I headed out early, with Great Gray and Grasshopper Sparrow. Our destination was Woodbridge Road just north of the town of Lodi. This road is well known amongst birders as a great place to see wintering sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis).
We made good time, traffic was light on a Saturday morning and after two hours of travel, we pulled off Highway 5 and headed along a frontage road until we came to Woodbridge Road. Our destination was the Woodbridge Ecological Reserve (Isenberg Crane Reserve), two units, north and south of Woodbridge Road, preserving 353 acres of sandhill crane habitat.
To the right was the North Unit and we pulled into the dirt parking lot and there were cranes in the fields as far as the eye could see and cranes in the air coming and going, their loud bugling calls filling our ears. This was a life bird for young Grasshopper (as many of the birds on this trip were).
I had been to Woodbridge Road a handful of times and there seemed to be more cranes around on this visit than in any other previous visit. The last time I was here, I was looking for the sulky, vagrant the brown thrasher, which I successfully added to my ABA lifelist on December 8, 2018.
After getting our fill of cranes (can you ever get your fill of cranes?) and doing a few field sketches, we had an ever more amazing crane experience at the south unit. Across the road from the parking lot, in a green field, were perhaps a thousand sandhill cranes. A farm truck drove along the border of the field causing a mass of cranes to lift into the air. What an incredible sight! Hundreds of cranes in the air, their bugling calls, reaching us across the road.
We were surrounded by birds in all directions, thousands of ducks and coots to our south (and two tundra swans, another lifer for Grasshopper), cracking geese flying overhead in stretched out “V”s, and sandhill cranes everywhere!
We left the Reserve and headed back to Highway 5 South and then headed west on Highway 12 toward Rio Vista. Our destination was the dirt roads and open fields known to birders, collectively, as “Robinson Road”. This area is also known as “Raptor Heaven”.
We headed north on McCloskey Road onward to where the pavement turns to dirt. As we approached the T junction with McCormack Road, I saw a raptor hovering above the field, north of the road. It’s white tailbase blazed bright, identifying itself!
We rushed out of the truck and headed to the field edge. I told Grasshopper that I would help him find the birds but I wanted him to identify them. We were now looking at a raptor that is never guaranteed at Robinson. I have whiffed on this species many times but McCormick Road had always produced for me. When the hawk wheeled around showing it’s dark belly and carpal patches, Grasshopper said, “Rough-legged hawk!” And he was correct!
At the intersection of Robinson and Flannery Roads, Grasshopper spotted a large raptor on the ground. The bird flew up and we watched our largest hawk, the ferruginous hawk, ride the thermals with an adult red-tail.
Our best sighting of the trip was further down Robinson Road. I saw a large raptor perched near the top of the power tower to our right. We drove a little further down the road so we could get a better view of the raptor. I got the scope on the bird and asked if Grasshopper could identify it. He looked through the scope and after a short time proclaimed, “Golden eagle!”
We got great scope looks of the eagle before it to flew west across the road and caught a thermal above the fields. It was soon joined by two other raptors that harassed the large eagle by dive bombing the golden from above. The eagle’s assailants where a ferruginous hawk and a prairie falcon! This was certainly a first and an amazing thing to witness. A golden eagle, ferruginous hawk, and prairie falcon, all in one scope view!
Grasshopper Sparrow’s spread of our fantastic day with sandhill cranes!