Being well away of the danger (thanks, Credence Clearwater Revival) I went to Lodi for the Sandhill Crane festival. They have had a festival for the Sandhill Crane for the last 16 years. Their goal is to bring awareness to this large but little known bird.
The Sandhill Crane is a large bird with a few different subspecies that vary in size. The largest can have wingspans up to about seven feet so these are big birds. However they have had a mutation that limits them to the three forward facing toes they have lost the rear facing toe that occurs on many of the birds we see (check out a chicken foot). So they are incapable of perching in tress. So their only way of protecting themselves at night is to stand in shallow water, making it hard for predators to approach.
Before the massive influx of gold seekers and such back in the 1800s there were huge flocks of Sandhill Cranes in California's Central Valley. It was pretty swampy in much of it after all. But between the draining of the valley for farming and market hunting for feathers the birds were almost wiped out. While these birds mostly migrate outside of California, birds from the Sacramento area fly up to Alaska and Siberia for breeding, they need to have wintering grounds that supply them with food and safety.
And this means they need farmland with grains after the harvest that aren't too far from shallow marshy places for them to spend the night. And up near Sacramento they actually have lands that are intentionally flooded to generate winter wetlands for the cranes. But there is still a problem with habitat “destruction” for the cranes. They can't use vineyards for their winter food supply and the area around Lodi is known for its wine so there are numerous vineyards and it is growing.
However there are a couple (so far) of the vineyards that are trying to develop in ways that will provide some benefit for the cranes. For example trying to maintain a wildlife friendly area as part of the vineyard. And the festival itself has the goal of educating the people of the area o the unique winter inhabitant they have.
Now as part of the festival there was a woman who had created a wonderful little documentary about the process of raising a young Sandhill Crane up in the area of Homer Alaska where the Sacramento area birds breed. There were also people there that work on the research, which includes tracking down the different areas that the different groups of birds utilize over the course of the year.
Now if you want to see Sandhill Cranes you can drive up to the Lodi area and head out to many viewing areas they have set up. Or you can drive up to the Pixley area, which is probably less than two hours away and go to the Pixley National Wildlife Refuge. They also get large numbers of the Sandhill Cranes over the winter, up to 6000 according to the refuge website. There's plenty of other bird life out there, so don't go just for the Sandhill Cranes.
But if you head out there a little before sunset, you might catch the “fly in” where the birds that have been out foraging all day come back to the marsh for the night. It is quite an impressive sight. Thousands of birds coming down making a loud racket. Amazing. And worth a trip.