The Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis, formerly Grus canadensis) have arrived in the Great Central Valley! They've been here for a couple of weeks now, though I was just recently able to get out to the Merced National Wildlife Refuge to see them. And what an incredible sight! The return of the cranes is an annual event in the Valley, much anticipated by many local birders and nature enthusiasts. In fact, all of the bird species that spend the winter here give us plenty of reasons to look forward to the upcoming cold months. There may not be snow in the Valley, but nothing quite compares to a sky filled with thousands upon thousands of Snow Geese! (The snow geese aren't here yet, but they soon will be!)
If you think Sandhill Cranes look prehistoric, a bit like small dinosaurs roaming the grassland, you aren't too far off: the oldest Sandhill Crane fossil is a remarkable 2.5 million years old! And if you're a resident of the Central Valley, these modern dinosaurs live almost in your backyard!
There are several subspecies of Sandhill Crane, and two spend the winter in California's Great Central Valley: the Greater and Lesser Sandhill Cranes. Northeastern California also supports a breeding population of Greater Sandhill Cranes during the summer; Lesser Sandhill Cranes breed in the Arctic, including northeastern Siberia, Alaska, and northern Canada. The Merced National Wildlife Refuge is the seasonal home for the largest wintering population of Lesser Sandhill Cranes in the Pacific Flyway, with up to 20,000 cranes in residence between October and February!
Greater Sandhill Cranes, which nest in temperate regions, are the larger of the two subspecies found in California, as one would guess by the name; they stand an average of 4.5 to 5 feet tall, and weigh between 10 and 14 pounds. Arctic-nesting Lesser Sandhill Cranes, most of the birds you will see at Merced National Wildlife Refuge, are smaller, standing between 3 and 3.5 feet tall and weighing only 6 or 7 pounds.
Both male and female Sandhill Cranes have a distinct red "cap" on their heads, and silvery gray plumage. Individuals lacking the conspicuous red caps are juveniles, entering into their first winter.
Cranes of all species are well known for their elaborate and graceful courtship dances, and the dance of the Sandhill Crane is no exception. Though they save their best dances for the breeding season, Sandhill Cranes mate for life, and will dance with their partner throughout the year, leaping and bowing, sometimes even tossing small stones or tufts of grass into the air.
Watching the cranes perform their graceful maneuvers is a real treat, giving one the sense of witnessing something timeless, ancient, even primeval.
My first experience with Sandhill Cranes was shortly after college. I wanted to see the visiting cranes, so my husband (then boyfriend) Eric and I took a drive up to the Cosumnes River Preserve near Galt in the fall. While taking the "scenic route" home down a levee road (confession time: we took a wrong turn somewhere) we found ourselves in the middle of a flooded rice field and a large flock of Sandhill Cranes. It was magical, and I was hooked. Go find a flock of these majestic, prehistoric birds for yourself, and you'll see what I mean!