The birds are back, with a vengeance, in San Joaquin County!

October, November are ideal months for visiting the Pacific Flyway in San Joaquin County

Sandhill cranes arrive by the hundreds to the Isenberg Crane Reserve just off W. Woodbridge Road.

Our weather continues sunny and warm, but rain and cooler temperatures are predicted. With thousands of migratory waterfowl descending on our nearby lakes, rivers and wetlands – it’s a great time to go birdwatching, close to home. Take the kids or grandkids, let them tabulate the varied bird species they will find and make for a great day’s adventure.

You won’t need to go far, and all you need is a good pair of walking shoes, binoculars, camera and snacks. Your choices includes Lodi lake, the Isenberg Crane Reserve, Cosumnes River Preserve, Stone Lakes National Wildlife Reserve, Merced Wildlife Preserve to our south and nearby reservoirs like Comanche and Pardee, all within an hour or less drive from Stockton. Unfortunately, about 90% of California wetlands have been lost to development since 1900; but these wetland reserves remain hugely popular for millions of migrating waterfowl.

Pintail ducks at Cosumnes River Preserve (photo courtesy of Chuck Higgs).

Recent visits to Cosumnes River Preserve yielded sightings of hundreds of Pintail ducks, Canadian geese, pelicans, egrets, red-winged blackbirds and Blue heron. Best of all, it only takes a short walk to reach many of the best bird-viewing sites. The preserve contains 50,000 acres, 11 miles of hiking and walking trails at the intersection of the Cosumnes River and Mokelumne Rivers. Most of the trails are wheelchair accessible, in a riverine setting much as Native Americans would have found it hundreds of years ago.

The preserve is two miles north of Thornton, on Thornton Boulevard. Side benefits of a visit include the chance to stop at Consumnes River Farms for wine or olive oil tasting, or Primos Bakery in the little town of Thornton for delicious baked goods. If you and younger tourees take a refreshment break, spring the “case of the disappearing city” on them. Here’s the puzzler: What was the second largest city and port in San Joaquin County in the 1850s, and, what happened to it?

Author's grandson Jack spies distant birds at Cosumnes River Preserve.

The answer is Mokelumne City, established in 1850 at the confluence of the Cosumnes and Mokelumne Rivers, as a competitor to Stockton. Sloops plyed the waters to and from San Francisco and the town grew to well over 200 people.  But the great flood of 1862 washed most of the town downstream, and the city was never rebuilt.  A granite obelisk, one block south of the intersection of Thornton and Benson Ferry Road, once sported a California Historic Plaque marking the town, but the plaque was stolen.

Grandson Jack and I recently toured to the Isenberg Crane Preserve, two miles west of Interstate 5 on Woodbridge Rd. (west of Lodi). We had the reserve all to ourselves and counted roughly 400 Sandhill Cranes, majestic, bold and comfortably settled into this Delta wetlands area. These ancient birds migrate from as far as Siberia each year, standing 3-5 feet tall with a regal air and a call like a frog.

Canadian geese fly in formation above Cosumnes River Preserve (photo courtesy of Chuck Higgs).

I also chatted with friend Chuck Higgs, a fine amateur photographer (most of the photos with this article are his).  I asked Chuck how he became a nature photographer, and where his favorite places to shoot wildlife were.  He responded, “I started photography when I purchased my first camera in Hong Kong in the 70’s. My first love was taking photos of airplanes and car racing, though I have now have evolved into wildlife photography, particularly birds. Three of my favorite places for bird photography are the Cosumnes River Preserve, the Merced Wildlife Preserve outside of Merced and Lodi Lake. I use two Nikon cameras, a D300S and a D500 with several Nikon telephoto lenses”. Thanks to Chuck for sharing marvelous photos!

Egret in flight lands next to sedate pelican at Cosumnes Preserve (photo courtesy Chuck Higgs).

Several upcoming special events are worth note:

Cosumnes River Preserve: October 15, a guided paddle tour (bring your own kayak or canoe), starts at the visitor center at 8:30 AM. On October 22, 9 AM to 3:30 PM, take part in a habitat restoration workday for those wanting to share some volunteer time and talent.
Lodi Sandhill Crane Festival: Coming November 4–6, 2016 in Lodi and surrounding Delta wetlands, the three day festival features guided tours, paddling events, symposiums and insight into these majestic birds.
Stone Lakes National Wildlife Refuge: Docent-guided walks, October 15 and November 19, 9 to 12 – meet at the west end of Elk Grove Boulevard to join your guide. On November 13, 10 AM to 1 PM, join for Brunch with the Birds.
Coming later in the year, bald eagle viewing tours, at Pardee and Comanche Reservoirs, led by EBMUD Rangers on pontoon boats; with limited number of seats, reservations are required.

Egret lifts off at Cosumnes River Preserve (photo courtesy Chuck Higgs).

For more information: Cosumnes River Preserve, 13501 Franklin Blvd, Galt,, visitor center open 9am to 5pm weekends and holidays; Consumes River Farm, 28305 N Thornton Road, Thornton, (209) 334-5544,, open Thursday-Sunday 11:30am to 5:00pm; Comanche and Pardee Reservoirs, just east in the Sierra foothills, contact East Bay Municipal Utility District, or call  209.772.8204; Isenberg Crane Preserve (actually part of the Woodbridge Ecological Reserve), ; Sandhill Crane Festival,; Stone Lakes National Wildlife Refuge,

Get birding in your town and build your own excellent adventure!

Contact Tim Viall at, follow him at Happy travels in the west!

Author's grandkids Hunter and Jessica along a Cosumnes Preserve trail.

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