Partying with Cranes in Lodi

All the sandhill cranes are doing it…

Yep, the “greaters,” the “lessers”—even the “Canadians” come to Lodi every winter for a massive sandhill crane party. As busy Californians zoom north and south on Interstate 5, or east and west on Highway 12, birders from around the world are bundled up against the chilly delta breeze just minutes away in an almost-dark field watching thousands of the four- and five-foot-tall birds fly in to party for the winter.

Until settlers rerouted the waters of the Mokelumne River to irrigate farmland, sandhill cranes migrated to Lodi marshes every winter for thousands of years. In 1986, the creation of the Woodbridge Ecological Reserve reversed the situation, restoring the area so that the cranes and thousands of other migrating birds have a watery spot to roost.

One early November afternoon, my 12-year-old daughter Pearl and I raced from her middle school near San Francisco to the edge of Lodi in the northern Central Valley, arriving just before sunset. We pulled into the reserve’s gravel parking lot and rustled the feathers of the dozen or so birders already positioned with cameras, binoculars and scopes trained on the wetlands. We donned warmer gear and took our place along the fence to watch the party.

pearl binoculars

Cranes aside, the landscape was riddled with all manner of floating, fluttering and flying birds—including ducks, geese, egrets and hawks. The reserve offers a bird checklist, but the evening light made it pretty hard for a non-birder like myself to see any markings. Not that bird ID-ing mattered: With the sun setting behind Mt. Diablo and the pinky purple ponds teeming with life, no one was keeping score.

mt diablo cranes in sunset

The big bird party was well underway by the time we arrived. Groups of sandhills were busy eating, grooming and chitchatting in the marsh about 50 feet from the viewing area. (They don’t love people or cars so they keep their distance.) More cranes—just a few or as many as 20—swooped in every few minutes, looking and sounding a bit like the flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz.

When we visited in early November, approximately 7,000 cranes were in town. But by the time the season ends in February, more than 25,000 of the big guys arrive in the area nightly—so the party gets hotter as winter gets colder. We stayed about 45 minutes; by that time we couldn’t see much, but we could still hear the birds carousing as we left.

The cranes aren’t the only ones partying in Lodi. The day before we arrived, Wine Enthusiast named Lodi “Wine Region of the Year” to the cheers of the area’s vintners. The recognition was a long time coming for a town that has a winemaking tradition dating back 150 years (and still grows a lot of the grapes bottled by acclaimed Napa County vintners.)  The San Francisco Chronicle’s coverage began by downplaying the honor, but by the end of the article admitted that the award was kind of a big deal.

newspaper lodi headline

You can have a taste of what the experts are excited about at one of Lodi’s many kid-friendly wineries. Heritage Oaks encourages picnicking on their grounds and hiking on its riverside and vineyard-side trailsPhillips Farms Café and Winery is known for its amazing local food. And Durst Winery has a massive lawn with room for the little ones to run around.

In my experience, the combination of excellent natural attractions and excellent wine makes for a successful family getaway. So after the crane party, Pearl and I chose the palm tree-lined property of the Best Western Royal Host Inn on Cherokee Lane near Highway 99 replete with kidney-shaped swimming pool. We got the last room in the place for $95, overlooking the parking lot of the Mexican supermarket next door. The room was clean and the front desk clerk was helpful. Cherokee Lane is hit and miss, however. The road was formerly part of Route 99, the old north-south California highway (popularly traveled before the supersonic trucking route of Interstate 5 came along) and therefore lined with motels that served a more family-friendly clientele in years past. Today, Cherokee is also lined with great taquerias, paleterias and fabulous old neon signs.

motel neon

The Richmaid Restaurant’s neon sign drew Pearl and me in for dinner—but we loved the whole place. It dates from 1938 and still retains classic diner qualities: a great counter with spinning seats, friendly servers, red plastic water glasses, perfect milk shakes and locals chowing down. We recommend the grilled cheese and house-made chicken rice soup served with Saltines.

richmaid collage

In the morning, we headed downtown to the Dancing Fox Winery and Restaurant. Our goal was to obtain a loaf of “crane bread” made from the grains eaten by the sandhills. It was delicious—and good-looking too, because during the week of Lodi’s Sandhill Crane Festival (when we visited), the baker flours a crane’s head into the top of the loaf! But all of the Dancing Fox’s baked goods were tempting and the antique-filled dining room is popular from brunch ’til dinner.

crane bread

Lodi’s 100-year-old downtown area is located 10 minutes east of Interstate 5, much closer to Highway 99. Its entrance is crowned with the best arch I’ve seen since the Roman’s work in Europe, topped by a California golden bear, no less!

lodi daytime

Craftsman homes, old streetlights, wide sidewalks and classic storefronts have been saved and renovated. Local retailers and restaurants dominate the merchant list. (Did you know A&W Root Beer was started in Lodi back in 1919?) A massive 12-screen cinema looms at the north end of old downtown, as does the old Lodi water tower. And if you’re into antiques, vintage collectibles or great thrift stores, you will be in heaven: There are at least a half-dozen worth checking out in downtown Lodi alone. To be sure, the area is still up-and-coming. When I noticed that there were a number of homeless people cruising around, sadly, Pearl was accurate in her reply, “There aren’t as many as in San Francisco.”

From downtown, we headed to Lake Lodi, a local park just west of downtown. Our November visit found a mostly-empty lakeside park, but from May–September you can picnic, swim and rent boats here.

lodi lake

In winter, you can call ahead to arrange a paddle with Headwaters Kayak. They’ll meet you at the lake with kayaks, take you through the lake and onto miles of Mokelumne River flat water.

kayak mokelumne river fall

In autumn and winter, kayakers often have the river all to themselves, slicing glassy water and looking for beaver, river otters and—you guessed it—sandhill cranes. Because in Lodi, the crane party rages all winter long.

cranes flying

Good to Know 

Getting to the Crane Parties   The California Department of Fish and Wildlife manages the Woodbridge Ecological Reserve. You can visit on your own (aim for the “South Unit” on this map of the reserve) or you can book a tour with a CDFW docent by clicking here to reserve a spot.  Staten Island, a Nature Conservancy preserve, just north of the Woodbridge area, is another great place to see cranes and other birds – at night or in the morning. (Get a description and directions here.) Cranes also hang out at the Consumnes River Preserve. It is a bit farther north but closer to Sacramento if you are detouring from Interstate 80 to see the big birds. They are open on weekends and offer hiking, paddling and a driving tour of the preserve.

Timing Your Crane Viewing   The best time to see cranes is when they fly in to roost for the night at sunset. Arrive just before sunset. I believe sunset was officially 5:04pm on the day we visited and we arrived at about 4:50pm, which seemed about right. The birds fly in after sunset until dark. You can visit in the morning or at other times of day but you won’t be guaranteed to see a large number of cranes.

Keep an Eye Out   If you’re coming from the west and driving across Highway 12, look for cranes in the rivers/deltas on the north side as you come, or drive past the reserve on Woodbridge Road to find them hanging out all day long in the fields. Watch for fast-moving trucks and farm vehicles on seemingly empty roads.

Learn More   Bay Nature just published a thorough and fabulous article about the sandhills and their time near Lodi. Read it to the kids on the drive out!

Bring Binoculars   You can absolutely see the birds without them but it is more fun to have a closer look. Telephoto lenses are of course helpful but the light is really quite low (as many of the professional photographers around us were complaining.) If you’re shooting with an iPhone (like me) you can put the lens up to the binoculars for a grainy close-up shot, like Pearl did.

Bundle Up   It’s chilly and breezy on winter evenings in the delta.

The People Party   Lodi’s Sandhill Crane Festival is the first weekend in November. Special tours take place in the reserve and fun events are held around town. Be aware, however, this is the busiest weekend of the year in Lodi and in my opinion, it might be better to visit another time when it is less crowded and you’re some of the only humans at the bird party.

Overnight in Town   You came for the birds, but consider staying for the wine, food, architecture and history. We thought the Best Western Royal Host was a good bargain spot near 99. There’s also a relatively new Hampton Inn right off 99 and just across the freeway from a classic zigzag-roofed Denny’s. There’s another basic Best Western right off I-5. The poshest property in Lodi is Wine & Roses, with its lush grounds, tasting room for local appellations, small demo vineyard, restaurants and spa.

Find the Right Winery One look at the expansive map of Lodi wineries and their varied activites and you’ll hardly feel guilty dragging your kids along to wine taste. Visit the wine commission’s web site, click “family-friendly” under “Categories,” and you’ll get a list of places to taste – all with sub-$10 tasting fees usually refunded if you purchase a bottle.

Stuck with “Lodi”  If you’re a child of the 1970s, you’ll remember your parents playing Creedence Clearwater Revival’s song complaining of being “stuck in Lodi again.” CCR singer John Fogerty admitted later that he’d never been to Lodi but had always been enamored with its odd name. Turns out, no one knows exactly why the town’s name was changed from “Mokelumne” (from the Miwok words for “people of the river”) to “Lodi” (pronounced “low-die”) in 1873. It might have been named after a town in Italy, some settlers’ hometown in Illinois or a popular racehorse. Whatever the reason, neither Lodi’s unique moniker nor the song bothers the locals.

 

Maryann Jones Thompson, November 2015

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