One hundred and 50 years ago, after a wet California winter, you might have needed a flat-bottomed boat to cross the Central Valley from the Coast Range to the Sierra foothills. Today, dams retain that water, then channel it through a network of dikes. Of the estimated three to five million acres of original California wetlands, only 450,000 acres remain – a reduction of 85 to 90 percent.
Yet remnants of that primeval wetland persist. And while the numbers of birds that winter in the Central Valley have declined proportionately to wetland loss, many thousands of impressive birds are here for us to see.
The headwaters of the Cosumnes River is lower in the Sierra than the larger rivers born near the crest, but it’s real distinction is that it is the only unregulated river on the Sierra west slope. With no dams to regulate its flow, the Cosumnes River occasionally floods as California rivers once did, creating habitats and native vegetation that were common before the Gold Rush.
Recognizing the need to protect this unique waterway, the Nature Conservancy established the Cosumnes River Preserve in 1987. The original 1,480-acre preserve has grown to 46,000 acres and is now managed by an array of agencies and organizations under a unique Cooperative Management Agreement.
I am not a birder, but only a barren soul is unmoved by exotic waterfowl in Serengeti-like numbers. On a recent Sunday, we joined friends on a visit to the Cosumnes River Preserve hoping to see them in big numbers and feel their powerful life force.
A wide variety of ducks and waterfowl circulate among the network of preserves and refuges in the Central Valley, so whom will be where and when is always a little dicey. And while we were interested to see whomever might fly by, the prospect of seeing Sandhill Cranes was foremost in our minds. Sandhill Cranes have an ancient lineage. Fossil remains of relatives date back 10 million years, and the oldest Sandhill Crane fossil is 2.5 million years old. These huge birds – they average ten pounds and have wing spans up to 7 feet – are sometimes confused with great blue herons, but cranes can be distinguished by the distinctive red forehead and the fact that they fly with their neck extended, not folded in like a heron.
Full of anticipation, we crossed the street toward the Wetlands Walk that leads into the restored marshes of Lost Slough. We were fortunate to have among us Jeff Hart, an experienced and passionate naturalist whose knowledge and spotting scope immeasurably enhanced our visit. With his help, we were introduced to cinnamon teals, green-winged teals (wow), American widgeons, northern pintails and lots more lolling about in the slough.
But beyond doubt, the real show was in the sky above. White-fronted geese, snow geese, and sandhill cranes crisscrossed the sky in a delightful honking chaos of comings and goings.
But for me, the day’s most heart-stopping sight was watching a sandhill crane descend and land. At an altitude of 40 or 50 feet, this huge bird shifts from his sleek linear flying profile, drops his legs and spreads his wings in a gangly stalling maneuver and begins to slowly drop from the sky like a parachute. Primary and secondary feathers trailing from his wings spread apart like fingers on an open hand as the bird drops down, very slowly, to earth. It is the oddest spectacle of ungainly grace, as if the talk gawky kid in your eighth-grade class moved like Rudolf Nureyev.
Cosumnes River Preserve is on Interstate 5 between Stockton and Sacramento. Directions and details are at www.cosumnes.org. A National Geographic-caliber wildlife experience is just a two-hour drive away.