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.
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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.

Thousands of geese and ducks flying out of the Sacramento Refuge at dusk
Thousands of geese and ducks flying out of the Sacramento Refuge at dusk

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 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 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 preserves 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. 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.

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 Round

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. Then I returned the next year in November. Here is what I experienced.

Day 1 is 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 days were both 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. November is a little more generous. Weather can be variable. My Day 2 on the first trip 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 offers a two mile drive and a .6 miles 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.

Travel Support in Town of Willows

At the end of day one, on both trips, I drove a few miles north to Willows, where I had booked a room at the Holiday Inn Express. I went out for dinner at a Mexican restaurant,  Casa Ramos. Both were 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 Scene

As you talk with rangers and observe, many aspects of this intriguing migration 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.” 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. 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.

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 visits. 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 Migration Pattern

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. Enlightened land management practices saved this species. That is a good news environment story that I hope to write about.)

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

Wildlife Watching in California

Wildlife watching in California can become a worthwhile lifetime pursuit. 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 deepen with the shared 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 in my 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.

6 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.

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