Saturday, November 30, 2013

Sandhill Cranes of Lodi

Correction: It has been brought to my attention by a knowledgeable birder that the bird in the first three photos is a blue heron, not a sandhill crane, as I wrote below. As is the case with instant replay in sports, the goal is to get it right, so Thank You, Tom, and keep following us.

Standing a regal four feet tall and boasting wing spans of more than six feet, sandhill cranes are one of the oldest living species of birds in the world--fossils of these birds date back 10 million years.

And as we headed along Woodbridge Road west of I-5 a few miles north of Lodi, CA, we were greeted by this majestic sandhill crane.

It was nearing sundown as we gathered with others along the south side of Woodbridge Road one Saturday in early November. Cousin Barbara had been able to get us tickets for the docent-led talk and tour of the Woodbridge Ecological Reserve, also known as the Isenberg Sandhill Crane Reserve.

Sunset is the prime viewing opportunity for the daily “crane fly-in” from September to early March when the cranes establish their residence along the Pacific Flyway in the Reserve. The greater sandhill cranes (which stand about five feet tall) travel from Washington, Oregon, and northern California to their winter home around Lodi; the shorter lesser sandhill cranes stop in Lodi briefly on their migration from Alaska, Canada, and even Siberia to Mexico.
During this same fall/winter season, the Reserve also hosts over 30 species of birds. A large flock is shown in the array of dots below.
As members of our party surveyed the activity in the low freshwater marsh, grassland, and flooded pasture, one member spotted the animal barely visible in the center of the photo below. Its identity ranged from "a wolf," "a coyote" to "a dog."
A less threatening object of interest was much closer.
As the sun was setting, our group followed the docent to the locked north site of the Reserve which includes the crane viewing shelter and which can only be visited on a docent-led tour.
In the fading light of sunset, the beauty of these cranes in flight was barely visible, but the their musical calls filled the air. Some have compared these distinctive calls to a distant French horn or an off-key bassoon.

Hunters nearly wiped out the cranes in the 18th and 19th centuries, but hunting limits and habitat restrictions have prevented their extinction. Although sandhill hunting is not allowed in California, dikes, dams, pumping and plowing have wiped out about 95 percent of Central Valley wetlands--its natural habitat.

Another threat to the crane's continued existence was the California Gold Rush. During this time, the birds were sold like turkeys in San Francisco butcher shops. But in the past two decades, its population here has stabilized, with the help of new, crane-friendly farm practices that have helped preserve its habitat.

The Nature Conservancy partners with farmers, government and nonprofit groups to manage crops, grasslands and water to provide food and shelter for cranes and other birds on the Pacific Flyway migratory path.
Farmers flood fields at strategic times to stir up bugs for the cranes. Farmers harvesting corn often leave a little corn stock behind to nourish the birds.
Some rice and grain farmers are paid government incentives to adopt bird-friendly farming practices
In the last stages of sunset, the images of the birds are blurred due to the low amount of light. But even under these conditions, the cranes, which mate for life, find their mates and their summer-born young.
Adapted to live in flat, open fields, wetlands and ponds, the crane has a back claw located differently than most birds--limiting its ability to grasp branches and roost in trees.
To find safety at night, the cranes stand in ponds several inches deep. Coyotes trying to hunt cranes are given away by their splashing.
Aldo Leopold, the father of wildlife biology, described the haunting sandhill call as "the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution" (Denis Cuff, Contra Costa Times 02/02/2012).

I like that description.

Friday, November 29, 2013

A Jewel of the Delta

Chuck and I have been captivated by the California Delta since our first visit with his cousin Barbara about four years ago. While you won’t find gators or ancient oaks dripping with Spanish moss (but you will find crawfish), this unique area always reminds us of the Louisiana bayous.
“The California Delta is located roughly between Sacramento on the north and Stockton on the south and encompasses about 1,000 miles of waterways. The main contributing rivers are the Sacramento River, coming in from the north, and the San Joaquin River, coming in from the south…. Before these rivers empty into the Pacific Ocean through the San Francisco Bay, they pass through…a labyrinth of sloughs with names like Potato Slough, Whites Slough, Snodgrass Slough, Lost Slough, Georgiana Slough, Steamboat Slough, and many, many more.
As one explores these watery avenues, vistas of vine-covered trees, blackberry brambles, and tule grasses appear at almost every turn. There is abundant wildlife, including the great blue heron, egrets, ducks, geese, and, of course, fish…” (
But residents and friends of the Delta believe that it is under attack and signs reading “Save the Delta/Stop the Tunnels can be found everywhere because “…a huge development plan is underway in Sacramento that, if implemented, will change this quiet agricultural region forever.
“Nothing is final yet, but Gov. Jerry Brown, along with many colleagues and agricultural water users south of Stockton, hope to build a new water-diversion system: a pair of giant tunnels, each 40 feet wide and 39 miles long, that are capable of carrying away two-thirds of the Sacramento River’s water…the $25 billion-plus plan will secure water for Southern California cities and Central Valley farmers, and also restore the Delta’s troubled ecosystem.

“But here in the Delta area of Sacramento County, most people want the tunnel project stopped. They say it will suck the Delta dry, destroy farming business in Northern California and kill the ecosystem” (

And here in the Delta is an area dining institution—Giusti’s.
“On the North Fork of the Mokelumne River, by the Miller’s Ferry Bridge in Walnut Grove, the Delta traveler will take delight in the family-style dining at this 1940s restaurant. Or is it a 1912 restaurant? Mark Morais, the owner of this four-generation family tradition, clarified this: ‘The building was built in 1900. In 1912, it became my grandfather’s place–a saloon, general store, and toll station for the ferry. We always served food (to workers, friends, and other guests), but we didn’t start charging until 1946 or ’47.’ The jury is in–we’ll go with the ’40s. The building is set against a levee separating the river from the sub-sea-level land that Giusti’s is built upon. The restaurant is a favorite with locals and travelers alike…” (Doug Fetterly at

The restaurant can best be described as “no frills.” “When you pull up to Giusti's expect ‘eclectic.’ We're a building that's been standing for over 100 years and it shows in both the exterior and interior…. Some may think of us as an eyesore, but to many, Giusti's is a ‘visual feast’ for the eyes. Giusti's is a history that speaks for itself and over the years we have tried and continue to try to keep as much of its history as possible. After all, it is what gives our place a particular and unique ambience” (

You enter through the bar and you immediately notice the hats attached to the ceiling.
“There are over 1,200 hats on our ceiling and tons of memorabilia plastered on our walls.
"There are almost 300 framed pictures of Giusti's memories that hang in our bar. Most of the pictures…are of recognizable sports celebrities, movie stars, media personalities, government officials, local celebrities, and family members whom have visited or been a part of Giusti's over the years…” (
Giusti’s lunch menu is short and changes daily. And to honor the family’s Italian heritage, they usually offer one of more Italian specialties. On the day of our visit, they were the fettuccini alfredo and chicken cacciatore. And all dinners come with your choice of soup or salad, Pugliese bread that is made in house, and a carafe of wine for the table.

All three of us chose the soup over the salad and it was served “family style” in a large bowl for apportioning among the diners. This is (to me, at least) a unique take on Italian minestrone and contains beans, barley, carrots, and celery but little, if any, tomato.
But it is a robust and filling soup and is a good indication of the rather simple but excellent food to come.

Barbara’s lunch choice was the pulled pork sandwich with a side of coated fries.
Chuck selected the fettuccini alfredo, which, like the minestone, was a somewhat unusual preparation.
The pasta was nicely cooked and the sauce was nicely creamy without being overly rich. But I was surprised—and a bit put off—by the strong taste of garlic which is not normally used in alfredo sauce.

I was tempted by the chicken cacciatore, but finally chose the grilled oysters.
While I am sure that the chicken would have been delicious, the oysters were superb. The four lightly breaded mollusks were, as described by John Wallace at, “perfectly grilled…sweet, fresh, and succulent….”

“One can often judge the quality of a restaurant by observing the diners. Everyone was smiling and talking, including the servers. It’s a friendly, homespun, yet intimate atmosphere. The historic building and accoutrements silently speak of Delta families’ traditions of dining and socializing at a favorite stop…” (John Wallace at And it has also become one of our favorites and earns a 4.5 Addie rating. (I didn’t like the garlic in the alfredo sauce.)

To review the role of Adler, Kitty Humbug, and the Addie rating system, read the November 14, 2011 blog.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

A Family Thanksgiving Dinner

We interrupt our "travel blogs" to bring you a "truck blog."

To translate, our travel writings report that we have just arrived in Lodi, CA, but since we often have several days worth of activities that we have not yet written about, we are often several miles away from our latest entry. That being said, our truck is in Temecula, CA, and thus we are writing about our Thanksgiving dinner with my aunt Margaret and her family in Sun City, CA.

This has been our third Thanksgiving dinner with the four-generation family, and this time I abandoned candid photos to focus on conversation and food.

The snacks arrived and were greeted with enthusiasm.
As people returned for multiple visits, a common theme was sounded: "I have to stop before I'm too full for the turkey."
Margaret's daughter, Sandra, and Sandra's daughter, Shelly, managed the preparations in the kitchen, giving Margaret the opportunity to converse with guests. At age 100, it seemed appropriate to give her a little break--but see below.

I caught this photo of Kate helping with the carving. I had to photograph this scene from the doorway between the movement of those managing the kitchen.
The preparations complete, we filled our plates with the traditional items: turkey, dressing, potatoes and gravy, sweet potatoes, green been casserole, corn, a jello salad, a Southwestern cornbread salad, and rolls. Two types of cranberries appeared after this photo was taken.
Soon after we had finished our meal, Ziggy appeared. Intent on the activity nearby, he waited patiently.
Sandra was cutting the pies and taking requests for pumpkin or apple pie or pecan tarts.
Margaret had made the pies the day before and was able to have an important role in the dinner. Sandra made the pecan tarts.

The desserts were delicious and were the perfect topping to a meal of tasty dishes prepared by some excellent cooks.
We captured this photo of our hostess and her family and guests.
Standing (l. to r.): Ken and his wife, Shelly (Sandra's daughter), Barbara (Julie's friend), and Tim (Sandra's husband). Seated: Carolyn (Margaret and Sandra's friend), Margaret, Sandra (Margaret's daughter), and Julie (Sandra's daughter) with Ziggy. Front row: Abby, Allison, and Matt (Ken and Shelly's children).

With the time with these wonderful people and the enjoyment of a fine meal together in mind, we return to our travel blog tomorrow, just east of San Francisco.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

So What Was the Most Beautiful Thing

…we saw that day?

Was it the San Francisco skyline?
Or maybe the sail boats on San Francisco Bay with their brilliant white sails against the azure blue sky?
Then again, could it have been the grand spires of the Golden Gate Bridge?

The container ship MSC Camille, sailing under the flag of Panama

Before I answer this, let me back up a few hours.

It is our first full day in Lodi, CA, which is about fifteen miles east of Rio Vista, the home of Chuck’s cousin Barbara. And after Chuck pleaded (actually little pleading was necessary), Barb agreed to drive us into San Francisco for what has become a traditional picnic lunch by San Francisco Bay.

Our first stop was Fisherman’s Wharf where I again lamented the “chainafication of America” as exemplified by the Applebee’s on the Embarcadero just across from the wharf.
But some of the wharf’s history remains—especially at Sabella & La Torre, our destination for the Dungeness crab portion (three large crabs, to be precise)—of our picnic lunch.
“The story of Sabella & La Torre begins with the Sabellas in 1927, when Luciano Sabella and his son, Antone, opened a small seafood stand at Fisherman's Wharf.

“After World War II, Antone sold the stand to his brothers, Frank and Michael, and his nephews, Tony and Louis La Torre, and though the business eventually expanded into a sit-down restaurant, not much has changed in the time since.

"’We still cater to a lot of locals and longshoremen, we're still doing the fresh crabs and fresh fish, and we still take pride in the business,’ says general manager Don McFarland.

Frank Sabella is still going strong—he turns 101 in October—and the same goes for his family's bread-and-butter” (Janny Hu at

Next it was time for a brisk walk—brisk, because the parking meters in San Francisco are expensive, and we fed ours the minimum—to Boudin Bakery for a loaf of crusty sourdough.

“After more than 30 years of being an inconspicuous bread shop in the heart of Fisherman's Wharf, the Boudin Bakery was super-sized a few years ago. The new, ultramodern, 26,000-square-foot flagship baking emporium is now nearly half a block long, housing not only their demonstration bakery but also a museum, gourmet marketplace, cafe, espresso bar, and restaurant.
"The Boudin (pronounced “Bo-deen”) family has been baking sourdough French bread in San Francisco since the gold rush, using the same simple recipe and original ‘mother dough’ for more than 150 years. About 3,000 loaves a day are baked within the glass-walled bakery; visitors can watch the entire process from a 30-foot observation window along Jefferson Street or from a catwalk suspended directly over the bakery (it's quite entertaining). You'll smell it before you see it: The heavenly aroma emanating from the bread ovens is purposely blasted out onto the sidewalk” (
Our shopping done (Barb had already assembled the other necessary elements for our picnic), it was time to hurry back to the car and head off to Crissy Field.

Could the most beautiful sight have been the iron sculptures at Crissy Field?
We reached the picnic area and spread out our feast. And then, there it was, the most beautiful sight of the day—a heaping mess of cracked and cleaned Dungeness crab awaiting our attack.
And if you are wondering whether we devoured all of this crab, yes we did.
Without breaking a sweat. Without taking a breath. Without engaging in idle chit-chat. One minute it was there and the next minute all you saw was a pile of empty shells, an empty chardonnay bottle, and a quarter loaf of bread.

So what do we do after such gluttony? Well, one thing we did not do was stop by the Fitness Court not far from our picnic table.
As I said in an earlier blog, there’s always room for ice cream, and so, after repacking the car, we are off to Mitchell’s Ice Cream located in the Mission District of San Francisco

“Founded in 1953, Mitchell's Ice Cream is a San Francisco treasure. Mitchell's has consistently churned out high-quality, super-premium ice cream…and shows no signs of slowing down.
“Focused on handmade, small batch ice cream, Mitchell's prides itself in using high quality ingredients and being a cut above the rest. And their commitment to quality and creative flavors has clearly paid off, given the long line always outside the door…. The ice cream at Mitchell's is denser than you'll find in your typical shop, and a lot more interesting. Mitchell's specializes in tropical flavors…in addition to featuring indulgent flavors with swirls that bring to mind Ben and Jerry's. Their flavors also have a nice creaminess, owing to the high milk fat content (16%)” (
Mitchell’s offers the standard flavors of chocolate, chocolate chip, coffee, vanilla, strawberry, and rocky road. And there are seasonal flavors like Irish coffee (spring for St. Patrick’s Day), cantaloupe (summer), espresso toffee crunch (summer), peach (summer), egg nog (fall and winter), and peppermint candy (winter).
But what sets them apart are the exotic tropical flavors. Flavors like Buko which is a form of coconut or Lucuma which is a tropical fruit native to Peru. There is Halo Halo which is “…a popular Filipino dessert that is a mixture of shaved ice and evaporated milk to which are added various boiled sweet beans and fruits…” (

Have you ever heard of macapuno? Neither had I. “Coconut sport (known as macapuno in the Philippines, where it is primarily produced) is the fruit of a very special, unique and rare variety of naturally occurring coconut tree that in physical appearance looks exactly like any other common tree, but the difference is in the contents of the fruit. The soft white gelatinous meat, which has a nutty taste, is usually devoid of any coconut and is cooked in a sugar syrup” (

Both Chuck and I went the two small scoop route. His was a scoop each of red raspberry sorbet and Thin Mint ice cream.
Since I tasted neither all I can report is that said both were very good.

I ordered a scoop of another seasonal flavor—pumpkin—plus a scoop of ginger ice cream.
The pumpkin tasted like Thanksgiving. The ginger tasted awesome! It contained little bits of ginger root that, when bitten on, exploded like a flavor bomb in my mouth.

During our five-plus years of traveling, we have eaten some wonderful meals. We have eaten wonderful meals in restaurants. We have eaten wonderful meals in the homes of our family. But nothing can top Dungeness crab when eaten in sight of the Golden Gate Bridge. That is the ultimate 5.0 Addie experience.

To review the role of Adler, Kitty Humbug, and the Addie rating system, read the November 14, 2011 blog.