Annual geese migration, leaving Canada and the Arctic from time immemorial, to rest at the Colusa Refuge in California's Upper Sacramento Valley, arriving each November.
Annual geese migration, leaving Canada and the Arctic from time immemorial, to rest at the Colusa Refuge in California's Upper Sacramento Valley, arriving each November.
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Author’s Note: This article “Migrating Waterfowl Along the Glorious Pacific Flyway in California” is a stand-alone article on my website. Further parallel articles are chapters in my two main travel guidebooks/ebooks on California. They are Northern California History Travel Adventures: 35 Suggested Trips and Northern California Travel: The Best Options. All my travel guidebooks/ebooks on California can be seen on my Amazon Author Page.

By Lee Foster

A wondrous natural event occurs north of Sacramento each winter in California. The phenomenon is the annual pattern of migrating waterfowl from Canada and the Arctic (including Russia) to Northern California. The waterfowl include geese, ducks, and various exotics. Their winter refuges include the area north of Sacramento in the great Central Valley of California.

A transformative opportunity to view this abundant wildlife awaits all citizens. Observers must simply transport themselves to the area south of Willows, north of Sacramento, along Interstate Highway 5.

Witnessing this waterfowl migration can serve as an antidote to environmental pessimism and depression. These modern afflictions may affect many of our most-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 securely. This success story is due partly to the skillful intervention of man, creating a hospitable Northern California flyway habitat. The news is uplifting and reassuring. About 3 million ducks and more than a million geese migrate to the region, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

My annual visit to observe this natural beauty over the years has become 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 helped preserve these waterfowl species.

A Personal Story, in the Future

Even my own family, the Lyons Family of the Mapes Ranch near Modesto, has been part of this effort. They helped save from extinction a subspecies known as the Aleutian Goose, which overwintered on their property. Working with the National Wildlife Service, they set aside part of their land as a winter habitat for the Aleutian Goose.

As a result, this endangered species has climbed back slowly to survivable and secure numbers.

At some future time, I will write an article, “How My Uncle Bill Saved a Species.” That would be Bill Lyons, of the Mapes Ranch, and his son Bill Jr, my contemporary.

But that story is another tale for another time.

When to Go, Where to Go, What You See

The viewing time for winter migrating waterfowl in the northern Sacramento Valley is roughly November 15 through January 15. Seasonal weather patterns will affect the migration in any given year. The experts on current prospects are the rangers at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge (see contact info in If You Go, below).

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. There you will find 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.

What Time of Day?

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.

Refuges Open Year-Around

The refuges are open year-around 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 found here year-around, 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.

Notes from a Two-Day Immersion

I like to make a three-day trip here between November 15-to-January 15 trip each year. You might call the Sacramento Refuge and check, for any given year, the projected time of maximum waterfowl residence. Winter temperatures farther north and storm patterns will affect waterfowl migration.

Here is what I typically experience:

Day 1 is my survey time. I leave Berkeley early morning and make the two-hour drive up. I plan to do an initial look at all three refuges in this logical order—Colusa, Gray Lodge, Sacramento NWR. The days are usually sunny and cold, and the birds are active.

The next day I 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. November is a little more generous. Weather can be variable. Rain may occur.

Day 2 Adventures

My Day 2 on some trips has been rainy. Rain 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 offers a two-mile drive and a .6-mile walking trail. A small building at the entrance shows mounted specimens of many birds you will see in the refuge.

Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge boasts 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. The Visitor Center offers maps, books, informed rangers and volunteers with info, and taxidermied displays of many species of birds you might see.

Travel Support in the Town of Willows

At the end of day one, I tend to drive north a few miles north to Willows, where I have booked a room at the Holiday Inn Express. I go out for dinner at a Mexican restaurant,  Casa Ramos. Both are good experiences.

Pack plenty of snacks, wear warm clothing, and come prepared for total rain with a rain cape. Bring rubber boots for sloppy conditions.

Your adventures will be serendipitous, depending on what you see. That’s the essence of this nature adventure.

Details About the Migrating Waterfowl Scene

As you talk with rangers and observers, many aspects of this intriguing migrating waterfowl scene become apparent.

Rice crops thrive in the region each year before the migration period. Farmers then flood the fields after harvest. The words you hear are “man-made marshes” and “managed seasonal wetlands.” Consequently, cooperation between rice farmers and the NWRS (National Wildlife Refuge System) is critical.



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Migrating waterfowl eat the remaining straw in the rice fields and the wasted, dropped rice. Waterfowl fertilize the rice fields with their nitrogen-rich excrement. This becomes a symbiotic, mutually beneficial arrangement, rather than “depredation,” from the perspective of the rice farmers.

Prior to the rice agriculture period, waterfowl that migrated here fed on grass in the wetlands. But over 90% of the natural wetlands has disappeared, mainly for agricultural use. The Gray Lodge area presents the most celebrated pristine wetlands remaining.

Sutter Buttes

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. Likewise, from Gray Lodge, you will also glimpse the snowy head of Mt. Shasta if you glance to the north.

The Migration Pattern

Several million migrating waterfowl are present in the wetlands west of Sutter Buttes during my visits. They include ducks such as pintails, mallards, gadwall, and wigeons. Among the geese, I have seen snow geese, Ross’s geese, and white-fronted geese. I have also seen exotics, such as 51-inch-tall Tundra Swans.

The birds come here each autumn from the Arctic and from Canada. The geese tend to summer in the Arctic. On the other hand, many of the ducks come from the prairie pothole wetlands of Canada. However, some birds arrive here from Russia, including the Aleutian goose, a subspecies of the cackling goose. As mentioned above, my family, the ranching branch of my Lyons/Mape family in Modesto, has helped save this Aleutian goose from extinction. There can be good news in our environment story.

The people who love wildlife and nurture wildlife tourism in California have an informational website, California Watchable Wildlife, see below. That website is excellent for trip planning.

Wildlife Watching in California

Wildlife watching in California can become a wondrous lifetime pursuit. Folks, including kids, who have a joyous primordial experience of wildlife, will later vote to fund and conserve wildlife. When you love something, you will protect it.

Family bonds across the generations deepen with the shared joy of wildlife encounters. To sum up, anyone, of any age and physical dexterity, who is willing and able to sit in a car, can participate in this migration story.

All will enjoy observing the migrating bird wildlife along the three auto routes at these refuges. California has done more than many other destinations in my worldwide travel experience to preserve its extraordinary natural environment.

Thousands of geese and ducks fill the sky as part of the winter waterfowl migration to the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge in northern California.
Thousands of geese and ducks fill the sky as part of the winter waterfowl migration to the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge in northern California.

If You Go:

Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge offers a Visitor Center presenting the entire regional wildlife story. See https://www.fws.gov/refuge/sacramento. Be sure to stop at this refuge.

Check out the details for Colusa National Wildlife Refuge at
https://www.fws.gov/refuge/colusa/.

Gray Lodge Wildlife Area information is at https://www.wildlife.ca.gov/Lands/Places-to-Visit/Gray-Lodge-WA.

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.

12 COMMENTS

  1. I just drove through the area on a whirlwind trip to S. California. On the way south I entered the area about sunset and was amazed by the immense flocks of circling birds, group after group almost as far south as the eye could see. Thank you for your article, it’s shed a light on what was truly a spectacular experience. Next time, I’ll know where to stop.

  2. It is wonderful to read your comment. This massive bird migration is a joyous event. I wish more people could experience it. Just the sound of thousands of circling waterfowl in the air is an amazing experience. Were you at the Sacramento Natl Wildlife Refuge? That seemed to me to be the best site to recommend. Some day I will do a further article, about how my family, which is in ranching in CA, helped save a species, the aleutian goose.

  3. Great article! We’ll be going the weekend of January 21. Appreciative for this well-written, recently published article, and wondering for end of January, if you would still recommend Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge as the #1 site? What would you rank as #2 or #3 to check out? We’ll be staying in the area one or two nights.

  4. Thanks for your note. Yes, I recommend Sacramento NWR as your first stop. Then, as the article suggests, try Colusa and Grey Lodge. It a great experience in nature.

  5. Thank you for all the helpful details and tantalizing descriptions,. It is particularly helpful that you have told us what we may anticipate far enough ahead to plan time off or arrange a long weekend drive to enjoy this phenomenon.

  6. I love your video of the waterfowl. The wildly colorful sunset photo was a masterpiece, a true winner, but the video added the excitement of sound to the visual. Fantastic addition to an already outstanding article!

  7. I think the snow geese went a bit too far south. Sitting in my office, just inland from Malibu, I’m seeing about a dozen of these beauties circling and gliding around. I’ve never noticed them here before, they’re so serene.

  8. Hello Mr. Foster,

    Thank you for your inspiring and informative article. I’m very excited to see this exhilarating spectacle this weekend. I’m a wildlife photographer and would like to know which refuge would best lend itself to capturing images of these beauties. I read that Sacramento NWR has some blinds and wonder if that is where I might be able to get the best view.

    I look forward to your reply.

    Regards,
    Heather Summers

  9. Dear Heather,

    Thank you for your comment. Stop in at the Visitor Center at the Sacramento NWR to get expert thoughts for your weekend visit. I have not used the photo blinds myself, preferring to be mobile, using my car as the “blind.”

    Good images and video are possible if you position yourself near sunset on the eastern side of the Sacramento NWR looking west to the sunset. Waterfowl may be flying in in abundance.

    During the day, a favorite place is the photo observation platform on the right as you enter the Colusa Refuge. The platform was built partly to allow photographers to get images. The area in front has a lot of grit that waterfowl like for their digestive processes.

    My lead photo for this year was made a quarter mile into the road on the Colusa Refuge. Thousands of geese were present. There is a serendipity in your detective outing to locate the waterfowl.

    I hope you have a joyous weekend with the ducks and geese, and that you get some great images.

    Keep us informed of your success this weekend and let us know if you might have a website where we can see your images.

    All best wishes,
    Lee Foster

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