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Janet Fullwood: It's time again -- Crane your neck skyward

To hear Bruce Forman tell it, the annual fall arrival of 4,000 or so greater sandhill cranes in southern Sacramento and northern San Joaquin counties can be compared to a military air show.

"You'll see squadrons of them -- 10, 100 and more at a time -- coming in like airplanes, just zooming down over your head," says Forman, director of interpretive services for the state Department of Fish and Game.

Forman's not talking about the little white egrets or herons with which cranes often are confused. Greater sandhill cranes stand a brawny 5 feet tall and have a 7-foot wingspan. Their bills are 5 inches long. In other words, they're mighty impressive birds.

Duck if you see one coming: You wouldn't want to get caught in their wake wash. But do dust off your binoculars and incorporate some wildlife-watching into your fall routine, Forman suggests.

"October and November is when the wildlife is coming in and the weather is still warm and clear for viewing it," he says, adding that more people seem to be taking up the activity.

"We've been seeing a big trend -- especially since 9/11. It's inexpensive, it's family-oriented, it can be done close to home," he says. "People seem to be wanting quieter, less-crowded activities to do, where you don't have to spend the night."

The greater Sacramento area boasts a dozen sites designated by the California Watchable Wildlife Project as great for seeing wild things, especially migrating birds (see list on page M4). But birds aren't all that's to be found in Sacramento's wild back yard.

Forman speaks with the same passion about salmon (he's a key organizer for next weekend's American River Salmon Festival in Rancho Cordova; www.salmonfestival.com) and other area wildlife, such as newts, otters and swans.

"Winter, when the creeks and streams come up, is the time for newts," Forman said. "They're neat and cool and evoke a lot of excitement about nature."

Swans, he added, arrive in November and can be seen in flocks of thousands at wildlife preserves within an hour's drive of Sacramento.

But the cranes are clearly Forman's favorites. "Swans are squeakers," he says. "Cranes make a long, gargled, haunting, primeval bugling sound that kind of gets under your skin. It makes you smile."

An estimated 7,000 greater sand-hill cranes fly in from northeastern California and southern Oregon to overwinter in California, with more than half coming to the north part of the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta. The threatened species is joined in California by 35,000 lesser sandhill cranes, which travel from Canada, Alaska and Siberia.

Forman, who calls our region "the crane capital of California," says the greatest concentrations of the birds, from hundreds into the thousands, can be viewed at the Isenberg Crane Reserve near Galt, where tours are offered from October through February. "We usually spot about 30 species on those tours," he said. "Lately we've been seeing lots of ibis, white pelicans and Swainson's hawks -- all pretty charismatic species."

Wildlife watchers this season will keep their eyes peeled for a vagrant Demoiselle crane spotted the past two years in a flock of greater sandhills wintering in the area. Native to Central Asia, the species had not before been seen in North America.

"It's almost like the bird was fleeing the turmoil in its part of the world and coming here as an ambassador of peace," Forman said.

Symbolic of peace in many cultures, cranes are celebrated worldwide. The biggest celebration in our area is the growing Sandhill Crane Festival in Lodi. The seventh annual fest, featuring 70 guided tours for birdwatching and wildlife viewing, is set for Nov. 7-9. The event includes workshops, exhibits, talks by nationally recognized naturalists, art, music and a crane-calling contest.

Like we said, time to dust off those binoculars and start looking skyward.

Travel wise: For the birds

Watchable wildlife: For detailed information on the California Watchable Wildlife Program, go to www.cawatchablewildlife.org or www.dfg.ca.gov/watchable/. Or, pick up a copy of California Wildlife Viewing Guide by Jeanne L. Clark (Falcon, $12.95). The book gives details on about 200 sites that welcome visitors with interpretive exhibits, tours and more.

Crane tours: Sandhill crane tours at the Isenberg Crane Reserve on Woodbridge Road near Galt are held October through February on the second Thursdays, first and second Saturdays and all Sundays of the month. Tours last two hours, ending at dusk, and are accessible to wheelchairs.

To register for a tour, send a stamped, self-addressed envelope and a note with your name, address, phone number, first and second choice of tour dates and number of adults in the party. An $8 donation per adult is requested. Send registration and check payable to California Wildlife Foundation to Crane Tours, DFG, 1701 Nimbus Road, Rancho Cordova, CA 95670. For more information: (916) 358-2869.

Sandhill Crane Festival: The Nov. 7-9 event at Hutchins Street Square in Lodi is expected to draw several thousand bird lovers. Admission is $10 per day general, $5 for students ages 6-18. The 70 bird-watching tours offered in conjunction with the event focus on avians from every aspect, with trips offered on land and water, for novices and experts, families and photographers. For more information: (209) 367-7840 or www.lodichamber.com.

More wildlife watching: Some of the wildlife reserves in the region:

* Cosumnes River Preserve, on Franklin Road about 10 miles south of Elk Grove, attracts greater sandhill cranes, waterfowl, stilts, finches and many other birds in fall and winter. Interpretive hikes and canoe trips with naturalists are scheduled regularly, and there's also a visitors center. For more information: (916) 683-1700 or www.cosumnes.org.

* Stone Lakes National Wildlife Refuge near Elk Grove is a winter home to ducks, stilts, avocets, pheasants and hawks. A viewing platform offers bird's-eye views, or you can join a tour. For more information: (916) 775-4420.

* Vic Fazio Yolo Wildlife Area at the Davis end of the Yolo Causeway is a good place to see snow geese, shorebirds, kingfishers and more along an auto loop drive or on footpaths. For more information: (530) 758-1018 or www.yolobasin.org.

* Gray Lodge Wildlife Area, near Gridley, is in the heart of the Pacific Flyway and known for wintering waterfowl. A million ducks, 200 species of birds and more than 200,000 geese winter here, according to the park brochure. Weekend tours, a self-guided nature trail, an auto tour, viewing platform and exhibits are among interpretive facilities. Hiking trails close for the season on Oct. 10. For more information: (530) 846-7505 or www.dfg.ca.gov/lands/newsites/wa/region2/graylodge/glwa_index.htm.

* Bobelaine Audubon Sanctuary near Nicholas (just south of Yuba City) has well-maintained trails from which fall visitors can spot osprey, yellow rumped warblers and bald eagles, among other species. For more information: (916) 783-8305 or www.sacramentoaudubon.org.

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