It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a sandhill crane! Every winter, 7,000 of these elegant gray birds with bright red foreheads soar hundreds of miles from the Pacific Northwest to their seasonal landing pad in the delta region of the Central Valley. Get up close to these long-necked beauties by visiting the Woodbridge Ecological Reserve in Lodi. The trick is to be there about an hour before sunset, when the cranes are apt to be active. You’re likely to hear them before you see them, their haunting cackles like a distant locomotive. Scan the sky for a V-formation of these birds—with up to 7-foot wingspans—cruising across the dimming winter light. In the wetlands, you may witness a crane cocktail party, highlighted by a jumping, bowing, wing-spreading dance designed to attract a life mate (not to be confused with the Funky Chicken). Docents are usually on site during the sunset magic hour, regaling visitors with bird trivia. All aboard the crane train!
TIP: For more crane close-ups, make a reservation through their Web site to accompany the docents to a new shelter on the north side of the preserve. If the tour is filled, there may be no-shows and the docents can accommodate you. Just ask.
For directions to Woodbridge Ecological Reserve, check the Web site. Most sandhill cranes will have left the reserve by late February.