It's a moment I enjoy, the first journey out to our local wildlife refuge to see the returning Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis). The first few hundred have arrived at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge in California's Great Valley. Within weeks they will number more than 10,000. The cranes have been spending the summer in northern climes, as far away as Alaska.
They are grand birds with a huge wingspan. They graze in the grasslands looking for seeds and grains, but are not averse to the taking of an occasional amphibian or invertebrates.
The birds are famous for their complex mating dances. I got a few moments of some of them at practice this afternoon. It was pretty far away so there are heat waves and all, but it was fun to watch.
The Merced National Wildlife Refuge is a valuable part of the system of refuges that line the Central Valley. 95% of the original environment of the Great Valley has been consumed by agricultural and urban development with the attendant loss of habitat for millions upon millions of birds.
The refuges provide critical food resources and protection from predators and accidents. It's not just for the 15,000 or so cranes. Tens of thousands of Snow and Ross's Geese spend the winter in the refuges. There are hundreds of year-round resident species as well. Those are Black-necked Stilts in the foreground of the picture above.
The Sandhill Cranes mate for life, and they can live a long time. According to the ever-useful Cornell bird site, they can live in the wild for more than thirty years.
The birds are doing well overall, but some individual populations are threatened by habitat loss.
The call of the Sandhill Crane is hard to describe, sort of a low-pitched trill, but it can carry for a long distance. I've heard them clearly, and looked for them, only to find that they are thousands of feet up in the sky, or half a mile or more away across the fields.