Mom, me, the birds

SN&R’s Eco-Warrior Princess takes her mother searching for sandhill cranes

The author ponders life as she looks for sandhill cranes.

The author ponders life as she looks for sandhill cranes.

Photo By Carla christian

Welcome to Green Town, a column by Sena: Eco-Warrior Princess, which rotates with Green House, her occassional musings on SN&R’s green building project.

I almost got belligerent. I had gone to the Cosumnes River Preserve in Galt on a recent Sunday afternoon for the sole purpose of spotting a sandhill crane of the Central Valley, and I wasn’t leaving until I saw one of those darn birds! Despite not being what one might call an avid bird-watcher, I still figured it’d be cool to see one of the oldest-known living bird species in the world, not to mention it’d give me something to write about.

These migratory birds arrived in September—after breeding in northeastern California, the Pacific Northwest and the Great Lakes—and leave in March, typically hanging out on the preserve’s Staten Island. Hundreds of these birds travel in from the west and descend on the preserve to roost for the night, along with other wintering birds of the Sacramento Valley. More than 250 bird species have visited the preserve over the years, but the greater and lesser sandhill cranes, well, those are apparently something special.

The greater sandhill cranes are large gray birds, about 5-feet tall, with long necks and legs, a 7-foot-wide wingspan and red foreheads—quite distinct-looking. But an hour into the visit, I’d yet to see one.

Earlier that day, as my mom and I drove the 25 miles from Sacramento to the 42,000-acre preserve, I asked her for any astute observations she might care to share.

“I observed a bird on the fence,” she said, adding, “Don’t include me in your story.”

“I can’t promise that. Hey, is that farmland?” I asked pointing out the window.

“Looks like it. That’s why there are crops on it. Don’t write my mean quotes down.”

Soon, we passed grape vineyards. Vineyards such as these threaten the sandhill crane’s livelihood, as farmers in the region shift from growing rice and corn to growing grapes; these birds spend the winter in the Cosumnes River flood plain and outlying agricultural areas, utilizing freshly cut or flooded rice and cornfields for food and rest. The southward expansion of Elk Grove and westward expansion of Galt also pose a threat to the bird’s habitat. The state of California has already classified the greater sandhill crane a threatened species.

My mom pulled into the full parking lot, and I threw my jacket back into the car; it was too warm outside. “Global warming,” I explained. We walked down the 1-mile-long Wetlands Walk, and I crouched down to examine a tiny green caterpillar. Worried a person might squash the insect, I poked and prodded it to the side of the concrete path until I think I may have accidentally killed it.

“What’s this plant?” I asked my mom. We approached Lost Slough, a large pond occupied by a couple hundred birds paddling around. The preserve manages wetlands, such as this one, intensely, as these productive ecosystems filter out phosphates, ammonia and some heavy metals; act as a site for groundwater recharge; provide flood protection; prevent soil erosion; and serve as wildlife habitat. More than 4 million acres of wetlands existed in California’s Central Valley before 1900, although about 90 percent have since been lost, many drained and paved over for development.

“Are those ducks or geese?” I asked, lowering my voice.

“Ducks,” she said, leaving me to wonder if most people possess so little knowledge of, and connection with, the natural world as me.

An older man noticed my notebook and asked how many birds I got. “He got a Virginia rail,” he said, motioning to another man with a large camouflaged camera. “And they’re hard to find.” These shy, reclusive birds hide in vegetation and prefer running to flying, making them notoriously hard to document.

We soon encountered a group of 20 middle-aged people, equipped with cameras and binoculars, standing at Lost Slough. Turns out the dabbling ducks were gadwalls, easily recognizable by their vibrant silver, beige and orange feathers. “Like a patchwork quilt,” said a tour guide. “It’s a beautiful, beautiful duck.”

I never did see a sandhill crane that day, but as we drove off, my mom reminded me that I had, in fact, seen these birds before, on previous drives down Interstate 5, but I’d just failed to recognize them. Or maybe I hadn’t ever cared, until now, to look.