WOODBRIDGE With the first rays of sun, skeins of gray-feathered sandhill cranes take flight in the wetlands south of Woodbridge Road.
The birds have a wing span of 7 feet and sound shrill cries, making their flyover an experience that is not soon forgotten.
Urban sprawl threatens the sandhill cranes' Sacramento Valley roosting habitats. Despite encroachment from Elk Grove and other communities, the Central Valley is still where sandhill cranes stay from fall through winter. A total of 5 million birds use the Central Valley as a flyway.
This weekend, during the Sandhill Crane Festival, Lodi and surrounding lands are ground zero for everything having to do with the birds.
The 15-year-old festival, which has events and tours in several locations, runs through Sunday. A total of 21 tours, most managed by Department of Fish and Game docents, will be offered, including three-hour birding cruises and kayak trips in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. All festival tours are timed to observe crane behavior, as well as that of other fauna.
The festival draws crane enthusiasts, such as Berkeley resident Bob Baldwin, from near and far.
"I came last year and am back this year," Baldwin said. "The cranes are just so beautiful to watch fly. I don't really follow birds, but I had to just come back to see them again."
The impetus for the festival can be traced back to the 1940s when only five breeding pairs of the sandhill crane were inventoried at what is now the Isenberg Crane Preserve in Woodbridge, said Kathy Grant of the Sandhill Crane Festival.
"That was when the Department of Fish and Game started managing the land for these birds, with the flooding of certain farmland," Grant said. "The festival is really about people managing the land properly so that we haven't lost these birds that's at the heart of it all."
Two species of sandhill cranes winter here: the greater sandhill crane and the lesser sandhill crane. The latter migrate the farthest from Siberian breeding grounds. Both are monogamous birds and make good use of corn and rice fields in the Sacramento Valley. The wetlands are used for nighttime roosting as protection from coyotes and other predators.
Their biggest peril, however, comes from man, said Mike Eaton, former executive director of the Resources Legacy Fund.
Elk Grove is seeking to expand its boundaries by 8,000 acres to the southwest and has a request before the Local Agency Formation Commission. A vote is expected on that proposal early next year.
Eaton hopes that Elk Grove will emulate Galt, which was considering expansion in 2009 to the north and into prime crane habitat.
"When Galt adopted its general plan in 2009, it did the right thing and decided to avoid these habitats," Eaton said.
Then again, Galt has the sandhill crane on its city emblem and sponsors an annual winter bird festival that focuses on the cranes.
Fortunately, the number of sandhill cranes has been increasing in the area.
"We don't have great data on population trends, but both populations of cranes are likely slowly increasing," said Gary Ivey, Western crane conservation manager for the International Crane Foundation.
A recent crane count by Fish and Game docents at the Isenberg Crane Reserve tallied 3,500.
That preserve is adjacent to private farmland. The issue of how farmers go about using their land has a great impact on crane populations, said Rodd Kelsey, director of the migratory bird conservation program for Audubon California. Corn, wheat and alfalfa crops are ideal as crane habitats, with cranes eating the waste grain left after harvesting.
"Hardened crops like vineyards and orchards do not provide much habitat for those birds," he said.
To date, there are no legal requirements for farmers to maintain wildlife-friendly practices or cropping patterns. Most do so voluntarily, and many partner with Audubon, Kelsey said.
"We're focused on a landowner stewardship program that works with farmers to restore and install natural habitat on farm edges," he said.
That program has partnered with more than 100 farmers in the Central Valley to keep the sandhill crane as a recurring visitor to the wetland region.