Ah, sandhill cranes. More than 30,000 of these celebrated, 4-foot-tall, slate-gray birds with a bustle of drooping feathers over their rumps and crimson crowns are back in the Sacramento region for fall and winter. In September, they migrate to the Central Valley’s Delta and floodplains from Alaska, Oregon and California’s Sierra valleys for better climate and food supply during the colder months. They’ll stay through February, thrilling people of all ages with a captivating, easygoing outdoor adventure in our region’s backyard.
Zero Dark Hundred
If you’re an early bird, you’ll find some of the best viewing at their roost sites before the sun rises, says Mike Savino, president of Save Our Sandhill Cranes in Sacramento. Peer through binoculars to watch them awaken and dance—an entertaining, spectacular sight—before they take flight to forage in nearby fields. They court with a comical, gawky, strangely elegant dance. Wings stretched, they leap in the air, kick their legs, bob their heads, twirl, hop and often land with an unrefined plop.
Late in the Day
Or in evening, watch them fly back to their roosts. Against a pink-and-orange sky, you’ll see endless waves of birds soaring on wings that span 7 feet, thin legs dangling as they parachute into shallow ponds where they will sleep. “Due to a quirk in their anatomy, cranes are not able to perch,” says Savino. They learned to roost in the middle of shallow water with long sightlines for protection against predators such as coyotes, which can’t sneak up on them in the water, he explains.
According to Savino, cranes have flown this Pacific Flyway route since before Homo sapiens arrived more than 10,000 years ago, when the Central Valley was a wetland paradise and hosted far greater numbers of the birds than we see today.
Where To View
Self-led tours are available to the public at locations where sandhill cranes roost: Woodbridge Ecological Reserve and Cosumnes River Preserve in Galt, and Staten Island, all within 15 miles of each other. Free, guided tours are available through Save Our Sandhill Cranes and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Relax and Rejoice
Drive to your location, set up your chairs, uncork a bottle of wine and be awed by the sheer magnificence of thousands of trumpeting sandhill cranes.