Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Sandhill Cranes and the Great Valley That Once Was, and in Places, Still Is (An Apologetic)

There's a difference between apologetics and polemics. The latter is an attack, but the former is a defense. I was writing a piece at my other blog, Geotripper's Birds of California about Sandhill Cranes, and in a few paragraphs it turned into an apologetic for living in the Great Valley of California, a place that few people find attractive. The thing is, when one searches carefully, there is much to see here in the way of beauty and grandeur. The Sandhill Cranes are but a single aspect. The original post follows:
These beautiful birds are among the reasons I took up bird photography a couple of years ago. I was astounded to find that Sandhill Cranes (Grus Canadensis) congregated by the tens of thousands very close to where I live, and I was not the least bit aware of it.

Living in the Central Valley of California (which I agree should always be called the Great Valley) is an exercise in frustration and futility. The natural environment, the greatest savanna environment in the United States, was almost completely co-opted by agricultural development, and then by urban development. It's not a great place for people to live...most of the jobs are poorly-paid manual labor, the soil, air and water are infused with pesticides, herbicides, and particulate air pollution, and health problems, especially asthma and related respiratory illnesses are rampant. Education is a low priority to those in power. We are consistently the first to suffer in economic downturns, and the last region to recover from them.
And yet there is still a greatness to this valley. In terms of the natural environment, dedicated people have worked tirelessly for decades to preserve the remnants of the rich ecosystem, and have worked even harder to rebuild some of the habitats as abandoned farmlands have come available. Thousands of acres of river floodplains have been replanted with native vegetation. There is now a string of wildlife refuges along the 400 mile length of the valley that provide shelter for the millions of winter migrants, the Sandhill Cranes, the Aleutian Cackling Geese, the Snow and Ross's Geese, and many others.
The Great Valley that existed hundreds and thousands of years ago is still available to observe and enjoy, and often only a few miles from the homes of everyone who lives here. In the Modesto-Turlock area, there are the San Luis and San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuges. The Beckwith Road viewing platform (part of the San Joaquin refuge) is only an eight mile excursion from Modesto's biggest shopping mall. I was there last night and had a real treat. The Sandhill Cranes are elegant large birds, beautiful to photograph, but they are a bit wary (with good reason) of human beings. They tend to stay towards the interior of the refuge, being heard more than seen off in the distance.
It's deep into winter now, and food stores are kind of low. The refuge managers grow fields of corn and other crops for the sole use of the birds, and they'll plow down the corn in sections so the birds can feed easily. Once those crops are gone, the birds make do, and last night they were roaming the plowed fields close to the road and viewing platform. I got some of my closest shots in a long time.

This is part of the valley as it once was, and still is. It belongs to all of us, and it is right in our own backyard. And to our coastal and urban center friends, don't forget that there are some incredible sights to see on the valley floor when you are on your way to Yosemite or to one of the Sierra ski resorts. For our international visitors, there are more places to see than the travel brochures hint at. If you are interested in the natural world want to see some of the real California, not just the tourist meccas, then check out these places. The refuges are worthy of a look.