasionally swoop through too!
Because the wet areas around Sacramento are on the Pacific Flyway, you can see all sorts of birds migrate through. Other migrating birds, such as snow geese, stilts, and so many ducks (!) visit Woodbridge, the flooded rice paddies, the Nature Conservancy’s Staten Island, the Yolo Bypass, and the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge. Here’s a tip: Cranes always travel in pairs or groups, which helps you notice the difference from the large Great Blue Heron and the white egret, which are usually solitary in behavior when foraging in this region’s wetlands.
To watch crane families’ summer activities, I recommend this link to one of my favorite websites about Lesser Sandhill Cranes in Alaska: Featured Videos | Kachemak Crane Watch. Nina Faust, of Inspiration Ridge Preserve near Homer in Alaska, posts all her wonderful videos of cranes parenting and colts (baby cranes) learning to fly. The Greater Sandhill Cranes fly north to Modoc County to breed in the summer at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Refuge Modoc National Wildlife Refuge – Modoc – U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (fws.gov).
On another subject, the vernal pools of the Central Valley spring to life as winter ends. Both SMUD’s Rancho Seco and SPLASH south of Mather Field have trails around theirs and offer tours. The vernal pool habitat cannot be recreated easily. The pools are ephemeral and evolved over time in slight depressions underlain by hardpan (tight, compressed, clay soil) found in the Central Valley’s ancient inland sea lake bed. There are only one or two months each spring when the dormant plants and animals found in these otherwise desiccated pools can emerge and flourish in the water that ponds during the wet season. Be on the lookout for vernal pools in the undeveloped prairies and meadows near you! Take pictures and enjoy this disappearing habitat.
We do need to have better ways to “design with nature.” It’s difficult to balance the needs of a growing human population with the other non-human communities we need to live with too. It would be good if more people understood the trade-offs.