Big Bird Watching in Central California

The wildlife refuges of the San Joaquin Valley put on a blockbuster show of cranes, geese and other migratory birds every winter.

Words and photos by Lori Eanes


Everyone knows California attracts millions of tourists from all over the world but few people know about its amazing refuges that attract millions of birds every year.


Numerous national and state wildlife refuges were established to provide habitat for migratory birds moving along the Pacific Flyway after agriculture replaced more than 90 percent of the historical wetlands in Central California.

The biggest displays of the biggest birds takes place during the winter months, when massive sandhill cranes, snow geese and eye-popping flocks of other waterfowl fly in.


In less than two hours from the Bay Area, you can visit a host of wildlife refuges bursting with bird life, including the San Joaquin River NWR near Tracy, Merced NWR east of Santa Nella, Woodbridge Ecological Reserve east of Lodi, Cosumnes NWR south of Sacramento, as well as the Gray Lodge Wildlife Area, Colusa NWR and Sacramento NWR (all between Chico and Yuba City.) The refuges are all open year-round and each one offers a variety of driving tours, viewing platforms, visitor centers, hiking trails and even paddling opportunities.  (Check each website for bird species, visiting hours and potential activities before visiting.)


A weekend trip to Lodi or Chico – or maybe a detour from a soccer/softball/baseball tourney in the area – will provide several spots to birdwatch. And if you’re driving I-5 up or down the center of California, a picnic or pitstop at a northern refuge or the Kern Wildlife Refuge farther south provides a nice change of scenery from a fast-food parking lot.

Californians of all ages will find it reassuring to see thousands of birds happily living their lives in their natural habitat. Scroll through the gallery below for a sample of the winter spectacle. The sight and sound of these flocks are unforgettable – just don’t forget your binoculars.



Aleutian cackling geese fly in formation. The San Joaquin River NWR was established in 1987 to help the Aleutian cackling geese who were critically endangered at the time. By giving them more habitat and removing predators from their Alaskan breeding grounds their numbers have grown to more than 100,000. The refuge is about 90 minutes southeast of the Bay Area and is a winter home for many migratory birds including sandhill cranes, ducks and others.


Snow geese and Aleutian cackling geese simultaneously take off.  Geese normally take off from the water by running across the surface, flapping their wings and honking to encourage their friends to keep up. However, when startled – like this group seen near the Beckwith observation platform at the San Joaquin River NWR – they can fly straight up, but it takes a lot of energy. It is best to remain in your car and keep quiet while birdwatching, so you don’t disturb the flocks of gees


Ross’s geese and snow geese flying together. The Merced NWR has the largest wintering populations of Ross’s geese along the Pacific Flyway. These geese are a smaller version of snow geese with stubbier bills and shorter necks. Aside from their smaller stature, Ross’s geese are very similar to snow geese, sharing similar habitats, eating similar vegetation – and they can even hybridize. Snow geese are one of the most abundant waterfowl on the planet. They congregate in fallow agricultural fields around the refuges during winter where it’s not uncommon to see thousands of geese foraging in a single field.



Red-winged blackbirds in the reeds. Located north of Sacramento, the Colusa NWR has a self-guided auto tour of its 70,000-acre complex during the winter months. Staying in your car is the least intrusive way to see the gathering of birds. Red-winged blackbirds are year-round marsh residents. In the winter, the birds gather in huge flocks in the evening to roost together and then spread out to feed in the morning.



Great egret stretching its wings. Great egrets are year-round residents at all the California refuges. They live in the marshes and stalk fish. During breeding season, the males have a face patch that turns neon green. They also grow long plumes of feathers called aigrettes. The birds were almost hunted to extinction in the late 1800s because the plumes were popular adornments for ladies’ hats. The National Audubon Society was founded to protect egrets from this practice.


White-faced ibis in the marsh.  The white-faced ibis forages by sweeping their long bill through the water. They can be found overwintering in marshes throughout Central California, as shown here at the Colusa NWR.


Sandhill cranes at Staten Island. The Nature Conservancy purchased this 9,200-acre plot of working farmland near the Cosumnes River Preserve in San Joaquin County because it is critical wintering ground in the delta for sandhill cranes and other migratory birds. Sandhill cranes congregate in large flocks during the winter when they forage in flooded fields and bog. And it is an ancient species: The earliest fossil found from a sandhill crane is estimated to be 2.5 million years old.


Lesser sandhill crane comes in for a landing. The Merced NWR has the largest concentration of lesser sandhill cranes along the Pacific Flyway. Lesser sandhill cranes average 9-10 pounds and the female and male birds appear identical. They are the most common crane in North America with a population of about 400,000 birds.


Sandhill cranes on a berm between wetlands. Photographed near the Beckwith observation platform at the San Joaquin River NWR, sandhill cranes mate for life and stay with their mates year-round.


A parade of American Coots. American Coots are found year-round in California, shown here near the Gray Lodge Wildlife Area. They are often mistaken for ducks but they’re more closely related to cranes and rails. In the winter they flock together in large groups eating aquatic plants as well as insects.


Gray Lodge Wildlife Area at dusk.  Gray Lodge Wildlife Area is a 9,100 acre site and has a self guided auto-loop during the winter and several discovery trails. In certain seasons, it’s also open to hunters on certain days each week. Check the website for more information.


Red-tailed hawk in flight.  Seen here at the Cosumnes River Preserve, red-tailed hawks are year-round residents of California and the most common raptor in the U.S. They’re also opportunistic hunters: Although small mammals make up most of their diet, they also prey on birds.


Boardwalk trail at Cosumnes River Preserve. The half-mile boardwalk trail at the Cosumnes River Preserve is one of several hikes through the wetlands, grasslands, river and riparian forest. The refuge has 50,000 acres of wildlife habitat and more than four miles of hiking trails. It attracts 250 species of birds, including migratory birds and year-round residents.


White-fronted geese foraging. Photographed at Cosumnes River Preserve, these birds overwinter in large flocks in central California then return to the tundra of Northern Alaska and Canada to breed.



Western meadowlark in take off  Western meadowlarks are found year round at Merced NWR. They are found in open meadows and grasslands and can be seen walking on the ground foraging for insects and seeds.  They are known for their flute-like, gurgling call.



Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge at dusk. The Sacramento NWR has 70,000 acres of habitat, two hiking trails and a visitor center open year-round. In winter, the popular six-mile auto tour has three platforms where it is possible to get out of the car. Wintering bird populations include 500,000-700,000 ducks and 200,000 geese. Shorebirds and songbirds are found here in the spring and summer.



Lori Eanes  – March 2021

ROAM Contributor   

Lori Eanes is a San Francisco-based photographer who specializes in food and people. During the pandemic, she discovered nearby wildlife refuges and highly recommends them. www.lorieanes.com

© ROAM Family Travel 2021 – All rights reserved


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