Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge is a flat expanse of marsh and tules. It lies in one of the richest agricultural valleys on the planet. Seventy years ago our forefathers had the wisdom to begin restoring nearly 11,000 marshy acres. Now hundreds of thousands of ducks and geese winter here.
I go to the refuge in winter for its animated snowdrifts and music. White mounds form on the ponds where the water meets the tules. White curtains swirl up from the water and hundreds of feet in the air coalesce into clouds. Then streamers of white move off in one direction or another, unraveling the cloud into threads. These drifts, mounds, clouds, and threads are thousands of Snow and Ross’s Geese.
The music: a symphony of thousands of calls from as many white, feathered throats. The counter-melody is the quaking and whistles of even more thousands of ducks.
The white goose population is often more than 40,000, while the duck density is several times greater. It’s a wildlife spectacle the equal of any other in the United States. Here I stand in awe, trying to fathom a hundred thousand pintails. — Harry Fuller
Freshwater wetlands, grasslands, vernal pools, and meadows.
Flat. A six-mile driving tour with viewing platforms. A two-mile wetlands walking trail at the headquarters.
Winter: Snow, Ross’s, and Greater White-fronted Geese, Northern Pintail, Green-winged and Cinnamon Teals, Gadwall, and other dabblers. Most common diving ducks: Ring-necked and Ruddy Ducks. In the willows: Nuttall’s Woodpecker, Black Phoebe, Oak Titmouse, Yellow-billed Magpie. Raptors: Red-tailed Hawk, Northern Harrier, White-tailed Kite, Bald Eagle, and Golden Eagle (occasional). More than a dozen shorebird species on the mudflats.
When to go
Greatest wintering bird populations are from late November through mid-February. Mornings are usually best, but try for a day without heavy rain, fog, or wind, which reduce visibility.
Visitor center open daily, 9-4, November-February; weekdays the rest of year. Bird checklist available. Boardwalks through marsh. Raised viewing platforms along auto route.
Federal wildlife refuge. $3 per vehicle for day pass. Duck Stamp, Golden Eagle, Age, and Access Passports honored as well. Access is best by auto or bicycle.
Winter is the rainy season and can be foggy. A spotting scope is useful. Many birding groups in Northern California organize trips by bus or carpool caravans.