This is the third of three guides to visiting the Central Valley refuges.

  • Part one of this series covers what I call the Los Banos Loop: Merced and San Luis NWR
  • This part covers what I call the Lodi Loop: Cosumnes River Preserve, Staten Island, and Woodbridge Ecological Reserve (also known as Isenberg Crane Refuge)
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  • This part will cover my Northern day trip, Colusa NWR and Sacramento NWR near Williams and Willows

Every winter I spend as much time as I can visiting the wildlife refuges of California’s central valley watching the birds and wildlife and taking photographs. I started visiting the refuges over a decade ago — my first visit was March of 2007, and when a Peregrine Falcon flushed 20,000+ geese into the air and the chaos of a mass flight — something you feel as much as you see and hear — happened, I was hooked.

Over the years I’ve studied the refuges and their winter inhabitants and come to understand how important the refuges are in the larger scope of the health of the birds of much of North America, and of the environment we live in.

If you aren’t familiar with wildlife refuges, the first part of the series will help you understand their purpose and challenges.

My refuge season typically starts November 1 and carries on until March. The refuges are still preparing for the winter season earlier, but I’ve experimented with trips as early as mid September and seen interesting birds, and later into June when migration is over and mostly what you’ll find is the standard locals and some noisy marsh wrens. Some birds are early arrivers, and Northern Shovelers tend to be the first ducks to arrive, followed by Northern Pintails. The first cranes usually arrive in October, but the geese are often later, with the white geese (Snow and Ross’s) November arrivals and it can be December before you see them in huge numbers. Mid-December to the end of February is what I’d define as “prime time” for the refuges.

There can be advantages to visiting early, though: when the refuges are only partially flooded, that limits the number of places the birds, especially cranes, will visit, and that can encourage them to wander closer to the roadways, giving better views.

It’s important to remember: the birds are wild, and while they might get used to visitors on the tour routes, there’s still hunting around and that keeps them on edge and so the shape of a human will often cause them to leave. And because they’re wild, there are no guarantees: some days I go to the refuges and I don’t see a goose or crane, and I might come back a couple of days later to 30,000 geese hanging out. It’s always different.

The Northern(ish) Refuges

Greater White-fronted Geese, Colusa National Wildlife Refuge, California

Colusa NWR and Sacramento NWR are the two refuges we visit every year that are the northernmost locations we are willing to day trip to, hence calling them “Northern(ish)”. The chain of refuges continue north all the way to the border with Oregon and beyond, into Klamath Falls, and ultimately into Washington.

These two, however, are good refuges for serious birding and bird photography and within reach of Silicon Valley if you don’t mind a drive. The drive to Colusa NWR is a solid 2 and a half to 3 hours depending on traffic, and Sacramento is 20 minutes north of that. Laurie and I will normally make this trip once a winter; I’ll almost aways come back once or twice with an overnight stay to allow me more time on the refuges and less time on the freeways.

Note from the map there are two other refuges shown. Delevan NWR has no public access but you can look into it from the side of the road. I’ve found on a few stops there’s rarely enough visible to warrant much time spent here. Gray Lodge does have public access, but the one time I scheduled a visit there two years ago happened to be duck hunting day so non-hunters weren’t allowed on site, and I haven’t gotten around to trying again and planning better for the visit.

Colusa NWR

Snow Goose Flock in Flight, Colusa National Wlidlife Refuge

Colusa NWR is off of highway 20, which takes you from I-5 to the city of Colusa. After you enter the reserve, you’ll get to a parking area with latrines and picnic tables, and a path that takes you to an observation platform. This platform overlooks a large pond that is usually full of ducks and geese: Greater-White fronted are always there in winter, and you will usually find Snow Geese, with an occasional Ross’s. There is also a wide variety of ducks and shorebirds as well.

This is, to be honest, bird photographer heaven, and it’s rare that you don’t see at least one photographer and their gear hanging out on the platform. It gives you easy access and visibility to many bird species, and opportunities to shoot flying birds, or those taking off or landing. The biggest challenge of this location is that the wind is often blowing into your face, and since birds take off and land into the wind, that means often what you seen and photograph are bird butts. But with some time and patience you can get good shots of birds as the fly around and across the area, and it’s well worth visiting for the platform and access it gets you.

Beyond the platform is an auto-tour, a few miles of graveled roads that travel around the edges of various ponds in the refuge. It is similar to the auto tours at other refuges, and sometimes you can get good birding and photo opportunities here, but often you get distant views of the same species you see elsewhere.

Sacramento NWR

Sacramento NWR is one of the larger refuges in California, at over 10,000 acres. It has offices for the region refuges and a visitor center. It does have an admission fee per car, paid for at a kiosk at the entrance. Sacramento has a 6 mile auto-tour route that takes you around the perimeter of the refuge.

Sacramento is fairly stringent about its “stay in the car” rule on the auto-tour. Getting out of the car to scope of photograph on the tour, except in designated areas, can get you kicked out of the refuge.

This refuge houses a population of cranes, but is primarily set up to house tens of thousands of migrating geese, especially Snow Goose and Greater White-Fronted. It also supports large numbers of many species of ducks and shorebirds. Peregrine Falcon is resident here, as is Bald Eagle, and both are seen pretty reliably; it is also a good location for other raptors like Northern Harrier.

Refuge Strategies

When Laurie and I day trip, we typically try to get an early start and drive to Sacramento NWR and drive the auto-tour in the morning, stop for lunch and then visit the observation platform at Colusa. When we’re done, we’ll drive the colusa auto-tour and then head home.

When I come up here solo with an overnight stay, I’ll usually start with the Colusa auto-tour and then sit on the observation platform for the afternoon. the next morning, I’ll start with an early trip through Sacramento, then visit Colusa for more time on the platform, then back to Sacramento for the afternoon for at least two trips around the auto tour. When I’m done, either I’m back to the hotel for a 2nd night, or I’m off for the drive home. If I stay two nights on a trip, the drive home the next morning is usually via some of the refuges around Lodi.

Food and Facilities

In Williams, near Colusa NWR and just south of the turn off that takes you to Colusa and the refuge there’s a place called Granzella’s, which has a small motel, a restaurant and deli. The deli is excellent and I almost always use it for lunches on trips to this area. The restaurant is okay and I eat there occasionally (I’m more likely to grab a deli sandwich for the room). The motel is nice, but the one time I stayed there I had some issues with my room and a staff member, and so I don’t recommend it, although your mileage may vary.

Now I stay at the Best Western in Willows, further north and near the Sacramento NWR entrance. Willows is a little bigger than Williams and has more options, including a Black Bear Diner and a Starbucks, so it’s a little further from home but better set up for the stays and where I spend most of my time on the trip, which is Sacramento NWR.