January in the Delta: Swans, Cranes, Life and Death
This January Saturday morning began with the promised showers, which turned to heavy rain by the time our group of 18 birders met in Orinda. It was a 45 minute drive out to the Sacramento River Delta.
Once we crossed the bridge north from Antioch we were in the flatlands, flat as in tabletop. There were the steep coastal hills and Mt. Diablo hidden in dense dark clouds behind us. Ahead, green fields, muddy embankments, and flat, flat, flat. The only elevations were the levees that border the Sacramento River and other water channels. Here the water is usually higher than the "dry land." Originally this are was a gigantic brackish marsh, but in the 19th Century levees were built and islands pumped dry. The resulting peat-rich soil converted to farmland. The biggest problem with peat? It oxidizes and the ash blows away, thus it slowly disappears as the decades pass, each year the level of the "dry" land getting lower and lower. As in much of the Netherlands, it's only ever higher levees, constant diking and pumping of water that keeps the land visible. In this especially wet rainy season many of the low fields are also covered in water, the pumps turned off to save energy costs, or just unable to keep up.
The minute we hit flat farmland the bird density soars. Huge flocks of blackbirds, little swirls of Western Meadowlark with the twin white tail stripes showing as they fly away. A Merlin arches over the highway. Great Egrets dot the fields. Later a Cooper's Hawk crosses before us. Turkey Vultures. American Kestrels on the roadside power lines. A Red-tailed Hawk.
We stop briefly in a muddy parking area: a Red-shafted Flicker flies a sine curve across the orchard. I warn the group we're entering a narrow, straight, frustrating section of Highway 12. There'll be birds galore, and nowhere to pull off for a good look. Sure enough. First a dense cluster of Cattle Egrets. Scattered Great Egrets. Coots in flooded fields. Large lines of shorebirds too far away to ID. More Great Egrets. California Gulls. There is land, there is water. There is no distinct border between them here, only a matter of concentration: more or less water, more or less soil. The mud's watery, the water is muddy black. A mapmaker's conundrum: is this land or is this water? Right now we humans think it's farmland. These ducks and shorebirds know it's marshland. Eventually with rising seawater and inevitable geological time, the water here will be many feet deep. Don't believe the map which pretends the water here is tightly confined within narrow manmade lines.
Then there's a snow field, perhaps a shallow pond, once a plowed field. The "snow" is over a thousand Tundra Swans, the juveniles still a sooty gray. Another field with ducks, mostly Northern Pintails. A stubble field with a few Sandhill cranes far back from the road. Swans overhead, white wings semaphoring against the blue-gray rain clouds. Northern Harriers (known as Hen Harriers in Europe) work the level fields. Another perched Red-tailed Hawk. This would be a miserable place to be a vole or rabbit.
When we reach Woodbridge Road we follow it left between dairy farms, past vineyards and fields. The encroachment of vineyards is troubling because they provide no habitat for Sandhill Cranes. First, there's a ditch full of liquefied cow manure on the left side of the road. Windows tight against the rain cannot keep out the complex, hearty smell. Then Starlings and Brewer's Blackbird. The heavy weeds along the dirt road give rise to swirls of White-crowned and Golden-crowned Sparrows. There is an occasional Savannah Sparrow with a yellow wash on a streaky face.
It's raining harder now at mid-morning, the wind blows from the south but is cold. We can only open the windows on the north side of the cars. Between squalls we venture out to use scopes. The flooded ditches often reveal a Great Egret who will lift up on limber wings, legs dangling and set off for some place where humans won't intrude on his hunting and dining. As we drive small gangs of Meadowlarks flutter from the road, over the shoulder and into the nearest field. Once or twice you see the bright yellow chest but mostly they give you their camouflage brown and white backs.
Flooded fields hold Pintail, Mallards, Shovelers, Wigeon, dense flocks of peeps. Killdeer scream and fly about. A shorebird flock overhead turns out to be Long-billed Dowitcher. There are small numbers of Greater Yellowlegs, looking clean-cut and well-dressed against the muddy brown water. Our first Peregrine of the day creates a feathered maelstrom as he passes over. The ducks hunker down, the small birds become a collective mass of motion. A light gray Harrier, the male, floats just above the stubble in one field. Sparrows scatter. Killdeer take fright and flight, never noiselessly.
Near a farmhouse we find Crows, Scrub-jay, Dark-eyed Juncos, more sparrows, another Flicker. No Yellow-billed Magpie for our birder from Vermont who's never seen one. Another Red-tailed Hawk. One gray and white bird flashes across the road and we stop to pursue, probably a Loggerhead Shrike but we never find it to confirm. Some of the small birds flitting across the fields are American Pipits, rain lowers our visibility but the call is unmistakably "pip-it, pip-it." More Meadowlarks. A Black Phoebe. Is this our fifth or sixth along Woodbridge Road? How can he find insects in this rain? A dark Merlin powers past us. More large flocks of Swans a-swimming.
Just a little way up the road we stop in the rain by the densest stubble along the road. Dark stalks standing straight up from the ground like miniature phone poles, yet every few feet there's a gray pole with the russet head of the crane attached. That field is full of nearly hidden cranes, the nearly liquid ooze of the fields being perfect for the shovelling the crane must do to bring up the roots and rhizomes on which it mostly feeds. One muddy patch has both Black and Say's Phoebe hunting from bush and weed tops. Along the water ditches some of the group had spotted Belted Kingfisher.
At the end of the road we turn around, there's another field of cranes here. We have only drizzle now and we revel in the chance to use our binoculars outside. Lines of cranes go past, legs dangled out behind their thin gray outlines. Then Swans. Suddenly several Vs of Snow Geese pass toward the north. They are peeping. Not much later a small group of Swans lift off in a flooded field near where we stand and fly overhead. You can hear the wind in their wing feathers. They are stunning white between our brown mud road and the charcoal dark of the sky. They glow, seeming to have light from within. Soon large geese formations are going overhead toward the west. These are dark, the White-fronted Geese, some of the lower birds clearly showing the white line in front of their beaks. They too are beeping to one another. Then we turn our backs to the rain and Woodbridge Road and head north to Cosumnes Preserve.
After lunch the rain subsides and we are left with simply cold wind and gray skies. The marsh west of the Visitors Center is chock-a-block with ducks. We add Cinnamon Teal to our list, a lifer for Vermont. Then we fill out the spectrum: Green-winged, Blue-winged (the least common of the three in California) - a teal trifecta. Here we also find Gadwall, Ruddy Duck, Bufflehead, Common Goldeye and Ring-necked Ducks. These last four are our first diving ducks of the day. Tree Swallows are working the air just above the water, part of the small population that does not migrate south but spends the winter in California's Central valley where the water rarely freezes. There are Yellow-rumped Warblers in every bush and tree. One Ruby-crowned Kinglet is spotted. Many more sparrows.
Turkey Vultures pass low, just over the treetops. More Crows. No magpies here, try the farms around, says the lady in the Visitors Center. Another Flicker or two. A Merlin shoots past, then later a dark Peregrine hunts the marsh as we watch. He dives time and again. The ducks are frozen in place. Even the Wigeon stop their rubber ducky squeaking. Finally the Peregrine makes a dive that scares up a Wilson's Snipe, but the small bird just escapes the talons and shoots straight up and away from the marsh into the woods along the Cosumnes River.
A fellow birder had pointed us to the Blue-winged Teal and motioned toward the Green Heron which promptly flew off before most of us could see it. As somebody was asking about the Green Heron and where you would usually see one, I answered that it liked similar freshwater marshes. Then on cue the Heron flew a circle around us in plain sight only about forty feet above the water before disappearing into a tangle of tree branches.
Many Mallards, many American Coots, more Harrier action, a few more Great Egrets, a Blue Heron. We turned our back on the wind and headed into the protective trees that lined the river and its network of sloughs. We found Pied-billed Grebe, and a Flicker was calling. As we watched Black Phoebes hunt along an otherwise silent lakefront, a cranky call came from the woods. It was a Nuttall's Woodpecker. Using a CD player with a Nuttall's recording, we called him back. He circled us sitting first to the east, then to the west of the our offending CD player. Everyone got views of the white and black ladder-back and the bright red spot on the back of his skull. A lifer for Vermont, to add to the Cinnamon Teal.
On the way home along Highway 12, we added Canvasback, Double-crested Cormorant, two White-tailed Kites (another lifer for Vermont) and Snowy Egret. We tried and looked and played the calls - no Yellow-billed Magpies did we find. But the skeins of geese, the snowdrifts of swans, the thin gray lines of cranes, the fine white neck stripe of the male Pintail, the warm cinnamon color of the namesake teal, the rusty sidewall of the male Shoveler, the black and white flash of the Nuttall's, the vertical dive of the Peregrine, the upward arching climb of the Snipe - those we brought home with us.
Directions from Orinda to Woodbridge Road
(See also Sandhill Cranes.)