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Birding at the Sacramento Wildlife Refuge

01/01/2007 12:23PM ● By Brandi Barnett

Duck, Duck, Goose

January 2015
By Michael O'Brien

The primordial sound is what first gathers your attention. A cacophony of honking, quacking, flute-like calls, wind rustling in the reeds, chirping, screeching overhead. Then you notice the movement. Ponds boiling with the activity of wings flapping. Birds standing on the water surface, fiercely working to stretch without lifting off in flight, water splashing, bills jabbing and biting with territorial urgency. Birds soaring, circling, diving, weaving in and out at low altitude, deciding upon a landing site, only to reconsider at the last possible moment and continue the search.

Then an eerie hush… for a nanosecond, all movements and sounds cease. Suddenly, in unison, 25,000 avian bodies take to the sky; a blur of white breasts and a swarm of black wing tips! Circling, swarming, screaming in panic, forming groups in V-shaped formations, gaggles en masse flying in all directions. Odd species are mixed within the groups, sharing the same purpose; to escape the apparent danger that has fostered such an alarm.

Like a clip from a National Geographic special, this dramatic scene unfolds countless times daily from November to February each year at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex. It is for this experience that I make an annual winter trek to this special place. Greeting me each year are more than 750,000 Ross’s, snow, and greater white-fronted geese having traveled in from the Arctic regions of Alaska, Canada, and Siberia. Over 2 million ducks arrive simultaneously to share the islands and ponds that combine to make up much of the topography of the 46,000 acre complex.

I had eagerly anticipated this day for months.My wife Grace accompanied me on today’s outing to the Sacramento Refuge – the largest and most accessible of the 8 refuges and wildlife management areas making up the complex. As we drove on I-5 just past the town of Willows, the first birds of the day - snow geese - soared over the freeway in V-formation. They appeared to be a welcoming committee sent out to invite all travelers to instantly escape the 21st century by entering the refuge and transporting back to a time when the entire Sacramento valley was one vast seasonal wetland and grassland. Now, this small island in a sea of modern-day agriculture has been carved out of the valley floor to accommodate avian and human visitor alike. Reduction of natural over-wintering land forces these massive flocks to concentrate in this relatively small area. The resulting community allows for spectacular birding.

Our first stop was the Visitors Center to check out the library, the bird exhibits, and to pay the $12 annual entrance fee. The center is staffed by interns earning their biology and wildlife management degrees.They provided current availability and locations of refuge birds.We picked up a Waterfowl Survey Summary sheet that I usually view online ( A log at the front desk described recent unusual sightings by visitors. Today’s entries featured a description of a golden eagle feeding on a Ross’s goose. An auto tour and a wetland walk trail provide two appropriately varied ways to experience the refuge.We chose the auto tour which begins south off the Visitor’s Center parking lot.

The tour’s gravel road begins in arid grassland.We spied a northern harrier sweeping low over the brown fields, scanning for rodents. The bright white spot located on its rump and the dihedral wing shape identify this raptor immediately. To the south a white-tailed kite sat perched on an old snag, its fierce red eyes staring us down.We were off to an exciting start.

Our destination was the observation platform located at the southeastern most corner of the tour road. On the way, we made many stops to check out ponds we found teeming with northern pintail, northern shoveler, mallard, gadwall, American wigeon, green-winged
teal, ring-necked duck, American coot, pied-billed grebe, and common moorhen. After December, these species are joined by bufflehead, canvasback, lesser scaup, and redhead duck. Keeping mostly to themselves were masses of honking Ross’s and snow goose. Greater white-fronted goose mixed in comfortably with their stark white neighbors, feeling kinship in knowing that the white feathering surrounding their bills matched nicely with the elegance of the Ross’s and snow goose winter plumage.

The observation platform area is one of the few places where it permissible to exit your car. On the platform, we scanned the eastern ponds which are primarily inhabited by ducks. I have always found the comparatively rare, richly colored cinnamon teal here, one of my favorites. A mudflat to the southwest of the platform provides habitat for shorebirds such as the group of black-necked stilt we viewed clustered amongst the geese. A small flock of white-faced ibis swooped in from over head, landing on the flats next to a sea of western sandpiper.

From here we continued the tour, spying numerous ring-necked pheasants, a delightful first for my wife. The trees separating the eastern ponds from the road are full of raptors.We stopped frequently to admire the statuesque profiles they displayed while scanning their kingdoms and wallowing in the gluttony of their current food supply status.We related to this gluttony, from a birder’s point of view. I have named only a fraction of the fantastic number of birds we saw this day.On a good day of birding, I feel fortunate to spot 50 to 100 individuals. At the refuge, it is not uncommon to see a mind-boggling 50,000 to 100,000 a day. The diversity of habitat combined with the natural miracle of migration in such a concentrated area provides the birding equivalent of gluttony. And there is no better place in Northern California from which to gorge on a feast of birding than the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge.