By Lee Foster
A wondrous natural event occurs north of Sacramento each winter in California.
The phenomenon is the annual migration from Canada and the Arctic (including Russia) to Northern California of millions of waterfowl, geese and ducks. Their winter refuges include the area north of Sacramento in the great Central Valley of California.
A transformative opportunity to view abundant wildlife is available to any citizens willing to transport themselves to the area south of Willows, north of Sacramento, along Interstate Highway 5.
Witnessing this waterfowl migration can be an antidote to environmental pessimism and depression, which may affect some of our more-informed six billion fellow travelers on this cooled and habitable star we call Earth.
The good news is that this waterfowl migration from time immemorial continues, due partly to the skillful intervention of man, creating a hospitable Northern California flyway environment. This news is uplifting and reassuring. About three million ducks and more than a million geese migrate to the region, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Repeat visits to observe this natural beauty over the years could be considered a meditation on something perennially good that is happening in our time. Long term citizen commitment in California, the U.S., Canada, and even in a cooperative Russia has preserved these waterfowl species.
When to Go, Where to Go, What You See
The viewing time for winter migrating waterfowl in the northern Sacramento Valley is roughly November through February.
Three of the most impressive refuges are the Colusa National Wildlife Refuge, the Gray Lodge Wildlife Area, and the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge. I list them in the south-to-north progression in which you might encounter them. The most critical refuge not-to-miss is the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, which has a sophisticated Visitor Center alerting you to all birding aspects of the region.
You see the birds on scenic-drive automobile routes through each of these refuges. The drive routes are specific roads with controlled turnouts and viewing platforms, so as not to disturb the birds. For most of the route, you remain in your car, which is your “blind” in the hunting sense of the word. You can also do walks or hikes at designated places in each refuge. The goal is to see the birds, but not disturb them in their natural behaviors. The birds have become somewhat immune to non-threatening cars driving around the refuge levee roads.
Early morning and the hour before sunset are generally the most active times of bird flight, as waterfowl move from open water to feeding in nearby rice fields. However, the birds have their own vision of the clock. They go out to the rice fields to feed and return to the open water to rest whenever they wish.
Each of these refuges has an excellent website that can launch you into dreaming of an adventure. You can print out the PDF maps of the drive routes and plan your personal outing.
The refuges are open year round for visitors. Local waterfowl hatch their chicks here in spring and summer. Other kinds of wildlife, from deer to river otter, can be seen by visitors. Raptors, such as red-tailed hawks, are an example of a local species group here year round, feeding on ground squirrels in summer. The numbers of raptors swell in winter as their kin migrate into the area, sensing some easy meals among the millions of waterfowl who arrive simultaneously.
The small city of Willows offers lodging, such as the Holiday Inn Express, and dining, perhaps the Mexican restaurant known as Casa Ramos. Morning coffee and pastry for the road are available in Willows at the local Starbucks.
Notes from a Two Day Immersion
I took a holiday look at the scene in a December holiday period, and here is what I experienced.
Day 1 was the survey time. I left Berkeley early morning and made the two-hour drive up. I planned to do an initial look at all three refuges in this logical order—Colusa, Gray Lodge, Sacramento NWR. The day was sunny and cold, and the birds were active.
The next day I hoped to make some more focused decisions. Since each refuge has both an auto driving tour and walking/hiking possibilities, you can’t go wrong.
December days have light only about 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Weather can be variable. My Day 2 was rainy. This creates an entirely different aesthetic on the refuges, good to experience, but go for sunny if you can.
The Colusa Refuge has a three mile driving route and a one mile walking trail. At the end of the tour, you pass a black-crowned night heron rookery with perhaps a hundred birds sleeping in the trees.
Gray Lodge is notable as a pristine example of the historic wetlands once so prevalent. Gray Lodge has a two mile and a .6 miles walking trail. A small building at the entrance has mounted specimens of many birds you will see in the refuge.
Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge has the main Visitor Center for the region, orienting you to the migration reality. Make this refuge your only stop if you have time for only one. There is a six mile drive route and a two mile walking path.
At the end of day one, I drove a few miles north to Willows, where I had booked a room at the Holiday Inn Express, and went out for dinner at the Casa Ramos. Both were good experiences.
It is good to pack plenty of snacks, wear warm clothing, come prepared for total rain with a rain cape, and have rubber boots for sloppy conditions.
Your adventures will be serendipitous, depending on what you see.
Details About the Scene
As you talk with rangers and observe, many aspects of this intriguing migration become apparent.
Rice crops are harvested in the region before the migration period. Farmers then flood the fields. The words you hear are “man-made marshes” and “managed seasonal wetlands.” The cooperation between rice farmers and the NWRS (National Wildlife Refuge System) is critical.
Migrating waterfowl eat the remaining straw in the rice fields and the wasted, dropped rice, and fertilize the rice fields. This is seen as a symbiotic, mutually-beneficial arrangement, rather than “depredation” by the farmers.
Prior to the rice agriculture period, the waterfowl that migrated here fed on grass in the wetlands. But over 90% of the natural wetlands has disappeared, now mainly used for agriculture. The Gray Lodge area has the most celebrated pristine wetlands remaining.
East of the three refuges is Sutter Buttes, a distinctive natural feature. The terrain and elevation of the buttes makes possible a habitat for many bird species, beyond waterfowl, that would not be found in the wetlands. From Gray Lodge, you will also glimpse the snowy head of Mt. Shasta if you glance to the north.
Several million migrating waterfowl were present during my visit. They included ducks such as pintails, mallards, gadwall, and wigeons. Among the geese, I saw snow geese, Ross’s geese, and white-fronted geese. I also saw exotics, such as 51-inch-tall Tundra Swans.
The birds are coming here from the Arctic and from Canada. The geese tend to summer in the Arctic. Many of the ducks come from the prairies pothole wetlands of Canada. Some birds arrive here from Russia, including the Aleutian goose, a subspecies of the cackling goose. (My family, the ranching branch of my Lyons/Mape family in Modesto, has helped save this Aleutian goose from extinction, cooperating with the National Wildlife Service on their Mapes Ranch property on some land management matters, but that is another good news story for another time.)
The people who love wildlife and nurture wildlife tourism in California have an informational website, California Watchable Wildlife, that is excellent for planning. See below.
Wildlife watching in California is a worthwhile lifetime pursuit. The folks, including kids, who have a joyous primordial experience of wildlife will later vote to fund and conserve it. When you love something, you will protect it. Family bonds across the generations can be enhanced by the joy of wildlife encounters. Anyone, of any age and physical dexterity, who is willing and able to sit in a car, can enjoy migrating bird wildlife along the three auto routes at these refuges. California has done more than many other destinations I have observed to preserve its extraordinary natural environment.
If You Go:
Check out the details for Colusa National Wildlife Refuge at
Gray Lodge Wildlife Area information is at https://www.wildlife.ca.gov/Lands/Places-to-Visit/Gray-Lodge-WA.
Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge has a Visitor Center presenting the entire regional wildlife story, see https://www.fws.gov/refuge/sacramento. Be sure to stop at this refuge.
California Watchable Wildlife is a prominent conservation organization for fans of all types of wildlife. See http://www.cawatchablewildlife.org/ and look at these three refuges among the many Viewing Sites in California described.
This article will likely become part of one of my future California books, focused mainly on San Francisco and Northern California. My latest book is an ebook SF Travel & Photo Guide: The Top 100 Travel Experiences in the San Francisco Bay Area. San Francisco figures prominently in my book/ebook titled The Photographer’s Guide to San Francisco. My main book/ebook on Northern California is Northern California Travel: The Best Options. Those volumes, including some more on California, can be seen on my Amazon Author Page. My further books on Northern California are Back Roads California and Northern California History Weekends. One of my California books, Northern California Travel: The Best Options, is now available in China as an ebook in Chinese.