Prior to the intense settlement that began with the gold rush, California’s Central Valley was an immense wetland. A representative of California’s Department of Water Resources once told me that in wet winters one could nearly row all the way across it to the Sierra foothills. This habitat was the wintering ground for many millions of waterfowl. As we have corralled Sierra runoff into canals and waterways in pursuit of agriculture, most of that wetland habitat has been lost.
Most, but not all. While the numbers are only one-tenth of what they were long ago, millions of waterfowl still spend the winter in an array of Central Valley wildlife refuges. A real life National Geographic spectacle is only a day trip away.
My route home from Lake Almanor would pass a number of Sacramento Valley wildlife refuges. The challenge was deciding which ones to visit. I remembered years ago the thrill and excitement when thousands of snow geese, calmly floating at the Merced Wildlife Refuge, suddenly burst skyward in a cacophony of wing beating and honking. I hoped to find a gathering of snow geese and see just such a spectacle again.
Gray Lodge Wildlife Refuge is a handful of miles west of Gridley on Highway 99 north of Yuba City. I stuffed my $4 day-use fee into the envelope and set out for the main viewing platform, a short walk away. A man I spoke to there said that on his last visit, the surface of the water we overlooked was covered with snow geese, but not today. Along the two-mile footpath through the refuge, I saw a variety of waterfowl, but not the concentrations I was seeking. Time to press on.
Beside Interstate Highway 5, the Sacramento Wildlife Refuge is the lead refuge in a complex of five wildlife areas near Willows, California. After asking for guidance at the visitor center, I crept slowly along the 6-mile auto tour loop getting out at the three park-and-stretch areas, the only locations where visitors are allowed to leave their vehicles. Right where they said it would be, a bald eagle sat atop a bare cottonwood regally surveying the landscape. In a blaze, a peregrine falcon streaked past.
As at Gray Lodge Reserve, I had seen many birds including snow geese, but not in concentrations I had hoped. As it turned out, my snow geese encounter happened on a stretch of road between the two refuges. Racing along at 65 miles an hour, I saw a sea of white floating on one of the many ordinary bodies of water by the side of the road. I stopped, grabbed my camera, and waited. I only had to wait a few moments before peaceful silence exploded into an indescribably raucous surge of life.
A glimpse of the wild and abundant bird life that existed in the Central Valley for millennia is just over the hill; well worth the drive and a little bit of patience.