Straight Roads and Cranes

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Roads beckon. Birds beckon. Winter months find me driving north over the hills to the flat land of the Central Valley. Here one’s view is unobstructed in the midday sun. The unbroken vista like the road goes on endlessly.

I leave the town of neon, pizza parlors, horns and traffic and start down a farm road. All roads here are straight. They stretch out before you for miles. Pickup trucks go roaring by at breakneck speeds. Dark brown fields broken up only by short sprites of green spread over the flat terrain on both sides. Way in the distance a lone smoke tree stands out against the horizon. Far to the left is a small wooden farmhouse. Someone sits on the front porch watching – what?

The road goes on dead straight for miles until suddenly it leaps in a right angle turn, jogs on for seconds, and leaps in a left angle turn, then straight, straight. I wonder what it was that caused the road engineers to plan it that way and realize that it was necessary to avoid the agricultural drainage ditches at the juncture of two fields. Long gray snakes of irrigation pipes are strung out in furrows between the small plants struggling to push themselves up from the ground. Road planners must have just laid down macadam in square straight lines around each plot of cultivable land. They weren’t meant for travelers searching for Sandhill cranes as I was.

Birds beckon to me in winter. I yearn to hear the geese honking as they sail overhead. I want to see the cranes dancing in the cornfield stubble. I must travel straight roads to reach them.

Only about a dozen or so wetland areas are left in California where one can find Sandhill cranes and a few are here in this Central Valley farmland. As the road takes me along, the land changes from cultivated fields to open grassland graced with sopping ponds where coots bob up and down. More smoke trees start to show up and I finally arrive at the entrance to Merced National Wildlife Refuge, one of five national refuges and three state wildlife areas in the state where cranes are found.

My tires crunch on the gravel road. I stop and stick my head out of the window and listen for the unmistakable rattling croak of the cranes’ call. Yes, they are here.

The Refuge road emulates the farm road as it is planned out around the squares of managed wetland ponds. As I travel, the road sings to me with a buzzing from my tires on the gravel. In order to hear the silence, I have to stop and then listen to minute sounds of waterfowl busy gobbling on the dripping water plants and in the distance the call of the cranes.

As I near them the sound increases and comes not just from the land but drifting down from the sky as long lines of large grey birds fly by with heads and neck outstretched as they slowly descend, legs down straight, for a landing. These latest flyers join the ever increasing numbers of the flock carpeting the corn stubble field. There are thousands of them.

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Lesser Sandhill cranes cruise the Pacific Flyway some nesting in the far northeast corner of the state and others spending these winter months in the refuges. Greater Sandhill cranes in the tens of thousands travel up and down the flyway in the middle of the country and at least once a year cause a wildlife spectacle on the Platte River in Nebraska. I am envious of those people who get to see that every year as I know it is unlikely I will ride the straight roads of that state. But I am here with my own wildlife spectacle.

Upwards of 10,000 Lesser Sandhill cranes do spend time on Central Valley wetlands. Cranes have traveled here for millions of years far longer than any human has been here. These visitors are one of 15 crane species worldwide, most of them either endangered or threatened. About 35,000 Lesser Sandhill cranes spend time in the Central Valley visiting wetlands, refuges and agricultural fields.

I stop now and turn off the engine. The cranes strut and prance slowly back and forth, some bending down their heads to peck at the leftover corn. Suddenly one or two break into dance; they bow, they jump, they spread their wings. Is it a courtship performance?

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Cranes dance to relieve tension. Unpaired birds do perform a courting dance. Cranes mate for life, raise about two young each breeding season, and keep their offspring with them until they find mates. As I look across the flock I see just such a family group with mom and pop and two kids walking through the grasses.

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Males and females look alike with lovely blue-grey feathers splashed with streaks of brownish rust and bright red crowns. The young are similar with a bit more rust in the feathers and no red crown.

I could stay and watch the cranes for hours but the sun is slipping toward the western horizon and it is time to go back to town. I drive out of the refuge and start my return journey down straight roads.

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