Sandhill Crane morning fly-out

Cosumnes River Preserve

One of the advantages of bird photography at a preserve like Cosumnes is the more protected environment afforded the birds provides a more friendly environment for photography.  Although the birds will still be nervous (probably due to nearby hunting grounds) and can still be difficult to approach, you will find a positive difference compared to areas farther away.

Northern PintailThis nature preserve is located long the Cosumnes River about 30 miles south of Sacramento about halfway to Stockton. It is a popular location for a number of waterfowl and wading birds.  Being near the middle of the central valley, it is an important refuge for bird wildlife for California.  Of the most noteworthy birds, Sandhill Cranes regularly roost and forage in this area during the winter months (November thru early March) before migrating up to Alaska and Northern Canada for the warmer summer months for breeding and raising their young.  These and other birds can make some nice subjects for photography during the golden hour at sunrise and sunset.  The Cosumnes River that runs through this preserve is also significant in that it is the only remaining river on the western slope of the Sierra Nevadas that is unregulated and thus in a more wild state. This results in a more free-flowing environment that reflects how things used to be in the central valley before the Bureau of Reclaimation and Army Corp of Engineers damned most of the other rivers of California with any substantial flow (although agriculture in this area and further east has tapped off signficant amounts of the water  for this river before reaching the preserve).

American BitternTo get here from Sacramento head south on Interstate Highway 5, and take the exit at Twin Cities road, crossing over to the east side of the highway.  Drive less than a mile and make a right on Franklin Boulevard.  The refuge will be south another mile down this road.  There is parking on the right before you reach the visitors center that is typically always open, and then on the left at the visitors center another 100 yards further down. Its hours are 9 AM to 5 PM on weekends.

Western Meadowlark
There are several areas that one can explore at this refuge for birding and bird related photography.  From the visitor’s center, there is trail that starts to the left on a bridge that crosses a small slough behind the building.  This then leads to an opening at a larger pond with trails leading both to the left and right.  The right path leading to the south will take you deeper into the park and a network of trails eventually leading out to the Cosumnes river.  It is a mix of deep woods, grassy oak studded woodlands, and marshy areas with tall reeds and cat tails.  You will find a variety of birds (and some otters and beavers) given the diversity of vegetation and terrain.  In the pond it is common to find a variety of ducks and some more elusive birds in the reeds like bitterns and rails.  In the trees you will find a wide variety of woodpeckers, towhees, warblers, and owls.  Back at the pond if you take the trail to the left, then this will eventually loop back out to the road, bringing you to the first parking area across the road.  On this path you may find a higher density of swallows and warblers in the more open areas with the possibility of spotting some egrets and herons as you cross the road and enter the more marshy areas.  From this parking area, there is another trail that leads out to the west with flooded areas on either side of you.  Here you will find a variety of ducks, wading birds like yellowlegs, avocets, and stilts, along with blackbirds and meadowlarks.

Cosumnes River Preserve mapIf you are interested in photographing Sandhill Cranes, then your best opportunities will be either at sunset as they fly in for their evening roost, or at sunrise during their morning fly-out from these same  roost locations. They roost in the water for the night to better avoid predators and tend to be located a little further from the roads and other human accessible locations.  For that reason you will need a big lens (400mm or larger) in order to get reasonably good photographs.  Two of the best locations for the evening fly-in will be either be at a small observation deck located across the road from the visitors center (marked 'D' on the map), or from the first parking area about 100 yards north of the visitors center (marked 'C'). Many of the Cranes may come in from the west or south, and these viewing locations provide a nice spot to capture them in flight as they come in to land.  The biggest challenge will be having enough light to get good photographs as some of them land after sunset.  So having a fast lens and camera with good high ISO performance will help.

For the morning photography of Sandhill Cranes, try to position yourself with the sun behind you to get frontal or at least side lighting on the birds.  At first light in the morning, the color of the light striking the cranes can be very nice.  Another good location for this morning fly-out photography is actually out on Bruceville road about 1 mile north-east of the preserve as marked as locations ‘A’ and ‘B’ on the map.  There are some flooded areas here off the road where you can get within reasonable range.  You will need to get here and setup before sunrise as the birds are pretty punctual on their departure time around sunrise.  As a handy tip, typically one or more of the cranes in a group will start to lean forward in the direction of take-off for about 30-60 seconds before flight.

Another nearby popular location for waterfowl including cranes can be found off of Staten Island Road.  This is about a 7 mile dirt road to the south off West Walnut Grove Road about a mile east of Walnut Grove.  You can get to it from Cosumnes River Preserve by continuing on Franklin Blvd (which becomes Thornton Road) to the south for 3 miles until it tees with West Walnut Grove Road near the next junction with I-5, and then head west for about 4 miles.

Sandhill Crane danceIf you are interested in seeing Sandhill Cranes in the middle of the day, then they will typically be found foraging for food in the surrounding farm land. One popular location is out toward the west end of Woodbridge road about 8 miles further south.   You can get there by exiting I-5 off of West Peltier road, go east about 1 mile to North Ray road and make a right.  Then head south for about 2 miles and make a right on West Woodbridge.  From here, head west under I-5, and keep driving until you see the sign on the left for a small wildlife observation area.  You can check this area out, or keep driving until you reach the end of the road.  The cranes tend to be in the fields on either side of the road at this point until reaching the end where it hits the levee for the Mokelumne river. However, keep in mind that this area off of Woodbridge is not particularly appealing from the photogenic standpoint plus mid-day light is never a good thing for photography.  But if you have foggy weather, sometimes you can get something more visually appealing.

For more detailed information about the Cosumnes River wildlife refuge by the fish and game department, then follow the link found here.

To see more high quality bird related images, you can visit my gallery here:  Bird Gallery