A couple of weeks ago I saw the first reports of sandhill cranes arriving at the refuges, so I decided to day trip out to Merced and see what I might find.

This is about a month earlier than I typically visit the refuges for the first time, but I wanted to check out the status of the refuges and see how they were shaping up for fall. And, to be honest, I wanted to try to get my first looks at the cranes for the season.

Merced National Wildlife Refuge did not disappoint.

Early visits to the refuges are a hit and miss thing. The summer birds have moved out, the winter birds are just starting to move in, and the refuges have only partially flooded their fields. This can be a good thing because the limited water can bring the birds closer to your viewing position, or it can cause them to go to remote areas where you’ll never see them. And since it’s still warm, there are bugs, so carrying DEET is a good idea, one I remembered after the fact (and I’ve now re-stocked the car).

But the birds were definitely out and about in Merced, with good numbers of cranes in close locations, along with White-faced Ibis, some early flocks of Greater White-Fronted Geese, a large number of Greater Yellowlegs clearly in migration, and various other species. The light was a challenge but a bit of patience gave me good lighting angles on most of the birds.

The cranes are were still showing their summer breeding feathering, which is soon going to fade to the winter pale grey. I haven’t seen this species with this look since my trip to Yellowstone, so that was a nice bonus surprise.

Sandhill Cranes

One special find: one area of the refuge was literally stuffed full of egrets: I counted 50 great egrets and a half dozen snowy egrets, and then to my delight I also noticed about 12 cattle egret, which are uncommon but I’ll see them every couple of years here. Always a fun find.

Cattle Egret

San Luis National Wildlife Refuge was a different matter, with most of the water far off and bird action very limited. I believe this refuge puts a flooding priority on the hunter areas, so it tends to fill out for birding later in the fall. I’m not complaining, however, because the Tule Elk herd that lives here was in full antler and in close proximity to the tour route, and I even got to hear one of the males bugle a few times.

Tule Elk

From the looks of the two areas, it’s shaping up to be a nice winter season, and it’s not too early to go out and visit if you want to get a head start. The white geese (Ross’s and Snow) haven’t arrived and are probably a month off, but there are good numbers of Sandhills out there, and for most people, that’s the main attraction.

Fall is definitely here, and the winter birds are arriving!

White-faced Ibis

Greater Yellowlegs

Immature Black-necked Stilt

Sandhill Cranes in flight

See the full set of images from this trip over in my Smugmug gallery.