Sandhill Cranes Return to Pixley National Wildlife Refuge for the Winter

Sandhill Cranes generally fly in pairs, small or large groups when they arrive at the Pixley National Wildlife Refuge for the winter. Photo by Miguel Jimenez, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Sandhill Cranes generally fly in pairs, small or large groups when they arrive at the Pixley National Wildlife Refuge for the winter. Photo by Miguel Jimenez, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Every fall, thousands of sandhill cranes, along with other migratory birds, return to the Pixley National Wildlife Refuge to spend the winter. The refuge, located in the southern part of Tulare County and maintained by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), provides a warm safe-haven, wetland habitat for the birds through the winter months.

Despite this year’s drought, the birds are returning in their regular numbers with more than 3,400 sandhill cranes counted recently, said Miguel Jimenez, USFWS wildlife specialist. The numbers are expected to reach more than 6,000.

As with most everyone in the South Valley, the refuge will be cutting back on its water usage this year. During the summer months of any year, no water is used there. Keeping water on the wetlands during the summer months can contribute to the development of avian botulism, Jimenez said. However, starting in September small amounts of water have been pumped into sections of the refuge from its well. Toward the end of October, approximately 180 acres were being flooded to provide adequate habitat for the arriving birds.

During a normal season, this is increased to about 900 acres by mid-winter, Jimenez said. However, this year, the preserve will only be allotting about 65% of its normal usage, bringing the acres flooded to about 600 acres.

“Less water equals less habitat for the birds,” Jimenez said. “We’re still getting some water, even if it’s not as much as we would like.”

Just how that will affect the wildlife and its numbers is yet to be determined. However, a good amount of rainfall this year would certainly be welcome.

Another factor for visiting wildlife is the amount of neighboring acres that are not being farmed at this point in time, Jimenez said. The cranes and some other birds will fly short distances to farmland planted in alfalfa and other crops to forage for insects and seeds. Fewer acres will mean less feeding grounds.

“So far, the numbers are right where we expect them to be,” he said.

Sandhill cranes and other visiting birds tend to visit the same winter habitat every year. They mate for life, winter in the same spot, and migrate to the same summer breeding area together. Juveniles often stay with their parents for the first year or two of their lives, until they reach maturity. Whether the same amount of birds will stay at the refuge this winter, or relocate if there is not enough habitat, is not yet known.

Other birdlife seen at the refuge include a variety of ducks, Canada geese, white-faced ibis, a variety of shorebirds, hawks and owls. Jimenez said he spotted a golden eagle flying above the 6,400-acre refuge. Various reptiles including rattlesnakes, and mammals such as coyote, skunk and ground squirrels also live there. Some species of birds maintain permanent residency there including mallard ducks, American coots and some species of sparrows.

Nearby Kern National Wildlife Refuge is about 20 miles south of the Pixley refuge, and is maintained by the same USFWS office. While there is quite a variety of wildlife there also, no sandhill cranes winter there. Contributing factors could include the different neighboring farmland being mostly planted in less desirable feeding grounds of pistachios versus alfalfa, and the fact that duck hunting, during normal non-drought years, is allowed at the Kern refuge, Jimenez said.

Both preserves are open to the public daily from sunrise to sunset year-round. The Pixley refuge has a one-and-a-half mile walking loop with an observation deck to view the wildlife. The nearly 2,000-acre Kern refuge has a six-mile, all-weather gravel driving road through the habitat, which can also be used as a foot path. Here too, the normal water usage will be cut to 65%. Duck hunting will not be allowed this year, because of the reduced amount of habitat.

Along with most everyone in Central California, a normal or above average amount of rainfall would be much appreciated by these refuges and the USFWS that maintains them. This would allow for more normal winter habitat for the wildlife and help restore the much needed ground water levels for the future.

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