Monday, November 28, 2011

Travel TidBits: Sandhill Cranes and Snow Geese

... and then I saw them!

After traveling to far away places, I was eager to get back to wildlife photography and exploring what our local environment had to offer.  Winter is the time for migrating birds and California offers some stunning photo opps since the West Pacific Flyway passes through, and California has restored important wetlands that attract sand hill cranes and snow geese as they travel from the arctic to their southern winter places.

I took off armed with my long lens (Nikon 200-400mm) and tripod, and on a grey day headed for Lodi in the Central Valley.  This being Black Friday after Thanksgiving and with everyone focusing on shopping, the ~100 miles drive was easy.  Lodi is probably more known for its budding vineyards than the sandhill cranes.  Before going out to the Woodbridge Ecological Reserve, I checked out the West Landing campground right on the Delta since I had packed my car to be self sufficient.

Years ago I had been in the Delta Region for the sandhill cranes and marveled at their grace.  Migratory subspecies of sandhill cranes breed in the Northern U.S., Canada, Alaska, and Siberia.  Each winter they undertake long southern journeys to wintering grounds in Florida, Texas, Utah, Mexico, and CaliforniaWhat attracts them to our area are the harvested grain fields that provide enough ‘spilled’ grain to provide winter feeding as well as the flooded fields that serve as protection from predators.  They are opportunistic eaters that enjoy plants, grains, mice, snakes, insects, or worms.  The season begins with the arrival of the sandhill cranes into the Delta and Central Valley in about late September, where they will spend the fall and winter months.  During the day they forage in the fields but at sunset they descent by the hundreds onto the flooded fields since the islands in the shallow water hinder foxes and coyotes from predating during the night.

Arriving on Woodbridge road, I spotted several groups of cranes in a field not far from the road.  They were peacefully feeding, and occasionally their call sounded over the valley.  Cranes ‘dance’, run, leap high in the air and otherwise cavort around—not only during mating but all year long.  During mating, pairs vocalize in a behavior known as "unison calling." They throw their heads back and unleash a passionate duet—an extended litany of coordinated song.

At sunset I proceeded to the wetlands where a small group of people has assembled to watch the nightly show:  Sunset was not as colorful as I had hoped for but as the light fell, I first heard them – their distinctive call announcing their arrival.  The sky was full of birds descending onto the wet lands.  What a spectable!  

I stayed well beyond into the evening until it was dark – well beyond the ability of my camera to capture the beautiful grace as the cranes landed and hopped a bit to find a place for the night.  There was lots of greeting among the birds – a community that had formed in the preceding weeks where everyone was welcomed.  And that allowed us to observe nature in action.

The cranes arrived at the last light.

The sandhill cranes settled on the protected islands in the shallow water 
where coyotes and fox wouldn't reach them during the night.

Fog covered the central valley the next morning as I emerged outside.  

A quick McDonalds coffee wakened me – I had left the Starbucks country some miles ago! – and I was off driving north in search for snow geese.  One benefit of a McDonalds McCafe in the morning is that the refills all along the way are free – I discovered this years ago when on an overland trip – you just stop at the next McDonalds and voila a fresh cup of coffee awaits you! 

Two hours later I stopped in Williams, a very small central Valley farm town with a sign indicating that about ~5000 people live and till here.  Driving through town in search of a place to have breakfast I discovered that Williams is a food ‘desert’.  A Burger Kind and a McDonalds were the only choices besides El Torrito, a small Mexican market.  So, McDonalds it was with a fresh cup of coffee.

Leaving the highway heading for Colusa National Wildlife Reserve (NRW) I was in search of the snow geese over-wintering here in the wetlands.  This reserve offers a car loop – no foot traffic allowed – an advantage for observing the birds and wildlife from car window.  As I later learned outside the reserve, birds can be very shy and elusive since they have learned that man are hunters.  

Approaching the NRW, I had heard gun shots and seen hunters with dogs in the fields (left) leading up to the Colusa NRW.  No wonder the birds are shy of man.

It was early enough that mine was the only car slowly driving the loop.  The early fog had lifted and the sun tried to peak through the clouds.  The dew from the night still clung to the grasses.

On the wetlands, American coots and lots of ducks enjoyed the morning.  Raptors were gliding overhead.  I saw lots of red tail hawks and a kestrel but even from the car window it was difficult to ‘catch’ them.  Blue herons and white egrets fished in the shallow waters.  But the snow geese were nowhere to be seen.

I continued to the small town of Colusa.  What I noticed is that all the small towns that I passed through seemed to be struggling.  Lots of boarded storefronts, lots of signs for lease, closed coffee shops, motels and restaurants.  Larger towns were dominated by strip malls and the ‘downtown’ character seemed to be lost.  From the town of Colusa I spoke to my friend Judy who had been here several times telling her of the absence of the snow geese.  She felt it was too early in the winter season.  So I continued east from Colusa to Yuba City since I had never roamed in this area. 

And then I saw them:  in a wetland next to the highway, hundreds and hundreds of white snow geese. 

Turning into a muddy farm road, I had to get closer to them.  Armed with my big lens on the tripod, my shoes sinking more and more into the mug under foot, I approached along the ponds.  All of the sudden amidst lots of bird calls it appeared the pond was awash in clouds of ascending birds.  Wave after wave they flew up only to settle back at the far end of the wetland. 

Was my solitary figure walking along the wetland frightening them?  We were outside the protected wildlife reserve and I can only surmise that lots of hunting is going on in these wetlands.  It is so sad.  I observed a pair of geese that had not flown away only to discover that one of them had a broken wing and as much as it tried to get airborne it could not. The wing would just not stretch and just flop uselessly.  Its mate – lots of birds mate for life – was first coming back through the water calling its mate, then flying overhead calling and calling.  Will the one with the broken wind survive the night?  I’ll never know.

I walked along the wetland and stationed myself under a tree – hoping for camouflage – and waited.  Earlier, these birds were happily feeding at this side of the wetland, why not come back.  An hour passed and the birds were slowly, very slowly swimming towards the middle of the wetlands but by no means closer to me.  So what is a photographer to do?  I shouldered my tripod and slowly walked towards the white mass of birds covering the water.  I had only walked maybe 100m when I heard the familiar sounds and clapping of wings – they again receded to the far end of the wetland in large flocks overhead.  

So here I had my answer:  they did not have anything to do with me – hunter, gun or not – they did not differentiate me as a friendly photographer.   So I extracted myself out of the mug, and marched back to my car about a mile away happy that I had been able to observe these beautiful white birds with their black wingtips, their graceful flight and characteristic songs.  Sadly, they were not calling out for me but rather saying ‘stay away from these humans”.  Well, survival depends on learning and these birds had learned well.  It’s probably incorporated into their DNA.  As I drove on I was still happy that the snow geese had made it back to the Central Valley and found a place to winter, to feed, and rest for their long flight back north in the spring.

Til next time,

To see all workshops and photo travel opportunities 
offered by M. Raeder - Photography, please click here.
Join me for the next great outing to photograph the elephant seals and 
their newborn pups in January 2012!