If you have a free day some weekend this month – and you don’t want to watch the football playoffs – you could visit the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, which is about 100 miles or two hours from St. Helena.
This time of year, thousands of ducks and geese, including the fabulous snow geese, spend the winter in the flooded fields, eating and resting as they have migrated from the arctic regions of Alaska, Canada and Siberia.
The months of November, December and January are peak seasons for bird-watchers and it’s a tremendous sight to see hundreds or thousands of snow geese take off, circle around and then land miles away.
The visitors center is just off Interstate 5 near Willows. Entrance fee is $6 per car and the docents in the visitors center can offer binoculars, identification guides to the birds in the area and other information. It is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., from November through February, and is staffed on weekdays for the rest of the year.
Last Sunday, Joni and I spent the day visiting the refuge. There’s an auto tour that is a 6-mile loop and we spent more than two hours driving the loop. There are three places where we could get out of the car to stretch and we did. (As a visitor to the wildlife area, you are not permitted to get out of your car on the loop, except in designated areas, because it frightens the waterfowl. But, as the road is right next to the ponds where the ducks and geese are swimming and eating, there is no need to get out of the car.)
As we drove slowly around the loop, we stopped often, put the binoculars to our eyes to look at the waterfowl, including northern shovelers, a duck that could be confused with a mallard, except the northern shovelers have different, larger and flatter bills and the mallards have a white ring around their necks and orange bills.
We saw birds in flight, red-tailed hawks, and peregrine falcons, and were absolutely thrilled when the Snow geese took to the air or settled down in a place near where we were.
The refuge is part of a complex of flooded wetlands, including Delevan, Colusa, Sutter, Butte Sink and Sacramento River. Delevan is just south of Sacramento and Colusa is about 30 minutes south on I-5, about 7 miles east on Highway 20. The wetlands on the five refuges are almost entirely manmade, according to a pamphlet. Work began to establish the wetlands in 1937, along the ancient Pacific Flyway routes. Additional refuges were created from the 1940s through the 1980s.
Although the winter is a good time to visit the refuges as the ducks and geese leave for their breeding grounds from March to May, the shorebirds, including sandpipers, avocets and others, arrive, probing the mudflats for food. In the summer, herons, egrets, grebes and some ducks remain to nest and the pintails are the first ducks to arrive in the fall, beginning in September, marking the beginning of the migration.
For information, visit fws.gov/refuge/sacramento.