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

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.

What is a Wildlife Refuge?

A common confusion I hear when I talk about the refuges with people is they think the wildlife refuges are wilderness areas. They aren’t. They are protected areas that are carefully modified and managed to simulate the kind of environments that the birds depend on to survive the winter, and which were in the past widespread throughout the central valley.

Unfortunately, human development has massively changed the central valley, filling in marshes and converting much of the land to farming and agriculture. Over 95% of the acreage that used to be used by migrating birds is now manicured farmland of little or no use to the birds. The wildlife refuges are islands of nature spread through the farmland to try to give the birds habitat they can safely use during the winter.

For the winter visitors, ponds have been scooped out and flooded, the vegetation is mown or there are controlled burns to keep them from becoming overgrown, when you visit you might see cows or sheep being pastured, which keeps those areas open for use by the birds that flock there. In some refuges, they even contract with farmers to grow food crops like corn for the birds to feed on to help make sure they get enough to give them the fat stores needed for the northern migration.

Because these are managed environments, these are areas that don’t have the native beauty of a place like Yosemite, but spend time in them and you find their have their own quiet attractiveness I love to visit. And there are the birds.

The major species the refuges support are the Geese, Cranes and Ducks: in California, that means the Sandhill Crane, along with four species of goose: Greater white-fronted, Snow and Ross’s, plus Cackling Geese, the Canada Goose’s smaller cousin. With ducks, there are many species, including Northern Shoveler and Northern Pintail, the two most common, but you’ll also find Gadwalls, Buffleheads, Canvasbacks, Ring-Necked ducks, teals and the inevitable Mallards. Also taking advantage of these areas are a wide variety of shorebirds, warblers, sparrows and many more species, with White-Faced Ibis being a fairly frequent visitor that’s fascinating to watch hunt the shorelines. Ebird reports over 225 species have been seen at Merced National Wildlife Refuge, my reports 112.

Sunset at San Luis National Wildlife Refuge

Many refuges have good public access for people interested in visiting and exploring. The ones listed below all are open and accessible to all, often with an auto route you can drive, making them very accessible for those with limited ability to hike.

Many of them are open seven days a week, some refuges close for duck hunting during winter months two days a week, so it can make sense to check for closure dates the first time you visit. The refuges listed here support hunting but in areas that don’t require closing the tour routes, but which might limit access to some secondary issues.

These are all easy places to visit: just show up and explore. They are open from half an hour before sunrise to half an hour after sunset; some of these locations are gated, but if you’re inside when the gates close, they’ll open to let you out at the exit. Don’t be surprised if a Ranger shags you towards the exit if you stay too long beyond sunset.

I’ve got three routes I use on a regular basis in the winter that visit seven refuge areas around the state. Each one is a good day trip from either the San Jose or San Francisco area. I try to explore each loop at least twice each winter, and since it’s the closest one to where I live, I’ll visit the Los Banos area refuges more often.

This guide covers the Merced area refuges I visit, Merced National Wildlife Refuge and San Luis NWR. I’ll cover the other two routes in later articles.

For each of these routes I’ll describe how to visit the refuges and move between them, suggestions for what do and facilities you might want during the trip.

Merced National Wildlife Refuge, California

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.

Los Banos Loop

This is the loop I travel most frequently, with the refuges that I’ve spent the most time in. This area is roughly bounded by Santa Nella on the West, Los Banos on the South, and Merced to the Northeast.

Coming from greater Silicon Valley, you would take the 101 south to the 152 and take it east past the San Luis reservoir to Los Banos. By the way, after you pass Casa de Fruta but before you start the climb into the hills, keep an eye out, since there is a pair of bald eagles that live here that are commonly seen year round now.

Past the reservoir, you cross over I5 and continue through Los Banos you’ll get to the 59 North taking you towards Merced, and then turn left on Sandy Mush road (you’ll see a small power plant at the intersection, easy to see coming up). Continue on Sandy Mush and that will take you to our first stop, Merced National Wildlife Refuge.

Merced National Wildlife Refuge

White-faced Ibis, Merced National Wildlife Refuge, California

Merced National Wildlife Refuge has about a 5 mile auto tour route that takes you through a large part of the refuge. You should stay in the car and use it as a blind, although we do get out when we want to use a scope; it’s important to stay with the car and on the tour route and not wander into the closed refuge areas. Merced has a couple of short hiking paths, the Kestrel is near the entrance and the bittern route near the back observation area.

When you enter, you’ll take a gravel road through trees and brush to the main observation platform with a small parking lot and a latrine, as well as the start of the Kestrel trail. it’s not a bad idea to walk back down the entrance road since it often is a better birding area than either hiking trail for songbirds, warblers and the like. You can use the front observation platform to get a sense of the area and look at the pond here for interesting birds, especially rails in the reeds.

Then you get in the car and drive the tour route, stopping when you find interesting things. The birds usually feel less threatened by the car than by the sight of a person, so staying in the car is preferred. It’s common to see someone get out of the car to get a better view, only to flush the birds away.

Sandhill Cranes, Merced National Wildlife Refuge

About halfway through there’s another parking lot and a second observation platform which usually has good views of geese and cranes in the season. Also here is the Bittern trail, but the area around of the trail was an area they had to sacrifice and stop flooding during the droughts and so most of the trees are dead, and I don’t find it very productive. I hope the water situation gets stable enough that they can rehabilitate it at some point.

This is a good area to get out and walk, though, because the trees along the road near the observation platform can be quite productive for songbirds and interesting small birds. It’s an area where I’ve seen Lincoln Sparrow occasionally, and Orange-crowned warbler seems to be a regular in the winter.

It is fairly common for the White Geese to hang out here in the back of the refuge in the ponds. The cranes might be here as well, but they wander more widely.

San Luis National Wildlife Refuge

San Luis National Wildlife Refuge

When you’re done with the tour route, it’s time to get on the road and head over to San Luis NWR. The easy way is to take Sandy Mush back to 59, take it to 152, get back into Los Banos, and then turn north on the 165 until you get to Wolfsen road, then take it to the entrance of the refuge. If you feel a bit adventurous (and have a GPS), you can take Sandy Mush east until you hit Turner Island road, then take Turner Island until you get to Henry Miller road, which will take you to the 165. This will take you past some dairies you can stop and see if the blackbird flocks have any Tri-colored blackbirds in them.

Tule Elk, San Luis National Wildlife Refuge

San Luis NWR has two auto routes, each 5-6 miles long. The Tule Elk route takes you around a captive herd of Tule Elk, which are well worth seeing if they’re visible, and pass a small river and through areas of mature trees and brush. The Waterfowl tour takes you out into the flooded ponds and through various stands of trees. Both tours have advantages — I like the Tule Elk route for songbirds and small birds of various types, and I’ve seen everything from quail to warblers to spotted towhees there. The waterfowl tour is where the bigger birds are and is probably the better place to invest your birding time.

The refuge has other areas you can drive through and explore and a couple of hiking trails and observation platforms. Some of them may be closed to birders on hunt days and in general, I find birding the two tours my primary goal.

Swainson’s Hawk, San Luis National Wildlife Refuge, California

The birds you find here and at Merced are similar, but each has some differences. I find Tundra Swan common in San Luis NWR but rare in Merced. The same with Ring-necked ducks. San Luis is in general better for raptors, especially Northern Harriers and I’ve found Swainson’s Hawk there, but Merced is better for eagles, especially bald — but I wouldn’t call them common.

San Luis has latrines near the entrance, but not along the tour routes. The headquarters and visitor center for the refuge complex (which includes Merced and a few others) is here and I really ought to go inside and check it out someday, but I’m usually busy birding.

Refuge strategies

You can cover both refuges on a day trip from San Jose pretty easily. Merced NWR is 2 hours of driving from San Jose unless there’s a traffic issue or terrible weather. When I do the group outings for Santa Clara Valley Audubon I schedule them for 9-1, which means you don’t have to get up crazy early to have a good visit, and some of the tour members usually stop by San Luis NWR for a visit on the way home. I usually suggest people get on the road by 7, at the first refuge around 9, and see what happens. Expect a drive home from San Luis NWR to run 90 minutes to 2 hours as well.

Tundra Swan, San Luis National Wildlife Refuge

In general, I prefer Merced early in the morning and late in the afternoon, and I’ll bird San Luis NWR mid-day, because it is much better for raptors and you want the air to warm up so they’re more likely to be out and about. The other big draw for me are the tundra swans, and they’re around all day.

Dawn and Dusk can be special times at all of these refuges. When the light starts building it seems like the entire refuge wakes up and takes flight at once, leaving their night roosts together to fly off to their day foraging locations, whether on the refuge or elsewhere. In the evening, as the sky darkens, all of these birds stream back into refuges to settle in for the night, and you can see huge flocks of birds flying in and landing.

Some visits, these morning and evening fly-ins and fly-outs can be pretty routine, but some visits the activity is stunning and it’s well worth staying and watching. I would recommend starting with the evening fly-ins, since you have to get up very early to get to refuges for dawn. I always do my dawn and dusk watches at Merced, not San Luis, since it has the better action and the birds are more easily seen, but if you’ve never done this, I recommend the Isenberg Crane Refuge as the best place to try this out some evening. It’s near Lodi and I’ll talk about it later.

I tend to cover the refuges differently. I will typically start the day at Merced and circle the tour route twice. The first time is to get a sense of what’s going on and where the birds are, and the second is to target the best areas where there is bird activity and good light for photography. There’s nothing quite as frustrating as spending 45 minutes trying to get good shots of distant cranes and then driving half a mile to find a flock foraging 50 feet off the roadway. Not that this has ever happened to me. Of course, since birds move around, so the second trip may not match what you saw the first time, but it gives me a sense of what I want to focus my photography efforts on.

Canvasbacks in Flight, O’Neill Forebay, San Luis Reservoir

I will then head off to San Luis NWR for a couple of hours where my focus is on raptors and the waterfowl tour route. Merced can get a bit sleepy in the mid-day and early afternoon, where the swans and hawks make for good photography activity many days. Once I’m done with San Luis NWR, I’ll often head back Merced and cover the tour route again, and then decide to either stay in the front parking area or return again to the back parking and stake out the geese in search of good sunset photography. Except for days where the refuges are non-productive and I simply go home instead.

That’s my strategy for when I am doing photography. When my focus is birding, I’ll take about twice as long on the routes and cover a lot less mileage but do so more thoroughly. I find I log about 10% fewer species when I’m thinking photography than when my focus is on birding, because what I’m looking for is different.

Bonus: Medieros Day Use Area

If you are looking for another area to explore while in this area, I recommend the Medieros Day Use Area. At the base of San Luis Reservoir is a body of water called O’Neill Forebay, which connects the dam to the California canal system. There’s a fee for entry but it has both nice brush areas and a good water area that’s deeper than you’ll find at the refuges, so the mix of birds will be somewhat different: it’s a much better location for diving ducks like Canvasback and Bufflehead, and for birds like grebes and scaups and the occasional loon.

You enter Medieros via I33 near the 152. Some days, especially if I’m doing a multi-day trip to these refuges, I’ll grab lunch in Santa Nella, head here and spend an hour or two birding and enjoying a break from the refuges while I eat. It’s a fun place to explore but for most day trippers, I think it’s one stop too many for one day.

Food and Facilities

Depending on your preferences, you can bring meals with you, or you can take a break and go visit a nearby city to grab food. I usually recommend people heading to Merced to grab food in Los Banos on the way out, or from Merced NWR proper Merced is the closest and where Sandy Mush runs into 99 there are some fast food places including a Starbucks. Los Banos has the usual suspects.

There’s also Santa Nella nearby, also with many of the usual suspects.

Laurie and I often decide on dinner on the way home, especially if we’ve stayed for the evening fly-in. Los Banos has a Black Bear Diner, which I depend on while tripping for solid and reliable, if not necessarily memorable food. Santa Nella has the locally famous Anderson’s Pea Soup restaurant, sibling to the one on 101 in Buellton, and I’ve eaten there a couple of times and found it… okay.

Santa Nella is the smallest, pretty literally a hole in the wall but has a good supply of gas and fast food. Los Banos is larger and has a wider variety of places including sit-down and local feeding places like Esperanzas. Merced is usually in the wrong direction for me and I don’t believe it brings anything interesting to the table that I can’t find in Los Banos.

When I decide to stay overnight and extend the trip, I’ll either stay in the Motel 6 in Santa Nella or the La Quinta Inn in Los Banos. Nothing fancy here but I find them clean, good value and comfortable for the price.

A final note: the refuges are a fair distance from “civilization” and if you’re tripping from San Jose you’ll be covering a couple of hundred miles. I always recommend you make sure you keep enough gas in your tank, and I think it makes sense to stop in Los Banos on the way and refill so you don’t realize you’re running short.

Next up, Lodi

In the next in this series I’ll cover the places I visit when I visit the Lodi area. In the third piece I’ll go further north into the Williams and Willows area. Hopefully this gives you an idea of why I visit these places every winter, and what to expect when you visit them as well. And as always, if you have questions, please drop me a line and we’ll chat about them.

See you on the refuges!