Merced and San Luis NWR: first trip of the season

by Nov 7, 2019

Last Saturday I made my first trip of the season out to the central valley refuges, checking in at both San Luis NWR and Merced NWR. It happened to be the Saturday before Daylight Savings ended, which meant that a 5AM alarm and getting on the road quickly got me to San Luis NWR just as the sun started peeking over the horizon.

It was an incredible dawn, because as soon as the sun started hitting the ground, the convection fog kicked in, and suddenly the entire refuge was covered with about 2 feet of swirling cloud.

Morning Fog on the Refuge, San Luis National Wildlife Refuge

This isn’t a weather event that happens every morning, but it’s common enough. The sun hits the dampness and dew on the ground, and it vaporizes up into the air. It’s also a short-lived event; within 15 minutes the fog was clearly dispersing and within half an hour or so it was gone. But for a few glorious moments, the area was magical and I was desperately looking for good compositions.

The early season trips for me are as much about scouting and planning as photography. I want to see what shape the refuges are in (overall pretty good) and how the flooding is going (in general, seems about on time but many areas are still dry), and what birds have shown up, and what hasn’t.

I ended up spending about 3 hours at San Luis. Once the fog lifted the day was cloudless and the light got bright, and with the moisture in the air I had a fair bit of glare, so I was fighting harsh shadows and haze much of the day. No complaints, it was a good day. The waterfowl tour track got me 34 species but no tundra swan (their favorite pond is still bone dry) or sandhill crane. Both Northern Shoveler and Northern Pintail were around in good numbers, but they are normally the early arrivers and I didn’t see much in the way of other species. A nice catch was Ring-Necked Pheasant in two locations (one adult female, and two first year males who weren’t exactly sure how to best run away from me) — this is a species that tends to melt into the brush as people start visiting the refuge, so getting there early before the traffic starts seems best for seeing them.

The Tule Elk tour route was slower, but that’s normal from my experience. It did get me lark sparrow and my first sandhill cranes (overflying me as I was on it) but nothing too special.

There’s one spot I like to check as a possible fall landscape location. This year, most of the trees were still green, but some had not only turned, but were stripped bare already, so this doesn’t look promising, but I’ll keep checking to see if it develops and doesn’t get blown bare by a storm.

Then, off to Merced, my main target.

Black-necked Stilt with dowitchers, Merced National Wildlife Refuge

Again, Shovelers and Pintails, with a few Gadwalls mixed in, plus of course Mallards. With many of the ponds only partially filled, it was shorebird heaven, since much of the area was at wadeable depth. I saw large numbers of Dowitchers (around here, mostly long-billed, and no, I don’t try to ID short-billed in the field), stilts and Killdeer. I found one Dunlin in the mix, not common on te refuge, and we had a good number of Least and a few Western sandpipers, as well as some ibis and two Greater Yellowlegs.

A really good population of Sandhill Cranes scattered around the refuge, but few in good photography positions, and the first wave of white geese (Snow and Ross’s) were there, by my estimate about 80% Snow, even though this refuge is normally where you’ll find large number of Ross’s. Not really surprising, and it seemed like what I saw was well under 10% of the numbers I expect to find here in a month or so.

But nothing too special, but it’s a good first trip that gives me a good feeling for the winter here. Everything seems to be starting out fine, and that’s always nice — and wasn’t true during the bad years of the drought when the refuges were badly stressed and lost a lot of their mature trees.

Merced National Wildlife Refuge

One thing that surprises people new to refuges is the areas that show sign of burns. The refuge isn’t a wilderness area, it’s an artificially crafted region designed to simulate the wetlands that used to exist across the central valley but which are mostly gone and converted to agriculture today. To do that, some parts of the refuge are mown during the summer to keep them open, and other parts are cleared through controlled burns. It’s all part of maintaining the refuge to have maximum safety and nutritional value to the many species that depend on it in the winter. Different ponds are flooded to various depths to support the shorebirds, dabbling and diving ducks, the cranes and the geese, all which have differing preferences for how deep they want the water. that’s why you see Cinnamon teal in one part of the refuge but rarely in other parts — it’s in the back corner where the water is a little deeper, which is also where the geese tend to hang out.

Merced National Wildlife Refuge

The majority of the cranes were in the pastures, which are maintained by allowing herds of cattle on them to keep the crass short and cropped.

Sandhill Cranes, Merced National Wildlife Refuge

My next trip will be Thanksgiving weekend, when Laurie and I traditionally go out for the day to avoid the shopping craziness. By then, the ponds will be closer to full and the winter populations will have grown, especially the white geese.

This weekend I’ll spend some time pre-scouting in Coyote Valley for a trip I’ll be co-leading at Coyote Valley OSP along with a ranger from the Open Space organization on the the 17th. Feel free to sign up and come join me for a nice, low-key sit while we wait for eagles to show up and hopefully get entertained by the rock wrens that live there, while seeing what interesting birds might make an appearance. See you then, I hope!

Images from this trip