Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Central Valley: Staten Island

From Staten Island Birds

This Staten Island is not to be confused with the borough of the City of New York. Among California birders, it's short for birding nirvana. For drive-by birders, it's an E Ticket Ride.

The Staten Island in the Sacramento Delta is a huge agricultural tract where the Nature Conservancy has brokered yet another win-win situation with farmers, ecologists, and hunters.(Pheasant season opened Nov. 1 and the pheasant were keeping a low profile.)

It's perfect for birding by automobile. There's only one road open to the public -- numerous small signs warn spectators to stay out of the fields. The road is a good 6-10 feet above the surrounding fields; whether it was built as a levee, or whether topsoil blew away over the decades, I can't say. Either way, it makes an excellent viewing platform. And on a Monday morning, there were more working tractors and pickups than birdwatchers.

From Staten Island Birds

In early November, some rice fields had been harvested and flooded. Other fields were green with alfalfa. Word was out among the critters. Sandhill cranes, ducks, egrets, swans, a great blue heron, even some of the shorebirds we see locally: killdeer, dunlin, avocet. Raptors perched on the telephone poles lining the road.

The weather was gorgeous: clear windless California fall, with Mount Diablo looming in the background. Little avian psychodramas played out. Two Sandhill cranes had a territorial hissy fight with a lesser egret, who finally retreated to the opposite side of a gully. A swarm of little birds pursued a regal, snowy-breasted hawk, who returned to the power pole; then the pursuit resumed.

Sounds obscure, but it's worth the trip. Especially on a clear, serene day when the winding Delta roads beckon and the lazy river shimmers in the sun. From I-5 just north of Lodi, take the exit to Thornton and Walnut Grove. Head west on the Walnut Grove Road, and turn south onto Staten Island Road. The road becomes gravel but is well-maintained, OK for city vehicles that don't mind some dust. No food, benches, or restrooms. Just hundreds of wild birds making themselves at home, with a bit of encouragement, in farmland.

For a unique dining experience, venture on to the tiny weathered town of Locke, built by Chinese immigrants 100 years ago. "Al the Wop's" -- a venerable local establishment with dollar bills stuck to the bar ceiling -- offers hearty food and, surprisingly, fine wines from local winemakers.


IreneK said...

Thanks for that info. I have been searching for DIRECTIONS to get to this site, and you did it for me!

Betsy said...

A fantastic place! We felt like we were in "Winged Migration." And we're not really birders. What a treat. Stay until dusk and watch the fly in. Amazing. Birds as far as the eye can see.