Every fall, thousands of Greater and Lesser Sandhill Cranes migrate south to spend the winter in the San Joaquin River Delta.
For more than two decades, the Lodi Sandhill Crane Festival has been offering visitors an opportunity to learn about and experience the cranes that call this area home for half the year.
“About 22 years ago, a group of folks got together, originally under the Lodi Chamber of Commerce, and talked about having an eco-tourism festival focusing on the cranes, and the idea kinda took root there,” said Ken Nieland, co-founder and president of the Lodi Sandhill Crane Association.
Nieland was present during the formation of the festival because of his former profession managing a zoo, but his love of the environment and nature is what keeps him involved in the festival.
The festival offers a variety of tours, mostly local to see the cranes and other waterfowl. Some go as far as Lake Pardee and the Cosumnes River Preserve.
The tours throughout the day mostly involve seeing the cranes in small groups feeding, but Nieland says the main spectacle is when all the cranes congregate in the evening.
“It starts with a few cranes flying in, then maybe a dozen or so, and all of a sudden, in the space of 30 or 40 minutes, you’ll go from no cranes to several hundred or even a few thousand,” said Nieland.
And it’s not just the sight. The sound is also a key part of the experience.
“The cranes have this almost prehistoric call, so it’s quite an experience to see — and hear — them flying in as the sun sets,” Nieland said.
In addition to the tours, the festival has an art gallery showcasing photography and fine art related to the cranes and other wildlife.
Although the art show has been a part of the festival since the beginning, the exhibit hall was a later addition. It offers local artists a chance to display and sell their work and a place for local wildlife reserves and conservation groups to reach out to the interested masses that attend the festival, many being from out of town.
“[The festival] offers us an opportunity to educate folks about upcoming programs, and helps with fundraising,” Delta Sierra Conservation Group member Mary Elizabeth said.
A good portion of attendees are multiple time visitors and many raved about the quality and organization of the event.
“There’s some really fantastic art this time, we really enjoy the festival, it’s well organized and they really do a great job,” attendee and artist Sandie Mele said.
Mele and her husband had multiple pieces on exhibit at the show.
“Very outstanding, a lot of beautiful work, they have it well organized, and we’re going to be taking some tours, which are always fabulous,” attendee Bob McEleary said.
Although the festival has passed, the cranes will be here until February, so Nieland encourages people in the area to head out to a local reserve and experience the cranes themselves.