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In Praise of Sandhill Cranes

"Oh Lord, stuck in Lodi again," the famous John Fogarty lyrics. That's about all I knew about Lodi. I've been to the Skydiving Center in Lodi but it's maybe more Galt than Lodi. Anyway. 

But good old Huell Howser and his California Gold program -- the Sandhill Cranes of Lodi, their migration, early fall vacation in the marshlands of the Woodbridge Isenberg Sandhill Crane Reserve. The rice fields and the other agricultural offerings in the area and the predator safety of the marshlands bring in the cranes in the thousands. How come I never knew this? I know of the great Sand Hill Crane flocks on the Platte River in Nebraska this time of year, but this is all so near.

Covid has canceled this year's Lodi Sandhill Crane Festival (why didn't I know there was one?), but I'm sure the cranes don't recognize Covid. Let's find out.

But first a personal crane encounter. I'm working in Yellowstone Park as a bus driver. One early morning just as the sun was coming up myself and a lady friend were on our way to a trailhead and there before us in the road in the early morning mist a tall Sandhill Crane, as ancient as Egypt and almost as identifiable as on the wall of a pharaoh's tomb. So Lodi should be some of this. And from what the ranger told Huell Howser, the cranes are as ancient as the dinosaurs.

It's all Covid, no tours on the website, but there's got to be a place to pull out.

I find south Consumnes River Preserve, also Crane-friendly, on the way south. Will turn around to it once I see what's in Lodi.

Still too warm in the California fall but the migration clock must still say fly south from Alaska and Canada.

South I-5 turns from city streets to an almost prairie California in a matter of miles -- why there can be preserved marshlands.

Just down a few more miles turn off, back under the freeway, right on a country road, roadside sign full of Lodi wines, down a bit, Bill and Marilyn Isenberg Sandhill Crane Reserve like a national park sign.

Drive into the long, prairie world of wine and vegetables, a blacktop turnout for the Isenberg Reserve, simple, one other car. Tour interpretive plaques and two metal benches, low, rusted barbed wire fence and yes Sandhill Cranes, dozens of them, mostly wading and feeding in the shallow marsh waters and along the uneven dike between the marsh sections, mallards and geese galore, black the predominant mallard, the Sandhills taller, more moving parts, gray, the geese and the mallards honking like they were the taxicabs of their own Manhattan.

Can't hear the Sandhills for the pleasant din, but there they go, one, two, three in flight, jumbo wing-swept like the Egyptian delta would have seen, even the cave and painters.

Flights of black mallards swooping in like nature's own confetti, coming in for multiple landings as easy as butterflies on a bush, silence but for the wild talking, the migration and the feeding like from all eternity, feelings of small and grand together.

There's got to be more because the road goes on further along the California produce. And the folks that were here before me told me more cranes at Black Hole.

Why Black Hole? I don't know. But oh brother were they ever right. A harvested, soaking wet rice paddy with crewcut stalks filled with Sandhill Cranes to numerous to count, gray cackling in their cackling language, feeding, taking flight in formations of fours and fives to just across the road to a verdant green field of something recently planted.

Sit and stare in wonder and partnership in a world that can and does exist if we just let it, protect it. It's my own Sandhill Crane Festival complete with a high feathered Road Runner and Redtail Hawk plumb as a turkey.

Not quite done, Consumnes River Reserve also boasts Sandhill Cranes. Boasts is the right term.

I find myself on New Hope Road, Kansas or Iowa or Illinois, sort of lost, in a good way because I come across the McFarland Working History Ranch. Huh.

Covid closed up but there is a woman living on the grounds. She tells McFarland sold water to the 49er miners and made a bundle, the quiet ranch setting almost a movie lot with a fine white Victorian house with a white fence around it and manicured lawn to oversee the red barns and the corral. By appointment only, but nobody around but me. Quite a find and the resident woman directs me to the Consumnes River Reserve.

I've been but not when -- and there they are out in a marshland in lesser numbers but still oddly statuesque, mostly wading but always a few in the air to mark the skyline.

So mark your calendar.

Peter Pan Am

The Sandhill Cranes

Scooped me

Swooped me up

under their wings

High above and away

From all other things.

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