RICHMOND — About a year ago, my sister and I were driving the California/Oregon coast with a detour to Napa Valley. Then she read — she, the master of itineraries — about the sandhill cranes migrating by the thousands. It took a bit of searching, but we followed several roads to nowhere and found the Woodbridge Ecological Reserve – along with perhaps a hundred other people.
Two or three cranes, close to four feet tall, were feeding in the marsh that stretched out in front of us. More than two or three mosquitoes were feeding on us, and we hoped the wait would be short. It was.
They came in platoons, thousands of giant birds flying out of the pink sunset sky. A hundred or more would sail in, squawk loudly and settle quickly to poke in the marsh for supper. They came and came and came, silhouetted against that beautiful sky. With binoculars, we could see as many as four separate flights at a time. Woodbridge and the Cosumnes River Preserve play host to these cranes during migration, and we were stunned by the spectacle.
It was one of those fortunate times when you almost turn back because you can't find the place you thought you were going to, and some of the people you ask give you the blank look. But we were intrepid continuing quite a few miles on small roads through huge farm fields with few houses. It was worth every frustrating mile. We had incredible birding experiences on that 1,400-mile trip, but we couldn't stop talking about the cranes. It seemed they would be at or near the top of our lists forever. Last week, however, a little 5-inch bird, the tree swallow, pushed them to No. 2.
We took an aptly named boat called Adventure on the Connecticut River from Eagle Landing State Park in Haddam, Connecticut, heading south almost to the I-95 bridge. It was a charter arranged by the Denison Pequotsepos nature center in Stonington, Connecticut, so some serious birders with serious binoculars were aboard. The captain and crew proved expert on whatever turned up.
The late afternoon sun cast a spotlight on birds feeding along the silty bank of the river. We saw three eagles, many great blue herons (seven at one place) and great egrets. The trip was already great, and we were nowhere near the entrée. Once the I-95 bridge was in sight, our captain maneuvered around smaller boats and kayaks so we were opposite an island jammed with phragmites, a five-foot grass that flourishes plumes at this time of year, looks beautiful and is considered an invasive species that should be rooted out.
It is rooted out in some places, but not here. These phragmites live because that blue-green bird with the sharp wings likes and needs them. As the sun went down, the crew started pointing out some swallows overhead, a dozen or so at a time. They promised more. We had no idea how serious they were. Suddenly the air was filled with them, high up and darting hither and yon, seemingly in disarray, and then gathering high over the line of trees on the east bank of the river. They were tiny, and the captain was right – it looked as if the sky had been sprinkled with pepper. The sun left a bright sky, and we were now looking east at 300,000 -500,000 tree swallows. Suddenly their inner clocks pulled them together, a clear section of sky opened above them, and a smattering of birds were flying over the phragmites. Then it was as if someone pulled a curtain. They dropped down, creating a dark mass above the trees and in less than a minute, they funneled into the reeds and were out of sight. It was a moment to gasp.
They would stay at least the night, leaving the next day or soon after. And another group would arrive until migration ends sometime at the end of this month or in October. The bonus for our 3.5-hour trip came when we headed upriver and watched a full, orange moon rise over the water.
The sandhill cranes couldn't hold a wing to that performance, which is officially called a murmuration. For those who want to know more, River Quest and Adventure have a web site: www.ctriverquest.com. It may be too late for 2016, but this is a bucket list item. Unless you've never noticed a bird.
Ruth Bass keeps old binoculars in the car, just in case. Her website is www.ruthbass.com.