It is dusk, and the pale December sun dips toward Mt. Diablo. A guttural, trumpeting call comes from a group of sandhill cranes. They glide in V-formation, long necks extended, legs stretched behind. Descending to the harvested cornfield, they slow and break formation. An abrupt turn, wings flapping to slow down, feet hit the ground with two awkward steps, wings fold, and they join hundreds of compatriots for the night.
This scene is repeated, one group after another, on Staten Island in Cosumnes River Preserve. They join thousands of other birds to settle in for the night. We feel like we’ve stepped back in time to when humans were a minor species, and the skies of California’s Central Valley were darkened with flocks of migrating birds.
Just north of Stockton, the preserve is a short drive from most of the Bay Area or Sacramento, and it’s a nice place to take a break when you’re driving Highway 5. Outdoor writer, Tom Stienstra, reports that an average of five million ducks and 1.5 million shorebirds migrate through or over-winter on California's Pacific Flyway. The ponds, marshes, river, and fields of Cosumnes are a major stopping point.
But sandhill cranes are the stars. They stand five feet tall on legs that bend backward at the knee. Their plumage is gray with a red crown of featherless skin that turns bright when they are excited. With long, stately necks and a seven foot wingspan, they have a dignified, ancient appearance. Their roots are prehistoric, with fossil records dating back 2.5 million years.
A mated pair begins a courting ritual – circling, leaping with wings spread, calling in a complex duet. They stretch their necks, toss heads back, and fling sticks and grass in the air – a joyous bonding dance.
Exploring the Cosumnes River Preserve
Bird watching is not the only fun activity in the preserve. Stop by the Visitor Center for a trail map. You can stretch your legs and hike three miles on the River Walk Trail as it snakes through oak forests, open fields, on levees, and along the Cosumnes River. Meander on the one-mile Lost Slough Wetlands walking through marshlands and ponds. The ½ mile Boardwalk Trail winds deep into ponds for an up-close look at ducks, geese, herons, egrets, and dozens of other species.
Cosumnes River is the last undammed river flowing out of the Western Sierra. It joins Mokelumne River in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, just downstream from the preserve.
We put in on Middle Slough, near the Visitor Center, and paddled our inflatable double kayak through riparian forests. Red-tailed hawks circled overhead. A great egret with flowing white plumage waded near the shore. She stopped, leaning forward. Then lightning-quick, she pierced the shallows with her long beak and snatched a wriggling fish. Gulp. After gliding a ½ mile of still water on the slough, we came to the river and explored the main channel and backwaters for a few hours.
Bring the Kids
Families with young children and toddlers in strollers were enjoying the preserve on the day of our visit. The kids delighted in spotting rabbits and ground squirrels. They shared in the excitement of watching hundreds of birds get spooked, suddenly take off, and circle overhead, or of seeing a skein of Canada geese glide in for a splashy landing on a pond.
Best Times to Visit
Millions of birds migrate on the pacific Flyway from fall through spring. When winter storms hit Northern California, waterfowl head for the Central Valley and Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The greater sandhill cranes arrive in October and over-winter on the preserve. Lesser sandhill cranes pass through on their way to Mexico from their breeding grounds in Siberia, Alaska and Canada. The best time to see cranes is around dawn and dusk. Drive Staten Island Rd., pullover, get out, and watch a spectacular show as hundreds fly out of the fields in the morning and return late in the day.
The Visitor Center, 13501 Franklin Blvd., Galt, CA. is approximately 25 miles north of Stockton.
Driving north on Highway 5: Take exit 493, and drive north on Thorton Rd. to Franklin Blvd. Continue on Franklin. Look for the Visitor Center sign
Driving south on Highway 5: Take exit 498, turn left (east) on Twin Cities Rd, right on Franklin Blvd. Look for the Visitor Center sign.
The Visitor Center will provide you with directions to great viewing sites including Staten Island Rd and Woodbridge Ecological Reserve.