Geese flying at California Gray Lodge Wildlife Area refuge 11-15-18
Geese flying at California Gray Lodge Wildlife Area refuge 11-15-18

By Lee Foster

More than a million migratory geese and ducks in California’s north-of-Sacramento wildlife refuges breathe California Camp Fire smoke. This same smoke disrupts life for humans in the San Francisco Bay Area.

I traveled north this past week to renew my joy in the primordial migration of geese and ducks, now resting for the winter in the great refuges north of Sacramento. I wanted also to see how well they are doing in the smoke from the Camp Fire.

(This report supplements but doesn’t repeat all my comments on this wondrous waterfowl migration story on my website, titled “The Glorious Pacific Flyway in California: A Winter Immersion Watching Millions of Migrating Waterfowl North of Sacramento,” at

Wildlife and Humans Endure Smoke

The single photo that I have processed so far from the trip shows the fecund beauty of geese flying at the Gray Lodge Wildlife Area, a state-managed resource. Though there is joy in the photo, the birds are flying through heavy smoke. One wonders how well they are coping with this challenge.

I did the trip with photographer colleague John Williamson in his Honda Pilot, a good vehicle for looking at the birds. You are up high in this vehicle and can look out, right and left, to see the birds. On the three great refuges, Sacramento-Colusa-Gray Lodge, you stay in your vehicle as you drive the roads around the flooded fields. The geese and ducks become accustomed to vehicles. No one gets out of their cars.  That is the protocol. The Honda Pilot put us higher for viewing and photographing than does my Honda Civic.

We had hospital surgical masks, which John had picked up. The first day was not so bad, but on the second day the wind shifted and the fire kicked up. The smoke was considerable. The Camp Fire is east and north of the refuges. The smoke tends to go southwest or west, due to topography and current wind patterns.

The migratory geese and ducks have no masks. They need to wait it out and hope that by next week there will be rain, after about 225 days in Northern California without rain.

How Smoke Alters Life in the Bay Area and the Refuges

We humans wait it out also in the Bay Area, praying for rain.

Life here has changed in ways more critical than anything I have experienced in my 50-plus years in California. Most people out on the streets walk around with masks, hopefully 3M N-95 masks, top of the line.

The scene looks like Beijing in one of my earlier visits to China, except that experts are now telling us that the particulate matter in our air is worse than Beijing or anywhere else in the world.

Last night I enjoyed a swim at the Berkeley YMCA, my daily exercise. The Y enhanced my experience because the building has a filtered aircon system processing all air sucked in from the outdoors.

When I walk out on the street without a mask, I feel a little sick to my stomach.

Schools closed. Kids now live indoors at home. Families experience stress. Major outdoor events this weekend are cancelled, such as the Big Game between Stanford and UC Berkeley.

My son Paul took his boys, Paul Jr and Charlie, to their house in Tahoe to escape the bad air.

We humans have our adaptation mechanisms and can fly away. Wildlife needs to tough it out.

Wildlife Refuges Remain Open, Better than Ever

Geese flying at California Gray Lodge Wildlife Area refuge 11-15-18
Geese flying at California Gray Lodge Wildlife Area refuge 11-15-18

The three great refuges remain open, as they should. This fire and smoke will pass, perhaps in a week.

I have never seen such abundance on the refuges, as I did this year. The numbers of white geese, the ross geese and snow geese, were higher than I recall visually from the past.

I have been going to the refuges in recent years and will likely go once a year for the rest of my life. I go to savor the joy, beauty, and wonder of this avian migration.

It is no exaggeration to say that John Williamson and I likely saw a half million geese and ducks as we drove around these three refuges this week. We watched blizzards of flying geese and ducks.

This is an alternative California, way beyond the urban areas with our 40 million humans.

Russia, Canada, and the U.S. all cooperate to assure the year-long survival needs of these flying species.

Camp Fire Toll on Humans

 The cost in human life from the Camp Fire will re-write the story of major tragedies in California history.

As I update this, 76 people are confirmed dead, perhaps a thousand are unaccounted for, and some 12,700 structures, mainly houses, have been lost. Some 149,000 acres have burned. The final news will only get worse. Paradise was an idyllic town with 27,000 residents. The buildings are mainly gone. The surviving humans now deal with their grieving.

You may have seen my post on my Facebook about my friend and colleague, Jeffrey Samorano, who lost his house. He escaped, narrowly, with his life, and with his wife and two teenage daughters.

I witnessed closeup an earlier major fire, when the Oakland Hills Fire came to within a quarter mile of my house, in 1991. A record 25 people died. The housing loss was valued at about $1.5bil.

Every loss of a single life is a great tragedy. My author friend Bill McGinnis lost his brother in that Oakland Hills fire. His brother had a hand-crafted house on a cul de sac, and he was not about to leave it, until the flames closed in and it was too late.

The cost in lives and structures in the Camp Fire will be much higher. 

The cost to wildlife will be difficulty to quantify.

Enduring Beauty of the Refuges and the Countryside

Every time I visit these refuges and survey the countryside one more time, I learn much.

The refuges are well-managed. The Sacramento and Colusa Refuges are federal, Gray Lodge is state of CA.

A stop at the elaborate Visitor Center at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge is a must. This is the best information source, with books, maps, rangers and volunteers on duty, and taxidermied specimens of the avian species on display.

Gray Lodge, by contrast, has a charming, small, home-made display of mounted birds and mammals that will inform you visually.

The public viewing deck at the entrance to the Colusa refuge is a dependable place to see the birds. You can get out of your car at this viewing deck. There may be thousands of birds in the wetlands in front of you. In the dry season, before flooding, “grit” is deposited on this field. The birds appreciate this fine gravel to help them digest food. They become aware of the grit deposit and share the news with friends.

Along the way you may meet some confirmed fans of wildlife viewing. On this trip, at the Colusa viewing deck, we happened upon the talented nature photographer, Patrick Strock. Patrick was spending 50 days in the field gathering new images. Flickr or Google him to see his captures.

Willows is the major franchise lodging/dining service provider in this area. We stayed at the dependable Holiday Inn. We ate, again for me, at the local Casa Ramos Mexican restaurant, and the experience was good.

But maybe next time I will stay in the quiet town of Colusa at an Airbnb. Colusa has a charming downtown, architecture from an earlier era, and many modest and grand Victorian home. Colusa indicates that life, based on agricultural wealth, has flourished here for some time. The place has small-town spark. There is no Starbucks, but there is a local parallel called Caffeinated.

California’s Agricultural Wealth

The overwhelming experience on this trip is the importance of California agriculture. Migratory waterfowl depend on cooperative agricultural practices for their survival.

Rice is the big crop around the refuges. This comes as a surprise to many travelers, who are not aware that California is a major producer and exporter of rice.

In winter, the rice fields can be flooded for the benefit of the birds and the rice growers. The birds eat the dropped rice and the chaff vegetation. They also fertilize the fields.

The extent of the rich soils on flat landscapes surprises many visitors. The fields can be carefully graded for efficient flood irrigation.

The second major crop is nuts, such as almonds and walnuts. When you drive past a huge facility, such as Duncan Hill Hulling & Shelling, you begin to get a sense of this vast industry.

California now ranks as the 5th largest economy in the world (having surpassed Great Britain). Agriculture contributes to this wealth. You experience this agricultural abundance on a visit to the three great refuges.

Conclusion: You and The Birds

Hopefully, you can experience some time these three great refuges—Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, Colusa National Wildlife Refuge, and Gray Lodge Wildlife Area—without the stress of the wildfire currently raging east and north at Paradise/Chico.

Hopefully, also, the million migratory geese and ducks in the refuges will show their survival skills at inhaling some smoke, but continuing their lives.

If You Go:

Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge offers a Visitor Center presenting the entire regional wildlife story. See Be sure to stop at this refuge.

Check out the details for Colusa National Wildlife Refuge at

Gray Lodge Wildlife Area information is at

California Watchable Wildlife is a prominent conservation organization for fans of all types of wildlife. See and look at these three refuges among the many Viewing Sites in California described.


  1. This is a wonderfully written piece about a crucial tragedy in Northern California. Lee Foster reminds us that humans are not the only sufferers affected by the fires. He shows us poignant photos of masses of birds in flight through the smoky environment. He takes you through three bird refuges and creates such vivid images of what can be seen and experienced there that the reader yearns to join him there in person.


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