Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge
The Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge (SNWR) provides some of the most spectacular waterfowl and bird wildlife viewing opportunities in the continent. The refuge is comprised of a complex of manmade marshes and wetland which provide not only breeding habitats but also vital stopping points for migratory birds. A great number of raptors also make the refuge their home, either permanently or seasonal, taking advantage of abundant food sources. Endangered Bald Eagles can be spotted without too much difficulty.
The SNWR is easy to find and is conveniently located not far off Interstate 5, just south of Willows. The address is:
Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex
752 County Road 99W
Willows, California 95988
The telephone number is: 530-934-2801
The website is: http://www.fws.gov/refuge/sacramento
What can you do there? For one, you should stop at the visitor center. It has a wildlife exhibit, a bookstore and souvenirs. It also has clean restrooms. The center is open everyday from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm from November to February, but only weekdays the rest of the year.
Above, the route of the auto tour.
The number one thing to do is to take the 6-mile auto tour around the vast complex of marshes, grassland and forests. Your car is basically a blind that will help you get close to much of the wildlife. If you take the auto tour, it begins next to the visitor center. The road is gravel and well maintained. Remember to drive very slowly so you can approach the wildlife without distressing them. Plus, it will keep the dust down.
Along the 6-mile route you can only get out of your car at three specific points. At these points there are viewing areas and they make a great place to stop for a break and perhaps a bite to eat. Make sure you bring enough gas, food and drinking water. You may take this tour as many times as you want during the operating hours. We drove it twice and saw something different each time.
Above, one of the three places to park and stretch where we stopped to enjoy our lunch while we watched numerous birds either passing by or while they waded in the marchland searching for food.
At the time of this writing the fee to enter the SNWR was $6.00, but you should check the website for updated entrance fee information.
We used our Lifetime Senior Pass but there are a number of passes (above) that will allow you entrance to the SNWR.
You can take your bicycle on the 6-mile tour that is also used as the auto tour route. Note the times of the year when the bike tours are allowed. Check the SNWR website to obtain the latest information.
Another option is to take the Wetlands Walking Tour that begins near the visitor center. There are two options, depending on the time of the year: one is a 2-mile hike all year round, and the other is a seasonal 6-mile trek.
Above, only a portion of the vast wetlands that once existed in California. Now over 90% of these wetlands are gone, replaced by developers of agriculture in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Gone also are the symbol of California, the grizzly bear, due to overhunting and loss of habitat.
What can you see here? Well to start, there are as many as 500,000 ducks that visit here during the wintertime, and as many as 250,000 geese. Along with many resident and migratory birds, there are more than 250 species of birds that can be found in the refuge. Along with birds, there are also mammals like jack rabbits, deer and coyotes as well as reptiles, amphibians and fish. Stop by the visitor center and look at the checklist (above) of what wildlife has been spotted. If you want to see a specific animal, ask one of the friendly staff members who can help you. We wanted to see a bald eagle and were told not only where several adults were seen that morning, but also where we could see a juvenile bald eagle.
The best time to see wildfowl is October through February because of the greatest concentrations of migratory birds and the raptors that hunt them.
What did we see during our visit? I could not even begin to estimate the sheer numbers, but it was in the very high “thousands” range. I can tell you that I took over 400 photos, of course many were of the same animal, and of course, I missed several shots because I wasn’t fast enough. I use a 600 mm lens but if you have a standard telephoto that will work most of the time. If you do not have a long lens, make sure to bring some binoculars. And remember, animals are smart, and they are leery of us. They know how to hide, and many will perch on the far side of a tree to avoid being seen by us amateur ornithologists.
Above, the Western Meadowlark, a difficult bird to photograph under normal situations but we were lucky enough to see them up close at several locations inside the refuge.
Above, the majestic Turkey Vulture performs an aerial survey for remnants of leftovers.
Above and below, the Great Egret shows off the resplendent feathery plumage that was once so prized by Victorian women for their hats that the birds were nearly hunted to extinction.
Below, the Snowy Egret perched on a siderail of a wooden bridge, waiting for the birder to pass so that it can focus on catching a meal in the nearby creek.
Above, one of the most spectacular visitors to the SNWR is the White Faced Ibis. They use their long bills to search the wetland bottoms for food.
Above and below, the object of our visit to the SNWR is the symbol of America, the Bald Eagle. On our trip here we saw at least six different bald eagles. We maintained our distance so as not to disturb their hunting activities.
Above, a young juvenile bald eagle kept his eye on us as we observed him at the number 2 rest stop. All around this “park & stretch” stop were thousands of birds and even several logs in the marsh were pond turtles were enjoying the warmth of the sun.
Above, the American Coot, or Mudhen, keeps a wary eye out for predators.
Above, a sharp eye and a slow pace can help you spot what otherwise might look like a tree limb as this Great Horned Owl blends in with the environment.
Above, one of the many species of ducks that visit the SNWR is the Bufflehead, a small but very beautiful duck with a perpetual smile.
Above, the female Ruddy Duck, not as colorful as the male but still it sports a smile.
Above, one of the most magnificent ducks that can be seen at the SNWR is this male Pintail. It has a blue beak, a chocolate-colored head and long thin pintail feathers.
Above, the male and female versions of the Pintail Duck.
Above, the male Northern Shoveler Duck with its bright emerald green head and very colorful body. It uses it’s “spoonbill” to search the bottom of the ponds and marshes for food.
Above, the male and female versions of the Northern Shoveler Duck. These ducks have about 110 fine projections along the edges of their shovel beaks, which are called lamellae. These small protrusions act like a colander, filtering out tiny crustaceans, seeds, and aquatic invertebrates from the water. It is said that when a female is flushed from her nest, she will defecate on the eggs so that predators may stay away from them.
Above, there are several species of raptors that live in the SNWR, but you have to keep a sharp eye out for them. The one above is a Cooper Hawk which was not easy to spot among the many tree branches.
Above, as you drive along the auto tour be sure to stop periodically. And if you happen to be observing a large number of birds in the water and they suddenly take flight, look up, as a hawk or eagle may have frightened them while searching for food.
Above, a Red Shouldered Hawk allowed us to photograph him for several moments before we left him to concentrate on more important items.
Above, a spectacular Red Tailed Hawk keeps an eye out for intruders like photographers with long lenses.
Above, the male Ring-Necked Pheasant with its iridescent copper-and-gold plumage, white collar, indigo throat, and bright red face. Not a native species to North America but rather it was imported long ago as a game bird. The ring-necked pheasant is the state bird of South Dakota.
Above and below, beside the high numbers of ducks that visit the SNWR, geese come in second with their numbers. Snow geese traveler here from as far away as the Arctic and the Soviet Union.
Above, a snow goose with a colorful face. They are smaller than the larger Canadian geese.
Above, the White Fronted Goose cruises the waterway along the SNWR wetlands.
Above and below, the Western Pond Turtle, also known commonly as the Pacific Pond Turtle. Besides several species of sea turtles, this is the only turtle native to California.
Below, what was and what is no longer are the glorious wetlands and the abundant wildlife that they supported. In an example of our poor stewardship of the earth, we have drained these valuable resources, paved them over and converted them into high production farming tracts and housing developments.
If you are into nature, and specifically ornithology, the SNWR is a place that should make it to the top of your bucket list. It is easy to reach, easy to navigate and easy to see an abundance of wildlife. Your journey there will not be regretted.
All photographs are the copyright of Jim Jackson Photography. Please contact me for authorization to use or for signed, high-resolution copies.
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