Bird of the Week: Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill cranes have been around for a long time. These birds have large grayish bodies with long necks and their heads are topped with a crimson red crown. There are two sandhill species that winter in the Central Valley: the greater sandhill and its smaller cousin, the lesser sandhill crane. The lesser migrates as far north as Siberian, Canada and Alaskan breeding grounds. When the cold weather creeps in they head south to wintering grounds mostly in Florida, Texas, Utah, Mexico, and California.  There have even been sightings in Cuba.

Ten million year old fossils from the Miocene Epoch seem to match the modern sandhill cranes we have today.  These large birds are found predominately in North America.  We folks in northern California are blessed because the greater sandhill crane spends spring and summer months here in Modoc and Lassen counties and many also range in southern Oregon.

Both species of sandhill cranes live and nest in freshwater wetlands typically and lay two eggs, which both parents incubate.  They are a curious bird and will eat anything they find that seems interesting.  So this makes them opportunistic eaters.  Their diet consists of mice, snakes, insects, or yummy worms, as well as enjoying plants, grains, corn and gourmet tubers.

Cranes are known for their “unison calling” and unique ballet during mating season: throwing their heads back, sharing a duet and leaping high in the air.

The majestic greater sandhill crane has returned early this year.  Crane experts contend that wildfires and drought are reasons for the migration change. The fire issue is no small matter as the National Interagency Fire Center recorded  647 wildfires burned more than a million acres in Oregon last year alone.

Drought also may have influenced the cranes to leave early.  Food has been harder to find in the wildfire areas the cranes have to move into other areas. The western crane conservation people help manage the sightings for the International Crane Foundation.  They also say that it’s too early for them to have migrated.

The cranes make good use of corn and rice fields in the Sacramento Valley, as well as marshlands. They use wetlands for nighttime roosting as protection from coyotes and other predators. Experts say we have probably lost least a third to half of the cranes’ wintering options because vineyards now have replaced natural habitat in addition to habit destruction from the widespread fires.

The lesser sandhill cranes also migrate through the central valley along the Pacific Flyway, too, but arrive later than their cousins. It will be interesting to see if they also arrive early.

This week we spotted hundreds of greater sandhill cranes in the fields located along southern border of Modoc County near the Pit River along Route 299, just west of Alturas—

Bird of the Week: Evening Grosbeak

At this time of year on the edge of the high desert in Northern California I wake up to a cup of coffee and a drove of unmistakable Evening Grosbeaks at my bird feeder.  Am I lucky or what.

Evening Grosbeak

  • Coccothraustes vespertinus
  • 8 inches long with a wingspan of 14 inches

This comical looking bird with it’s massive head, big beak and beautiful, distinct colors could easily be employed in a cartoon as you can see in my photo.  They feed mainly on insects and seeds from the trees but they take pleasure in the delights of my feeder.  Each morning that I see them I am inspired by them just being there poised to greet the day with whatever it offers them.  It’s a lesson— I am reminded that I take this kind of thing for granted far too often.

This is Birdie Girl’s first featured bird.  I hope to share an interesting bird I see each week for you to enjoy. Happy Valentine’s Day and thank you for reading!

Bird of the Week: Herring Gull

California Herring Gull: Larus argentatus

Winter in California is good when I can walk along the shore and take some time to do a small watercolor of a Herring Gull that seems to be posing for me. Herring Gulls are gray and white with pink-legged. They’re the most familiar gulls of the North Atlantic and can be found across much of coastal North America in winter.  They are a common winter bird on the coast of California. Identification can be tricky with this type of gull because they resemble other gulls with a variety of plumages the first few years. Adult Herring Gulls are similar to adult Ring-billed Gulls (Larus delawarensis) and California Gull (Larus californicus) but the Herring Gulls are much larger with larger bills. I am still learning my gulls.

I was told in my orinthology class that there is no such thing as a “seagull” —It broke my heart.  All those beautiful songs and the wonderful poetry about “seagulls”— well, science is science— never took claims on being poetic, that’s for sure.  The “seagull” will always be my heart’s delight.