During the winter I head out into the central valley as many times as I can to visit the refuges while the winter migrants are living there. I’ve get requests on where to go and what to expect, so I’ve written up a few notes on these trips and what to expect for you.

First, the central valley is well known for tule fog, which can hug the ground and make everything grey and in some areas difficult to drive. Every so often it encases the roads out there, and once in a while historically nasty car accidents happen as a result. So be aware of the weather out there, but don’t let the fear of tule fog stop you (but drive carefully), it can turn things magical. And it usually clears out pretty well as the day moves forward.  

Where to go

There are a number of interesting refuges you can visit depending on where you’re starting and how far you want to drive.

The refuges furthest north that I visit are in the Williams and Colusa area: Sacramento NWR just south of Willows on I5, and Colusa NWR on I20 on the way to Colusa from I5. These are right at the edge of a day trip for me here in southern Silicon Valley, but I’ll often overnight in the area to get more birding time in.

Both of these are easily findable in Google maps. Sacramento NWR is at I5 and Route 68.

Further south in the the Galt and Lodi area are three of my favorite places: Consumnes River Preserve , Isenberg Crane Reserve and the Woodbridge Road areas, and Staten Island (a Nature Conservancy land co-managed for agriculture in summer and Cranes/Geese in the winter).

For both Consumnes and Staten Island you get off I5 at the Thornton offramp. For Consumnes go east on Thornton, turn left at the first light and head up Thornton to the visitor center. For Staten island, you go the other way from that exit, and keep going until you hit Staten Island road. Staten Island isn’t clearly marked that it’s open for access and the signage is minimal and easy to miss, but as long as you stay on the roadway and out of the way of the agricultural folks there doing their job, it’s open for birders to explore and enjoy.

Isenberg Crane Reserve is a bit south of there. You take the Turner road offramp, go a bit north to Woodbridge Road and then under the freeway. You should bird the entire length of Woodbridge as well as stop at the refuge (which is labelled Woodbridge Ecological Reserve in Google Maps). This is my favorite place to take in winter sunsets for the crane and geese fly in at dusk, by far. This area also does a great crane festival every winter with special tours and other events.

Closest to my home — about 90 minutes away — in the Los Banos and Santa Nella area are San Luis NWR and Merced NWR, which is my favorite of all of these refuges. To get to Merced, you take 152 to highway 59, go north to Sandy Mush, and go west to the refuge. San Luis NWR is on the 165 at Wolfsen road.

If you’re looking for specific species, here are some species and where they’re commonly found:

  • Cackling Geese: Staten Island
  • Greater White-Fronted Geese: most places, but Colusa NWR will usually have best viewing
  • Ross’s Geese: Merced NWR
  • Snow Geese: pretty much everywhere
  • Raptors: Sacramento NWR and San Luis NWR
  • White-Faced Ibis: varies greatly, but Merced NWR is pretty reliable
  • Sandhill Cranes: Isenberg Crane Reserve, Merced NWR
  • Tundra Swans: San Luis NWR, Sacramento NWR
  • Bald Eagles: Sacramento NWR

How to watch and photograph the birds

Birds can often be remote, very early in the morning before there’s a lot of people in the refuges can make a big difference. 400mm lenses are basically mandatory, as are good binoculars. 600mm makes a huge difference. Mid-week tends to be a lot quieter than weekends, especially early.

Morning fly-out as the birds wake up and clock out to feeding grounds can be historic. Evening fly-ins as everyone comes back to sleep together is an amazing sight. I’d plan on being in place at least 90 minutes before sunset and stay at least 45 minutes after, FWIW. It carries on and on into the dark, and the sound is just amazing.

Move slowly, stay in your car, the best way to get near birds is to find a reasonable spot, park and wait for them to stop worrying about you and meander closer. which can be a problem if you have others rushing through the park or being annoying, which happens. Unfortunately the rangers are spread really thin, so there’s less rule enforcement than there should be.

Sacramento NWR (and Colusa) are pretty hard core about staying in your car. Merced the rules are similar, but in general “stay on the road with your car” is okay if you want to get out to use a spotting scope or a tripod. But if you do the birds will push further away from you when they see the human shapes moving around.

Notes on Staten Island

It’s not obvious you have permission to drive on the Island; you do, up through the gravel road to the point where there’s a set of “private signs”. The last bits you shouldn’t go on. Staten Island is one of the main wintering grounds for Alaskan Cackling Geese, and 20,000 of them isn’t unusual.

Also, the water tunnel project Jerry Brown is promoting is planning on taking a third of Staten Island by eminent domain from Nature Conservancy for a maintenance/access facility. NC is obviously fighting this, but if the project happens and they succeed in grabbing the property, the expectation is major disruptions to the wintering birds (at best) and possibly devastation of that location, especially during construction. Another reason to not be in favor of those stupid tunnels. (there are many).

I’ve been shooting the various refuges for over a decade. you can get a sense of each one from my galleries, and if you have specific questions, feel free to ask.