Adventure of the Week: Majestic sandhill cranes are stars of Lodi festival

This weekend's festivities in Lodi's Hutchins Street Square will range from food, wine and art to storytime for the kids and even flute lessons.

But the star of the Sandhill Crane Festival is the giant crane, whose return to the Delta wetlands from the far north is an annual cause for sightings and celebration.

"They have a mystique all their own," says Ken Nieland, who leads the festival organizing committee.

The Lodi community has been greeting the cranes with a splash for a dozen years, originally hoping to introduce outsiders to Lodi's wine, culture and bird-watching opportunities. Now the festival also promotes habitat preservation and wildlife education as well as, of course, the magnificent crane, which has international allure.

Celebrated in symbols and folklore in many parts of the world, the crane has been a Northern California wetlands fixture since prehistoric times.

"They are large and they are stately birds," says Nieland, who is also the director of Lodi's Micke Grove Zoo. Sandhill cranes can weigh up to 15 pounds and stand more than 5 feet tall. "They go through these mating dances that are very characteristic, and they give off prehistoric calls."

The cranes' call is a sharp, loud, rattling kar-r-r-o-o-o. When scouting for them on tours organized by the festival, visitors must stay extra-quiet lest the birds fly away without a peep.

"It's a wonderful opportunity to see one of nature's wildlife spectacles in our own backyard," Nieland says.

The cranes will be celebrated Friday through Sunday with bird-watching tours taking off from Hutchins Street Square, as well as taiko drumming, food and wine, art shows and educational games, all in a family-centered venue, says organizing committee member Kathy Grant of Lodi.

Grant also notes the environmental message carried by the cranes, which are estimated to number about 5,000 in the area.

"It's an indicator species," she says. "If they are doing well, that means we are not overpolluting our drains that lead to the Mokelumne River."

The birds are here for the winter after a long southward migration, some trips starting as far north as Siberia and Alaska. In the Delta, they can pick rice grains and frogs to eat, and cool off in the water to rest.

"With purple and blue skies, it's gorgeous out there," Grant says of the tours. "And that's when they start coming in ribbons."

Bird tours are usually led by docents or photographers; the watchers are taken in yellow school buses to various Delta sites, including Pardee Reservoir, Staten Island and the Cosumnes River Preserve.

"It's just beautiful watching them," Nieland says.