Fran Bennett of Old Shasta earnestly peers through her small Minolta binoculars in an attempt to see flocks of Sandhill Cranes as they fly overhead.
The birds, after a day of picking at bugs and food remnants in nearby corn and rice fields, are arriving at a preserve to roost for the night.
Bennett, along with friends Ginger Smith and Laura Heringer of Sacramento, wait inside a bird watching shelter with two fish and game employees, hoping to get a close-up glimpse of the birds.
A shotgun sounds at a nearby hunting club. The birds - hundreds of them - noisily ascend from the wet fields as fast and furiously as a Cobra Helicopter taking off for combat. The svelte white beasts head Northeast, probably to Cosumnes or Stone Lake Preserve.
The opportunity for photos is gone, but the group of bird enthusiasts are only mildly disappointed. Having spent the late afternoon on Woodbridge Road viewing hundreds of cranes in different fields, their bird watching thirst is satiated for the day.
The women are not alone in their love for the cranes. More than 1,200 fellow crane admirers are expected to convene at the Sandhill Crane Festival this weekend at Hutchins Street Square and in the surrounding area.
The third-annual event is sponsored by the California Department of Fish and Game in conjunction with the Lodi Chamber of Commerce.
The festival will include wildlife tours, family programs and workshops, storytelling and performances, videos and exhibits, live animals from "Wild Things," speakers and an art show.
Pamela J. Jensen will speak Sunday about her book "Legends of the Crane," which features folklore and poems about cranes, herons and egrets with some 40 pieces of original art work. She calls her work the " 'Chicken Soup' of crane folklore." For Jensen, a self-proclaimed "crane-addict," it was love at first sight when she first laid eyes on the birds in 1989 on the North Platte River in Colorado, the largest migratory site in North America.
"The cry of the crane sinks deep in my heart," said a passionate Jensen. "I'm six feet, one inch tall and have long legs myself; maybe that's why I identify with the crane."
Sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis) are the most abundant of the species. There are close to 1.7 million cranes in North America and extend as far south as Cuba and even reaching northeastern Siberia in the opposite direction.
Six subspecies exist: The Lesser, Greater and the Canadian Sandhill, which are migratory, and the Mississippi, Florida and Cuban, which are small, non-migratory birds.
The Sandhill Crane spends the warm season in Siberia, Canada and Alaska and then flies south for the winter. The wet fields of the Lodi region make a perfect rest stop along the way. For bird watchers, the migratory period provides front-seat viewing.
But there's more than just bird watching going on; there's a heightened awareness of wildlife conservation and preserving Mother Nature's bounty.
Bennett and her friends represent that awareness. The interest has created an influx of wildlife festivals and events in the state.
"They're growing by the year. Six years ago, there were only nine, and this year we had 46," said Bruce Forman, interpretive services supervisor for California Fish and Game. "The festivals celebrate everything from salmon and butterflies to birds and whales."
For more information regarding the festival, call (209) 367-7840.
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