Sandhill Cranes in the Great Valley! A Visit at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge
The Great Valley has never been overly kind to immigrants. One can interpret that in several ways, but since humans expropriated 95% of the natural environment of the valley for agriculture and urban development, the birds who migrate here for the winter have had a difficult life. Harassed and shot for invading agricultural fields, the birds were herded into wildlife refuges where there wasn't enough space and resources to maintain their health needs. Thousands could die from cholera and other diseases.
The managers of the wildlife refuges scattered up and down the valley have done what they could with the limited space and water they've been given, so the birds are able to survive, but certainly not in the numbers of a century or two ago.
Year after year, they return, and despite the stresses most make it through the winter and get enough nutrition to make it back to their Arctic breeding grounds. And when they are present, one can see a hint of the incredible spectacle of America's Serengeti plains that once existed here. That's what I got to see today at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge.
A few weeks ago I wrote of seeing some of the Sandhill Cranes at the Tulelake National Wildlife Refuge. Tulelake is one of their resting spots on their trip south (a few may breed there as well). That was in late September, but I understand that some were already arriving at Merced NWR. Today we saw thousands (the ranger said there are presently 9,000 of them in residence!).
They were reasonably close to the auto-tour route, so I managed to get a lot of shots I was happy with.
The Sandhill Crane (Grus canadensis) is highly distinctive in its coloration and in flight (unlike the other cranes) it holds its neck straight instead of curved. They feed on grains and plants, along with the occasional bug. They roost at night in wetlands where they get cover from predators.
The drought has wreaked havoc on the environments where the Sandhill Cranes winter. Water is at a premium, and refuges are often at the bottom of allotment priorities. The managers have hard decisions to make this winter about what fields to flood, and how much space they can make available for the cranes and the tens of thousands of geese that are on their way as well. These are choices I wouldn't want to be making. I'm hoping that the current El Nino climate regime will give us a reprieve this year from the drought, but the long-term trends are not favorable. The choices we make about these animals will reverberate for decades to come.
They deserve our consideration. They travel thousands of miles, and now depend on us for survival.
Let's do the right thing. The refuges need our help, because they can't do it alone, and not without public support.