I like sandhill cranes. It’s the pterodactyl in them, the too-long toothpick legs, the Ichabod Crane anatomy, the black beak, and the 1950 Mercury convertible red top that sends me back to those Triassic period days.
If you want to see sandhill cranes you have to go where they are, which means a trip up the hated I-5. Last year I went to Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex in Willows, about 85 miles north of our capital city. That was my first birding trip. There were a few sandhill cranes standing about, but I was busy with the Big Picture.
I wrote, “We saw white-faced ibis, white-fronted goose, snow goose, Ross’s goose, cackling goose, red-tail hawks, northern pintail, mallards, pied-billed grebe, tundra swan, northern shoveler, herons, sandhill cranes…enough. The point is, there are 3,000,000 ducks and 1,000,000 geese around here or on their way.
“The sound is impossibly loud. Two, five, ten, who-knows-how-many thousand snow geese have lifted from a marsh forming one huge skein of geese, a swarm of geese, a living tornado of geese, and are flying toward me, honking and flapping so loud that their sound is all the sound there is to hear.
“This. Is. Thrilling.”
It was like going to your first baseball game, the absolute first game — no sandlot baseball, no Little League, no high school or Pony League or college baseball, no TV or radio baseball. You’ve never watched a baseball game in your life, and the first one you happen upon is Game 7 of the World Series between Boston and San Diego.
But, it wasn’t until six months later, in Fairbanks, at Creamer’s Field (Migratory Waterfowl Refuge), that I got to know sandhill cranes. The 1800-acre refuge is within Fairbanks city limits, couple miles from downtown. My morning routine was to wake up, quickly leave my host’s house (as a good guest should), drive into town, acquire one BIG coffee and two croissants at Mocha Moose, drive down College Avenue, and turn left into Creamer’s Field. Park. Exit the vehicle. Walk ten paces. Place manly butt on picnic table, boots on picnic bench, sip coffee, munch croissant, lift binoculars and, “Good morning, fellas.”
Sandhill cranes remind me of circus clowns running around, bumping into each other, climbing in and out of a Mini Cooper. They have a wacky gait, like a clown walking on stilts, and a Bozo-the-Clown countenance highlighted by round eyes and thick red crown.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology (the authority in these matters) says, in their wonderfully ornithological dialect, that cranes “…are perennially monogamous and provide extended biparental care of their young.” They are among the oldest living birds and can live 20-plus years (average is 12 years).
And right now, sandhill cranes are coming into the Central Valley of California like a flying freight train jammed with circus clowns. This year I’m going to the Cosumnes River Preserve, 46,000 acres of wetlands 40 miles south of Sacramento. The draw is a new place, cranes, and the river. The Cosumnes is the only free-flowing river left in the Central Valley.
There are 12 of us on this trip, a standard birding expedition. All white people, minimum age of 60, more women than men, careful non-birding conversation, and high-end snacks. We travel in one van, one station wagon, and my truck.
We arrive at the preserve at noon. It rained this morning, which makes the afternoon air especially sweet. It’s going to be 70 degrees.
We work alongside wetlands, then take a river walk for three miles along the Cosumnes. It’s a dirt path under a canopy of tree limbs. Seen from the rear, we are the Seven Dwarfs marching off to work. We turn east, away from the river, onto flat, dry land with few trees. This is what the Central Valley looked like 300 years ago.
We are gone four hours and spy a normal selection of bird species, but no cranes. It happens. One thousand cranes could be here tomorrow or yesterday.
At the visitors’ center, we decide to drive north a half mile, then turn east and catch the fly-in, as birds, after a hard day of feeding, come home for the night.
It’s 4:55 p.m. A stunning orange-turning-to-pink sunset is happening underneath dark, puffy clouds. And here they come, a flock of 26 sandhill cranes making a big circle over the marsh, legs dropping straight down, wings stretched, coming in to land as darkness sweeps over the valley. And now come Canada geese and more cranes, everyone coming home, just beating pitch dark by a honk.
I feel like a World War II aircraft-carrier captain, standing on the bridge, watching his Grumman Hellcats come back from battle. No light in the sky.