Autumn Migration is for the Birds

Sunup Lift Off, Sandhill Cranes, Staten Island - photo by Rich Turner

If you consider the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, think of it as the largest inland, tidal estuary long the Pacific Coast. However, if you wish to explore the Delta, there are few roadways that intersect its labyrinth of rivers, sloughs and oxbows, leaving most of the inaccessible islands, meadows and lowlands the domain for migratory birds – millions of them.

Who hasn’t marveled at thousands of geese that serpentine in the autumn sky, circling down to glean waste grains and corn, or the wispy, elegant flight of an Arctic tern – known for the longest migration each year, upwards of 4,000 miles – searching the Delta’s more than 1,000 miles of waterways for a tasty fish?

The answer? Most Californians have never witnessed the fall migration spectacle nor seen what the Delta secretly holds, wonderful avian species such as lesser sandhill cranes, peregrine falcons, Swainson’s Hawks, white pelicans and millions of waterfowl (ducks, geese and swans), as well as marine mammals like sea lions, beaver and river otter.

Enjoying watchable wildlife can be accomplished from vehicles along state Highway 4, 12 and 160, or from country roads with strange sounding names, such as Eight Mile, Correia, Twin Cities, Staton, Bacon, Lower Jones, Woodbridge and Walnut Grove. Traveling by boat is another way to discover the Delta, but since most island land sits 18 feet below high tide, it is often difficult to see over the levees and inside to the secluded peat soil below.

Brannan Island State Recreation Area, set off Highway 160 near Rio Vista, and the Meadows State Park, reachable only by boat, from Walnut Grove, are open to the public and offer camping and access to see wildlife and native grasses and shrubs. Their scenes are reminiscent of days gone by, perhaps, as many as 130 years ago and the solace a Delta gentle breeze offers on a quiet afternoon is almost heavenly.

Waterfowl enthusiasts focus on The Nature Conservancy property known as Cosumnes River Preserve, with spectacular sunrise and sunset views found off Staton Road, and well-signed trails and a boardwalk into seasonal wetlands set off Twin Cities Road east of Interstate 5. The nearby Visitor Center on Franklin Boulevard, staffed by dedicated volunteers, is a fine destination to learn about wildlife viewing from a vehicle or on foot.

In November the Lodi Crane Festival highlights the return of lesser sandhill cranes, among the largest concentrations of the prehistoric birds found anywhere on the planet. Check the festival website for details and to sign up for more than 40 field trips for first-hand, experience-based study. During the festival and throughout autumn and winter, sandhill cranes pour into the Woodbridge Wildlife Area and offer not-to-be-forgotten “fly-ins” just at sunset.

As you watch the birds through binoculars or the naked eye be prepared for an atavistic cacophony of quacks, honks, screeches, whistles and squawks, in volumes so loud the hair on your neck will likely raise. This is the sensation a first-hand visit to the Delta can create, where a plethora of migratory birds is great and human disturbance is little.

Come enjoy, explore and discover.

Peter Ottesen

For nearly 50 years Peter Ottesen has written outdoors articles that have appeared in major newspapers around the U.S. and authored six books. He was named Writer of the Year in 1995 by the Outdoor Writer Association of California and in 2004 was elected to the California Outdoors Hall of Fame. A native of Hollister, he will be inducted into the California Waterfowler’s Hall of Fame in Feb. 2019. He is a landowner in the Delta, hunter and fly fisher, and an avid birdwatcher.

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