This is the second 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)
- The third part 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 Lodi Loop
This trip covers three properties near the town of Lodi, California:
- Cosumnes River Preserve
- Staten Island
- Woodbridge Ecological Reserve, also called the Isenberg Crane Refuge
These refuges are a bit north of Sacramento on the I-5, a moderate drive (1.5-2 hours) from Silicon Valley, but much easier for those living closer to San Francisco to visit. They cover a wide variety of habitat and support a large number of species, including Sandhill Cranes, Geese, Ducks and shorebirds.
You don’t need to cover these refuges in any particular order, and you don’t need to start the loop inside Lodi; if you’re coming up I-5, you can go directly to the first refuge.
I do suggest you schedule a visit so you can to Woodbridge for the evening fly in. These refuges are close together, so you can quickly get there when you’re ready to settle in for sunset.
Cosumnes River Preserve
Cosumnes River Preserve is an area of 50,000 acres co-owned and managed by a number of organizations and agencies including the Nature Conservancy, Ducks Unlimited, the Bureau of Land Management and the California Department of Fish and Game. It preserves one of the last stands of native oak Riparian habitats in the valley, as well as a significant portion of the Cosumnes river, the last free running river in the Central Valley at its connection to the delta.
To get to the preserve, take I-5 to the Thornton/Walnut Grove exit and head east. turn left on Thornton and take the road to the preserve. There are two parking lots, with the main lot and visitor center on the right as you approach, and a smaller lot on the left.
Cosumnes is the preserve best suited to hiking on my list. There is also a driving tour they publish. The main trail is a 3 mile loop through the Oak habitat and along the River through part of the reserve. The second trail is accessible from the second parking lot and covers the waterfowl ponds with trails and boardwalks. This second trail is fully accessible.
Cosumnes is a good location for Sandhill Crane and Geese, especially Greater White-Fronted; the woodlands trails are prime areas for woodpeckers and warblers, while the waterfowl ponds hold a wide variety of ducks and shorebirds and can be a good location for finding rails, soras and Common Gallinue.
There is a visitors center and restrooms at the main parking lot, and a latrine down at the lower lot.
This is a great location to go and stretch your legs and explore the woodlands, or grab a camp chair and stake out the waterfowl ponds as you prefer. It can be a very good location for raptors as well.
Staten Island is an island in the delta that is owned and managed by the Nature Conservancy. Covering about 9,000 acres, the property is used both for agricultural purposes and in the winter as a wildlife preserve. The fields act as habitat for geese and cranes, and some areas are flooded to act as habitat for ducks and shorebirds.
Staten Island is a working farm but visitors are allowed to drive the central road. To get to the island, you take the Thornton/Walnut Grove exit off I-5 and go west towards Walnut Grove. Turn left on Staten Island Blvd.
Note that Staten Island is unimproved, beyond a visitor kiosk at the entrance there are no facilities. The first part of the road is paved, then becomes gravel. Side roads and part of the main roadway at the far end of the island are off-limits to visitors and marked as such, but the main road gives good views to the fields and ponds on the Island.
Please stay out of the way of the working vehicles as this is a working farm, and give them right of way.
Staten Island is probably the most reliable place to see Sandhill Cranes, since they are usually out in the fields on the island during the day. This can also be a good place to see Greater White-Fronted Geese, but it’s usually the winter home for large flocks of Alaskan Cackling geese, up to 20,000, being the primary winter residence for much of the Alaska breeding population. Tundra Swans are seen here at times.
Staten Island can be birded in an hour or 90 minutes, and with the Cacklers has some unique species worth looking for. Often all three sub-species of cacklers are resident here.
Woodbridge Ecological Reserve (Isenberg Crane Refuge)
Woodbridge Ecological Reserve are a couple of plots of land reserved as Sandhill Crane habitat along Woodbridge Road. These areas are designed to be night roosting areas for Cranes, but also support geese, ducks and shorebirds and other species as well.
To get to Woodbridge take I-5 to the Turner Road exit, and then go east on Turner. Turn left at the stop sign on Ray Road, then turn left onto Woodbridge. Take Woodbridge under the freeway and out to the reserve area.
The entire area of Woodbridge can be birded by car from the road. Please stay out of the way of the working vehicles as this is a working farm, and give them right of way. You’ll want to bird Woodbridge out to the end and back, usually with good views of Sandhill Cranes, multiple varieties of geese and other birds.
The highlight of this area is the evening fly-in, which can be incredible on a good night, as thousands of cranes and other birds fly in from their daytime foraging locations to the refuge as a nighttime roost to sleep. The cranes will stand in the water to sleep, giving them some protection from predators like coyotes.
This fly-in continues from late afternoon into early evening; I usually recommend people arrive an hour before sunset and find a spot to park and settle in, and plan to stay at least 30-45 minutes after sunset as the show continues, and if you stay later as it darkens you can still hear the flocks coming in and settling down for the night. It truly can be a stunning event on a good night, and even on nights with fewer birds moving around it’s still a fun evening, and this is a location that has really beautiful sunsets on many nights to boot.
Please be aware that visiting Woodbridge now requires buying a CDFW day pass, costing $4.32 per person. Passes can be bought online, but are not available at the reserve. Information on the pass and the purchasing system are found at the CDFW Day Pass web site.
There’s really no right or wrong way to visit these refuges. They’re all quite close together so you can check each one out and them put your time into the one you find most interesting and where the best birds and activity is going on. I’ll often visit Staten Island first, then head over to Cosumnes to explore the waterfowl areas (and use the latrine), and then bird Woodbridge.
This makes a good half-day trip, especially if you schedule it for the afternoon so you catch the evening Fly-in at Woodbridge, and then find a nice place in Lodi or along I-5 for dinner on the way home. At Cosumnes you can get a good walk in, or you can sit at one of the sites with the camera for bird photography, or just sit back, put away the gear and enjoy the sunset.
Part 3 of this guide will cover the refuges I visit in the area north of Sacramento.