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  • Writer's pictureKaren Hogan

California NWR Trip December 2014

Updated: Sep 8, 2018

March of 2014 I visited the Sacramento River National Wildlife Refuge Complex. A sign at Sacramento NWR said over 250,000 geese and 500,000 winter at the Refuge Complex, I called Teresa to discuss plans for our next NWR Trip. The drive from Willows, CA to San Diego was 587 miles with more than 23 National Wildlife Refuge to visit in that area.

Teresa and Karen at Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes National Wildlife Refuge 12/31/14

Planning our California National Wildlife Refuge Trip

Driving from Florida to North Carolina on January 3, 2014, Teresa and I decided we would stop at one more Refuge before ending our Florida National Wildlife Refuge Birding Trip. We had visited 13 refuges in Florida during our holiday break from December 22, 2013-January 3, 2014. Our route home took us within a few miles of the entrance to the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge and as always we couldn’t help ourselves, we had to stop at the Refuge. We would bird everyday at a National Wildlife Refuge if we could figure out a way to do it. We were in luck the visitor center was open, an enthusiastic couple working in the gift shop were volunteers at the refuge over the winter months. When we discussed our love of refuges with the husband and wife, they suggested the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, they had recently visited the refuge and were excited to tell us about large numbers of waterfowl wintering in that area. I looked online to see the proximity of the Sacramento NWR to my Daughter’s home in the Bay Area, she had moved to San Jose, CA in August 2012.  When planning my trip to visit my Daughter in March of 2014 I decided to add an extra few days to my trip to allow for a visit to the Sacramento NWR Complex including the Sacramento River NWR, Sacramento NWR, Delevan NWR, Sutter NWR and Colusa NWR.


Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex March 22 & 23, 2014

After visiting with my Daughter’s family in San Jose March 2014 I drove to Willows, CA  Friday afternoon, March 21, 2014 for a 2 day to visit the Sacramento NWR Complex.  I drove the auto tours a couple of times at the Colusa and Sacramento National Wildlife Refuges.  I visited the viewing areas at Delevan and Sutter National Wildlife Refuges. The Delevan National Wildlife is a wintering ground for Tule Greater White-fronted Geese. The Delevan Refuge supports a Federally endangered species of plant the palmate-bracted birds-beak and breeding colonies of tricolored blackbirds.


Colusa NWR March 22 and 23, 2014

Long-billed Curlew Colusa National Wildlife Refuge March 22, 2014
Greater White-fronted Goose and White-faced Ibis Colusa National Wildlife Refuge March 22, 2014
Black-crowned Night-Heron Colusa National Wildlife Refuge March 22, 2014
Greater White-fronted Geese and Cackling Geese at Colusa National Wildlife Refuge March 22, 2014
Greater White-fronted Geese at Colusa National Wildlife Refuge March 22, 2014
Ring-necked Duck at Colusa National Wildlife Refuge March 22, 2014
Great Horned Owl in a tree along the road on the Auto Tour Drive at Colusa National Wildlife Refuge, March 23, 2014
Common Goldeneye in one of the ponds along the road to the Auto Drive at Colusa National Wildlife Refuge, March 22, 2014
American White Pelicans flew overhead at Colusa National Wildlife Refuge and then landed in the middle of the Auto Tour Drive viewing area. March 23, 2014
American White Pelican at Colusa National Wildlife Refuge March 23, 3014

Sacramento NWR March 22 and 23, 2014

Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge March 23, 2014
Gadwall and American Coot at Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge March 23, 2014
Great Egret at Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge March 23, 2014
Red-tailed Hawk at Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge March 23, 2014
Red-tailed Hawk at Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge March 23, 2014
Savannah Sparrow at Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge March 23, 2014
Shorebirds at Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge March 23, 2014
Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge March 23, 2014
Tree Swallows at Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge March 23, 2014
Yellowlegs at Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge March 23, 2014

Sutter NWR March 22, 2014

I drove on back roads to Sutter NWR, thoroughly enjoying the amazing scenery and remote location of the refuge. I spent all my time birding along Hughes Rd, the road that bisects the refuge.The hiking trails were open from February 15-June 30 but it was getting late in the afternoon, I decided not to hike alone.

Geese at Sutter National Wildlife Refuge March 22, 2014
Sutter National Wildlife Refuge view from Hughes Rd March 22, 2014

Saturday night I reviewed the map of the 30 units that make up the Sacramento River National Wildlife Refuge, 23 units were open to the public, several units could only be accessed by boat, I chose to visit 6 units that had hiking trails within close driving distance of my hotel in Willows. Sunday morning I arrived at the Rio Vista Unit parking lot about 30 minutes before sunrise. I noticed a sign posted at the beginning of the trail that warned of Mountain Lion sightings. The sign suggested ways to handle a mountain lion encounter and recommended not hiking along. The warning sign was at the trailhead at each of the units I visited. 

Mountain Lion Sign posted at beginning of each trail at the Sacramento River National Wildlife Refuge, March 24, 2014

Deciding not to hike along, I spent my time birding in the parking lots at the 4 units I visited including Rio Vista, Pine Creek, Ord Bend and Packer Unit.  I headed back to Colusa and Sacramento NWR to drive the Auto Tours at each refuge to finish out my second day of birding at the Refuge Complex.

I noticed a sign outside the Visitor Center at the entrance to the Sacramento NWR auto tour, a photo of flying Snow Geese, the caption read, winter months bring 250,000 geese and 500,000 ducks to the Sacramento NWR complex. 

Sign at Sacramento NWR Visitor Center

I called Teresa immediately to discuss the possibility of visiting this area during the winter. Teresa and I agreed, our next Refuge birding trip would include the Sacramento NWR Complex during the winter months, allowing us to see the large flocks of migratory waterfowl. Planning our trip over the holiday break had been such a success in 2013 we decided our holiday break in December 2014 would include visiting 19 California NWR, between Willows and San Diego approximately 587 miles apart.


California National Wildlife Refuge Trip December 20, 2014-January 3, 2015

Our California National Wildlife Refuge Birding Trip began on December 20, 2014; Teresa and I had coordinated our flights to arrive around 11 pm in the San Francisco Airport. I arrived about an hour before Teresa, I was waiting at the rental car office when Teresa appeared pushing an airport cart overflowing with her luggage.  Renting a standard size car accommodated our luggage and allowed for easy access of our gear at each viewing area on the refuges. Selecting a keyless ignition with a remote keyless entry system cut down on the jingling key noise when stopping and starting the car at each viewing area. Our Brisbane hotel was only 20 minutes from the San Francisco Airport, we were in bed by 2 am Pacific Coast Time, 5 am Eastern Coast Time.  

Excited to start our California NWR Birding Trip but with only a few hours sleep we had a late departure, 7:20 am Sunday. We didn’t head straight to Colusa as we had planned, Teresa insisted on a detour because of an ABA bird alert, there was a Rustic Bunting reported at the Big Rec Ball Fields, a 20 minute drive from our hotel in Brisbane.  It was cool misty morning, several birders were already searching for the Bunting as we parked on the street next to the field.  Approximately twenty birders arrived during the next 3 hours for a chance to see the Eurasian Visitor. The Rustic Bunting fed on the ground with Oregon Juncos, Fox Sparrows, Golden-Crowned Sparrows and White-crowned Sparrows for a few minutes, then flew to a high perch in a large evergreen tree.  Several birders invited us to join them birding the Golden Gate Park San Francisco Botanical Gardens, across the street from the Big Rec Ball Fields. The Botanical Gardens, list over 170 bird species but we were already 3 hours late heading to the National Wildlife Refuges in the Sacramento complex area. We knew our visit to the Refuges would be abbreviated because of the recent rains in the area.

Rustic Bunting at Big Rec Ball Fields in San Francisco, CA 12-21-14

Colusa National Wildlife Refuge visited December 21, 2014

As we drove north east towards Colusa National Wildlife Refuge the weather conditions deteriorated, heavy fog and light rain decreased visibility for driving.  We were somewhat dismayed that visibility for birding would be decreased but with California in drought conditions we were grateful to know the area was getting some much needed rainfall. An alert on the Sacramento NWR Complex Website reported the closing of the 3 mile auto tour at Colusa NWR due to flooding, a normal occurrence during the winter months, resulting from the low topography and the presence of the Colusa Basin Drain. We were disappointed the auto tour would open the day after our departure. We learned from the Sacramento NWR visitor center that the roads around Delevan and Sutter NWR were flooded and it was likely that the hiking trails at the Sacramento River NWR would also be flooded. As we arrived in the Colusa area heavy fog brought visibility to less than 100 yards. We turned onto O’Hair Rd the entrance to the Colusa NWR where we stopped to film several Lark Sparrows and Horned Larks feeding along the gravel road.  The Auto Tour was indeed closed, we would be unable to view the large population of waterfowl wintering at Colusa NWR. The fog hung heavy over the fields and pond next to the observation platform but we were able to see several species of ducks.  Prepared for all weather conditions, Teresa and I dressed in our rain gear and waterproof boots which allowed for an enjoyable hike around the 1 mile trail where we observed our first look at a flock of Bushtits. We also observed Marsh Wrens and several species of sparrows. The ABA rare bird alert listed a continuing Falcated Duck at the Colusa NWR. A visitor at the viewing platform reported the duck was usually seen at the green gate off the main road. Even with extremely heavy fog the ornamental duck was visible paddling with Pintails and Wigeons, we watched until sunset, then made our way to our hotel in Willows.

American Wigeon through the fog at Colusa National Wildlife Refuge December 21, 2014
Savannah Sparrow at Colusa National Wildlife Refuge December 21, 2014
Lark Sparrow Colusa National Wildlife Refuge December 21, 2014
Bewick's Wren Colusa National Wildlife Refuge December 21, 2014
Lincoln's Sparrow Colusa National Wildlife Refuge December 21, 2014

Willows, CA Monday Night December 21, 2014

Our first stop in Willows was Walmart for some much needed groceries and supplies.  We selected from an online hotel a lower cost but highly guest rated hotel.  Our favorite motel arrangement, a first floor room with our car parked right outside our room door. Several trips to our hotel/motel room on a elevator with our tripods and luggage can be exhausting and even worse lugging our gear up 3 flights of stairs.  The restaurant sign across the parking lot said Wong’s Chinese Foods, too bad we had already bought some frozen packaged meals at Walmart for our dinner. We would have to try the Wong Restaurant another day. The Motel 6 was a no frills room, linoleum floors, but spacious with nice accommodation including a great area for setting up our computers.  The room could not compare to the comforts of our Brisbane hotel, including the delicious chocolate chip cookies, but we still got a great night sleep in this low cost motel.


Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge visit December 22, 2014

Well before sunrise we were packed and headed to Sacramento NWR at 5:45 am.  This part of California Central Valley is sparsely populated and signs along highway 99W were hard to see in the darkness and fog, we drove past the entrance to the Sacramento NWR twice but still arrived at the visitor center parking lot well before sunrise.  As we waited at the entrance of the Auto Tour for daylight we heard and eventually, as the sun was lighting the sky, observed thousands of geese flying overhead toward the refuge. As we proceeded on the Auto Tour the fog lifted for some amazing views of thousands of ducks and geese flying over and around the refuge.  Driving less than 1 mile an hour with many stops and spending a great deal of time at each designated viewing area the 6 mile auto tour took us 7 hours to complete. Attempting to count the ducks and geese for our ebird list was overwhelming.  There were huge flocks of Geese including Snow, Ross’s and Greater White Fronted in the water and they were constantly lifting from the water, flying overhead only to land again. It was a spectacular sight and the sign on the refuge entrance was correct, 250000 geese and 500000 ducks were definitely visiting the Sacramento NWR Complex.  We saw Long-billed Curlew, Cinnamon Teal, and our first look at Nuttall’s Woodpecker on the Auto Tour. The scenery with the mountains as a backdrop was beautiful making each group of ducks or geese taking off or landing an absolutely amazing sight requiring a photo to be taken. Teresa and I couldn’t get enough. We decided to drive the Auto Tour a second time with observations at the areas where the large groups of Snow Geese were resting. We thought they might take off at sunset to head to the fields for a night of feeding. Several other cars were parked in the same areas possibly expecting the same behavior.  We were surprised to see small groups of geese take off for the next several hours, still an amazing sight but not the incredible sight of the whole flock picking up at once. Staying at Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge until dark made a visit to the other 3 refuges in the area, Delevan, Sutter and Sacramento River NWR impossible.  We would definitely need to come back to the Sacramento Refuge Complex area when the Trails and auto drives would be open. Many times on our trip we would lament that we didn’t spend more time in the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex area. The Sacramento NWR area truly is a place to visit to see large flocks of waterfowl during the winter months.  After the sun went down we drove 1.5 hours to our next hotel in Davis, CA.

Snow Geese at Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge December 22, 2014
Teresa at Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge December 22, 2014
Cinnamon Teal at Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge December 22, 2014
Greater White-fronted Goose and Mallard at Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge December 22, 2014
White-crowned Sparrow Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge December 22, 2014
Snow Goose Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge December 22, 2014
Gadwall Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge December 22, 2014
Prairie Falcon, Pintail, American Wigeon, Northern Shoveler, Snow Goose Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge December 22, 2014

Davis, CA Tuesday night December 22, 2014

We stayed at the La Quinta hotel on Research Drive in Davis, CA just 35 minutes/28 miles from Stone Lake National Wildlife Refuge.


Stone Lake National Wildlife Refuge, December 23, 2014

We left the La Quinta hotel on Research Drive in Davis, CA at 6:40AM on December 23, 2014.  It was a chilly 46 degrees and heavy fog with an expected high of 64 degrees with clouds. We planned to visit Stone Lake NWR before we headed to Redwood City to visit my Daughter’s family for the Christmas Holiday.  We had planned to have dinner with them on December 23rd so we would need stop birding at the refuge around 2-2:30 pm in order to arrive at Redwood City by 5 pm.

We arrived at Stone Lake NWR 7:17 am to hike the 1 mile Blue Heron Trail but visibility was extremely limited because of the fog. Stone Lake National Wildlife Refuge is located just 12 miles from Sacramento, California's State capitol. We enjoyed talking to the refuge employees at the Headquarters of this Urban Refuge.  One of the refuge staff had read the Refuge Update article about our goal to bird at every National Wildlife Refuge. Another Staff member working on the grounds told us the fog would lift by 10 am and he was absolutely correct, by 10 am the fog lifted and we were delighted to get some fantastic looks at Sora’s feeding in the ponds, several species of sparrows and small groups of Tundra Swans and Sandhill Cranes flying overhead.  A photographer walking the trail told us there were good photography opportunities at a nearby preserve but this time we were not tempted by a non-refuge birding hotspot, instead we looked at the map to determine the driving distance to San Joaquin River NWR. It was only 64 miles away, just an hour drive and it would only be 76 miles from my Daughter’s house, an 1.5 hr drive in good traffic.  We headed to San Joaquin River NWR.

Teresa and Karen in heavy fog at Stone Lake National Wildlife Refuge December 23, 2014
Lincoln's Sparrow at Stone Lake National Wildlife Refuge December 23, 2014
Sandhill Crane flying over Stone Lake National Wildlife Refuge December 23, 2014
Tundra Swans flying over Stone Lake National Wildlife refuge December 23, 2014
Savannah Sparrow at Stone Lake National Wildlife Refuge December 23, 2014
Savannah Sparrow at Stone Lake Natioanal Wildlife Refuge December 23, 2014
Sora at Stone Lake National Wildlife Refuge December 23, 2014
Stone Lake National Wildlife Refuge December 23, 2014
White-crowned Sparrow at Stone Lake National Wildlife Refuge December 23, 2014

San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge December 23, 2016

We hiked the Pelican Trail at the San Joaquin NWR and spotted 2 Great Horned Owls resting in a tree. We got our first look at California Quail and spotted another flock of Bushtit.  We left San Joaquin NWR around 3 pm to head for Redwood City.  We knew all the roads and bridges along 580 headed to San Francisco area could be congested with rush hour traffic.  Teresa finally decided on Highway 84, which provided a scenic and low traffic drive across the Bay.

Teresa and Karen at San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge December 23, 2014
Ruby-crowned Kinglet at San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge December 23, 2014
Sandhill Cranes at San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge December 23, 2014

Yellowlegs at San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge December 23, 2014

Redwood City, CA Casey’s house Tuesday, Wednesday December 24-26th, 2014

We arrived in plenty of time to have dinner with Casey's family at the Mexican Restaurant within walking distance of their house. The next 2 days we celebrated the holidays with Casey and Matt, my Grandchildren and several of their friends.


San Luis National Wildlife Refuge December 26, 2014

The morning of December 26th we said goodbye to my Daughter's family and headed out for some more birding at the National Wildlife Refuges in California. Our next destination was San Luis NWR. We knew there were 7-8 hiking trails and 3 auto drives available for exploring so we planned to arrive around late morning at San Luis NWR to give us enough time to bird along the drives and trails. We were tempted to stop as we drove past the duck filled San Felipe Lake and the beautiful San Luis Reservoir on highway 152. We were having so much fun talking and looking at the scenery that we didn't notice the gasoline was low until the gauge was on empty.  We had planned to fill up the tank before we left Redwood City, our normal routine when traveling our Wildlife Refuge Trips.  I have never been so happy to see that the next exit was just a mile ahead and the gasoline stations were open.  We paid the highest price we had paid for gas so far, $2.97 a gallon but no complaints.

We arrived at the San Luis NWR visitor center around 10:30 am. As we got out of our car in the Visitor Center parking lot it was a cool brisk morning with a temperature of 48oF. On the Visitor Center door there was a note stating the President had declared December 26th a holiday for federal employees. We planned to stay in the area overnight so we would have time to stop by the Visitor Center the next morning for our Blue Goose Stamps. 

We could hear Great Horned Owls in the trees behind the Headquarters but were unsuccessful locating the owls for a visual confirmation.   The San Luis National Wildlife Refuge has 26800 acres with 6 contiguous units including San Luis, East Bear Creek, West Bear Creek, Freitas, Blue Goose, and Kesterson. The San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Complex manages San Luis, Merced and San Joaquin National Wildlife Refuges along with Grasslands Wildlife Management Area.

We walked the 0.8 mile Wetlands Nature Trail next to the Visitor Center and had the pleasure of observing a couple of Virginia Rails. We took a break for lunch at our car then drove both the Waterfowl and Tule Elk Auto Tours.  We had some good looks of Tule Elk, Wood Ducks, a Coyote carrying his rabbit lunch and a couple of Lark Sparrows feeding in the grass along the gravel road.  We had a hard time leaving the area and stayed until sunset in the Visitor Center parking lot where we observed California Quail.  As we got out of the car for a closer look I noticed a cat approaching us.  It looked bigger in the low light, maybe a Mountain Lion, as we hurried back to the car we realized it was only a black domestic cat. As we drove out of the parking lot  we saw two Great Horned Owls flying from the trees on the right side of the parking lot.  We would return to San Luis the next day to get our Blue Goose Book stamps and check out the Auto Drive at West Bear Creek Unit.

Coyote's lunch at San Luis National Wildlife Refuge December 26, 2014
Blackbirds at San Luis National Wildlife Refuge December 26, 2014
Common Goldeneye at San Luis National Wildlife Refuge December 26, 2014
Lark Sparrow at San Luis National Wildlife Refuge December 26, 2014
Sparrow at San Luis National Wildlife Refuge December 26, 2014
Tule Elk at San Luis National Wildlife Refuge December 26, 2014

Los Banos, CA spent the night December 26, 2014

We spent the night in Los Banos at a well cared for motel.  Not the most desirable sleeping arrangements, Teresa and I shared a queen size bed but the motel was truly loved and we appreciated the tidy appearance, we highly recommend this gem of a motel.  We woke up on December 27th to an outside temperature of 33oF and frost on the windshield.  We had plenty of clothes for the cooler weather but neither of us thought to bring an ice scraper.


San Luis National Wildlife Refuge December 27, 2014

As we drove up highway 165 to the refuge we noticed a Hawk on almost every utility pole and ponds filled with ducks.  It was Saturday, a hunting day and plenty of hunters were filling up the parking lots along the road. It was only 7:20 am as we drove into the parking lot of  the headquarters, we decided to walk the Wetland Nature trail as we waited for the Visitor Center to open at 9 am.  The sound of distance gunfire was unsettling and caused much anxiety for all the wildlife and us. Making a note to bird on non-hunting days we made our way to the Visitor Center where we met Madeline a refuge staff member. She explained the Black Cat we had spotted the night before was a stray that had been dumped at the refuge parking lot. The staffs attempts to capture the elusive feline were unsuccessful.  The relaxed Tabby wandering inside the headquarters building had been a stray when the Visitor Center opened three years previously. The Tabby now enjoyed regular meals and a healthy indoor life at the Visitor Center/headquarters.  The staff at the refuge hoped to one day capture the male black cat.  Madeline was also a birder and shared local birding hotspots including the recent location of a Vermillion Flycatcher. She recommended the best route to West Bear Creek Unit. 

Posted in the lobby area of the refuge was a plaque with these words.

“Wild beasts and birds are by right not the property merely of the people who are alive today, but the property of unknown generations, whose belongings we have no right to squander.” Theodore Roosevelt -- American President, outdoorsman, naturalist, and leader of the early conservation movement.

At the Bear Creek Unit we drove the 2.5 mile auto tour where we observed several Common Snipes and many American Coots. We chose to hike the Woody Pond Trail a 1.75 mile hike that took us 2 hours to complete as we searched without much success for birds. Once again at the beginning of the trail there was the sign warning of mountain lion sightings, a reminder to me that we needed to discuss with Refuge staff the best way to handle a mountain lion encounter.

San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center December 27, 2014

Merced National Wildlife Refuge December 27, 2014

After we left the West Bear Creek Tour Rd we headed north on 165 and turned east on 140 and then south on S. Bert Crane Rd and followed it to Dan McNamara Rd.  We had good views of Sandhill Cranes, close up looks of some California Quail and a flock of thousands of Starlings along Dan McNamara Rd. Heading toward Merced National Wildlife Refuge we turned east onto West Sandy Mush Rd. As we arrived at the parking area at the observation platform we were excited to see thousands of Ross' Geese flying overhead and resting in the ponds and grassy areas along the Auto Tour. We could also see hundreds of Lesser Sandhill Cranes gathering and resting on the refuge. We drove the Auto Tour where we also saw American White Pelicans, Wilson’s Snipe and many species of ducks. After we had driven past the resting geese we looked back to see the car behind us driving very close to the resting geese which resulted in a chain reaction, the geese took to the air in mass to get away from the car. In the right place at the right time Teresa and I were able to take advantage of this amazing photographic opportunity but we were very disappointed to realize that many folks don’t seem to recognize the importance of not disturbing these wintering geese.

Bushtit Merced National Wildlife Refuge December 27, 2014
Coyote Merced National Wildlife Refuge December 27, 2014
Hawk Merced National Wildlife Refuge December 27, 2014
Ross' Goose, Merced National Wildlife Refuge December 27, 2014
Wilson's Snipe Merced National Wildlife Refuge December 27, 2014

Delano, CA December 27, 2014

We finally tore ourselves away from Merced National Wildlife Refuge just as the sun was setting over the ponds and fields full of Geese and Cranes. We headed east on Sandy Mush Rd and then south on State Highway 99 past the city of Pixley and the Pixley NWR to Delano, CA.  Delano was about 20 miles south of the refuge but had more hotel options since it has a population around 50,000 as compared to Pixley’s 3,000. The drive to our hotel in Delano was exhausting after our long day of birding at San Luis and Merced NWRs. We stopped at a gas station close to our hotel for gasoline and a quick dinner of Mexican fast food out of the hot cases. Too tired to review our photos or enter our bird list on ebird we went to bed somewhat concerned about our next day of birding at Pixley NWR. We had read in the brochure about cold temperatures, poisonous snakes and mountain lions at the remotely located Pixley National Wildlife Refuge, we thought it might be best to arrive after sunrise, a very unusual starting time for us.


Pixley National Wildlife Refuge December 28, 2014

The Pixley National Wildlife Refuge was established the same year we were born 1959. Managed by Kern National Wildlife Refuge, the Pixley NWR is the best location in the southern San Joaquin Valley to view Sandhill Cranes during the winter months. We drove into the gravel parking lot at Pixley NWR just as the sun was coming up and we were greeted by a tremendous sight, hundreds of Sandhills Cranes flying in groups low over the Refuge. The Sandhill Cranes continued to pass over our heads as we started our hike down the trail as the  “Tule” fog  spilled onto the path from the wetland areas.  We heard geese in the distance and could see to the west a very large flock of several  thousand Geese in the sky.  Glad we had not delayed our arrival because within a half an hour the Sandhill Cranes were in the surrounding fields eating and no longer flying over the Refuge. The temperature was comfortable but fog continued until we reached the back ponds and observation platform, we were able to observe a Northern Harrier through the fog landing on some brush in the pond.   There were so many ducks on the back ponds it was difficult to count but included Blue-winged Teal, Green-winged Teal, Cinnamon Teal, American Wigeons, Northern Shovelers, Northern Pintails and Mallards.  We counted several Cackling Geese in a group of about  500 Canada Geese feeding in the nearby field we could see from the observation platform.  As we headed back down the trail to our car the fog cleared and with sunny skies above we got some good looks at some Black-necked Stilts, Long-Billed Curlews, American Pipit and several species of Sparrow. We departed from Pixley NWR by mid -morning to allow for time to bird at Kern NWR.

American Pipit Pixley National Wildlife Refuge December 28, 2014
Cinnamon Teal, Pixley National Wildlife Refuge December 28, 2014
Green-winged Teal, Pixley National Wildlife Refuge December 28, 2014
Lincoln's Sparrow, Pixley National Wildlife Refuge December 28, 2014
Long-billed Curlew, Pixley National Wildlife Refuge December 28, 2014
Northern Harrier, Pixley National Wildlife Refuge December 28, 2014
Pixley National Wildlife Refuge December 28, 2014
Teresa at Pixley National Wildlife Refuge December 28, 2014
Western Meadowlark Pixley National Wildlife Refuge December 28, 2014
White-crowned Sparrow Pixley National Wildlife Refuge December 28, 2014
White-crowned Sparrow Pixley National Wildlife Refuge December 28, 2014

Kern National Wildlife Refuge December 28, 2014

We saw very few cars as we drove toward Kern National Wildlife Refuge. The habitat at Kern NWR included seasonal wetlands, uplands and riparian areas. While driving the North Auto Tour we saw sparrows, thrush, kites, harriers and hawks. While driving the South Auto Tour we saw many species of duck and several species of shorebirds. We searched in some of the upland areas in the North Auto Tour for Burrowing Owls without success.

Golden-crowned Sparrow at Kern National Wildlife Refuge December 28, 2014
Thrush at Kern National Wildlife Refuge December 28, 2014
Northern Harrier at Kern National Wildlife Refuge December 28, 2014

Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge December 28, 2014

We left Kern National Wildlife Refuge by early afternoon so we would have enough time to check out Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge before dark. Driving through Central California toward the San Padres Mountains took us on back roads through small towns. We passed over the California Aqueduct, drove past orchards and fields littered with working and retired drills.

We arrived at the Bitter Creek NWR sign at 4 pm. We drove on Hudson Ranch Rd. to the San Padres National Park sign. We had read on the NWR website that the Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge was closed to the public because of the sensitive nature of the California Condor Recovery Program Activities but viewing of the refuge land and birding could be accomplished along pull offs on Hudson Ranch Rd. Hudson Ranch Rd bisects the refuge. The refuge encompasses the rolling foothills between the San Joaquin Valley and coastal mountain range. We looked for the soaring Condors without success. As the sun set over the vast landscape we headed south down highway 5 to San Diego. Our drive was exhausting, heavy traffic at high speeds most of the way, we were happy to reach our hotel in San Ysidro just a couple of miles from the border of Mexico.

Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge December 28, 2014

San Ysidro, CA spent the night December 28, 2014

We were looking forward to our next day of birding in the San Diego area. The San Diego National Wildlife Refuge Complex encompasses the 3 refuges, Seal Beach, Tijuana Slough, San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuges. We would only be visiting the Tijuana Slough and San Diego Bay NWR. San Diego Bay NWR is comprised of the Sweetwater Marsh Unit and the South San Diego Bay Unit.


Tijuana National Wildlife Refuge December 29, 2014

John Martin, Wildlife Biologist at the San Diego National Wildlife Refuge, planned to spend the day with us on December 30, 2014 birding at the San Diego NWR. John suggested the best birding hotspots at the Tijuana NWR and San Diego Bay NWR. We visited the Seacoast Dr -south end looking for shorebirds and ocean birds. We then visited the area around the Tijuana Slough NWR Visitor Center and adjacent trails. The Visitor Center was closed but we appreciated the nature trails in this urban setting. Several birders that day reported seeing a Light-footed Clapper Rail but we were unsuccessful at spotting or hearing this shy species.

Snowy Egret at Tijuana Slough National Wildlife Refuge December 29, 2014
Whimbrel at Tijuana Slough National Wildlife Refuge December 29, 2014
Shorebird at Tijuana Slough National Wildlife Refuge December 29, 2014

San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge December 29, 2014

We headed to E Street parking lot where we took the shuttle bus to Sweetwater Marsh Unit of the San Diego Bay NWR and the Chula Vista Nature Center. Just out of the range of our scopes we were unable to identify some of the shorebirds resting along the shore of the bay. We headed to the Bayshore Bikeway off 7th Street, part of the South San Diego Bay Unit situated at the bottom of the San Diego Bay. Arriving late in the afternoon we would not have enough time to study and possibly identify the hundreds of shorebirds resting in the ponds along the bike path.

Northern Pintail at San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge December 29, 2014
Shorebirds at South San Diego Bay Unit-Bayshore Bikeway at San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge December 29, 2014
Say's Phoebe at Sweetwater Marsh Unit-San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge December 29, 2014

San Ysidro, CA spent the night December 29, 2014

We spent the night in the same hotel but had to remove all of our belonging that morning because our room had a broken door lock. It always saves time when we can leave our suitcases in the room but this was one time that staying 2 night in the same hotel didn't benefit us.


San Diego National Wildlife Refuge December 30, 2014

Tuesday morning we drove east to the San Diego NWR which stretches from Jamul to communities in Spring Valley and eastern Chula Vista. We were scheduled to meet John at the Par 4 Drive Trailhead, one of the 3 trailheads. The other trails include Sweetwater Interpretive Loop and McGinty Mountain trailheads. The Trail habitats include coastal sage scrub, riparian forest, and chaparral communities, and are home to many threatened and endangered species. John, a long time birder made sure we had good looks at many species including a couple of life list birds. We especially enjoyed hearing about the habitat, birds and other refuge information from a biologist's perspective. John introduced us to the birdlog app, uploading his field bird list immediately to ebird. Maintaining a birdlist on paper or by tape recording was definitely time consuming but even more time consuming was transferring the information at a later time to ebird. We would definitely check out birdlog before our next birding adventure.

As we finished birding with John we had planned to bird at 4 more refuges from December 31-January 2nd including Hopper Mountain NWR, Seal Beach NWR, Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes National Wildlife Refuge and Salinas National Wildlife Refuge. We read on the NWR Website that Hopper Mountain and Seal Beach were only open to visitors by reservation. We also read that Salinas NWR was difficult to visit during the winter months because heavy rainfalls would make the main entrance road and parking lot impassable by car. Teresa was thinking we should do a Pelagic Trip out of Monterrey but her inquiries showed that Debi Shearwater's Pelagic Trips were only offered during the summer months. Driving up the Pacific Coast Highway from LA to San Francisco had been on my bucket list. Both of our flights out of San Francisco were at 6 am on January 3rd. We decided to head up the coastal highway stopping at birding hotspots including the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes National Wildlife Refuge and Monterrey Bay Area. Teresa checked the ABA rare bird alert for the continued reports of a Brown Bobby in the Monterrey Bay area.

Phainopepla at San Diego National Wildlife Refuge December 30, 2014
San Diego National Wildlife Refuge December 30, 2014
Teresa, Karen and John at San Diego National Wildlife Refuge December 30, 2014

Pacific Coast Highway December 30, 2014

Driving along the coast from San Diego to LA could not be accomplished by just one main road but we found coastal routes as often as possible. As we drove into the LA area, heavy rain decreased our visibility, it would be dark soon, we decided to stop in Santa Monica. We quickly found a hotel online and some fast food to take back to the room. We parked our car about a half block from the large metal gate, the locked entrance to the courtyard that was lined with many hotel room doors, including ours. The torrential rain added to the obstacles that challenged us getting our 3 loads of luggage, photographic equipment and birding gear to our room. Soaked by the time we sat down to eat our fast food we wondered, was it true, "seems it never rains in southern California".  


Santa Monica, CA spent the night December 30, 2014


Pacific Coast Highway December 31, 2014

We woke to beautiful sunny skies and headed to the Pacific Coast Highway.  The views were spectacular, we had to limit our stops at the scenic overlooks or we would never make it back to San Francisco for our flights on the 3rd. As we passed Malibu we noticed a sign stating that the Pacific Coast Highway was closed, wondering if that was possible, a few minutes later, sure enough the road was closed, as a construction crew blocked the road and posted a detour sign. The Detour was California State Route 23, a steep winding road, with fantastic views of the Santa Monica Mountains and the Pacific Ocean.  The road was extremely curvy and narrow, there were signs warning large trucks not to use the road. As we passed the beautiful homes we wondered how anyone would get a moving truck to bring their belongings up the steep mountain road consisting of the most switch backs I have ever seen. Behind the wheel on this curvy road, my head began to pound as my stomach churned, motion sickness, I thought that was for car riders. The detour had us back on the 101 in Thousand Oaks and back to the Pacific Coast Highway. As we headed to Ventura, California it was only fitting the song Ventura Highway was playing on satellite radio 70's music channel.

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Guadalupe-Nipomo Dune National Wildlife Refuge December 31, 2014

Arriving at Oso Flaco Lake parking lot, managed by the California State Parks, around 1 pm, we began birding along the trail leading to the boardwalk. The NWR website stated it would be a 4.5 mile round trip hike to the northern refuge boundary on this Oso Flaco Trail. We noticed a lot of noise from the 4 wheel vehicles driving on the dunes at the nearby park.  We were joined by many folks walking the boardwalk on this beautiful New Year's Eve day. We enjoyed some great looks at sora, wrens and several species of ducks. The boardwalk ended at the entrance to the beach. There were several men fishing on the beach just before the Oso Flaco Creek crossing. There was also a large number of gulls along the beach possibly waiting for some left over bait. The NWR website cautioned to only cross the creek if it was shallow and safe. Donned with rubber boots we crossed the shallow creek while maintaining dry feet. From the creek to the refuge sign would be a 1 mile hike one way. We began our way down the beach enjoying the warm sunny day. When we reached the refuge sign we were astonished at the remote location of this valuable habitat. We identified 2 Red-tailed Hawks flying over the refuge. Guadalupe-Nipomo Dune NWR habitat includes fore dune, open sand, back dune, coastal dune scrub, dune swale and several wetland types. The refuge boundary covers 1.8 miles of beach front, extending 3 miles inland. Birding along the beach we saw scoters in the surf. We headed back to the boardwalk where we stayed until dark observing the Sora, Marsh Wrens, Virginia Rails and rafts of ducks in the Oso Flaco Lake.

Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes National Wildlife Refuge December 31, 2014
Tern on beach trail to Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes National Wildlife Refuge December 31, 2014
Ring-billed Gull on beach trail to Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes National Wildlife Refuge December 31, 2014
Mew Gull on beach trail to Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes National Wildlife Refuge December 31, 2014
Ring-billed Gull on beach trail to Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes National Wildlife Refuge December 31, 2014
Mew Gull on beach trail to Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes National Wildlife Refuge December 31, 2014

San Luis Obispo spent the night December 31, 2014


Pacific Coast Highway January 1, 2015

New Years Day we headed up the Pacific Coast Highway stopping at many scenic overlooks, watching whales and identifying Pelagic Cormorants. We stopped at Big Sur State Park for about an hour to scan the sky above the vast ridges for California Condors. Teresa got her first look at the Acorn Woodpecker and some good looks at Stellar Jays. Just before the sun went down we stopped at Monterey Bay, we scanned the rocks for the Brown Booby reported on the ABA rare bird alert. Many other birders were there with scopes and binoculars also searching for the Brown Booby. As we joined in conversations with some of the other birders, we met a couple Don and Kate. Next thing we knew we had agreed to join Kate, Fast Raft Captain on a pelagic trip out of the Monterey Bay early the next morning. The raft holds about 8 people and travels in the Bay mainly looking for whales, dolphin, seals and sea lions. Don and Kate were interested in all sea life and promised some good looks at sea birds as well. We hurried on to our hotel in Marina in hopes for a good night sleep and some insight for preparing for a ride out into the Pacific Ocean.


Marina, CA spent the night January 1, 2015


Kate’s Fast Raft in the Monterrey Bay Area January 2, 2015

Apprehensive about being out to sea we headed out of the hotel early enough to have an hour to look for the Brown Booby. As we scanned the rocks for the Booby a fellow birder Brian Sullivan, ebird editor, stopped to scan the rocks. It was a pleasure to meet Brian, he pointed out the Surfbirds, a first look at a life bird for both Teresa and myself. He said the Booby had definitely been at the rocks during different times of the day, we would definitely come back after our Fast Raft Trip.

Our Fast Raft Trip with Kate began at 9 am. We were excited to get such close looks at the Dolphin and Seals that swam along side the fast moving raft. There were many Gray and Humpback Whales in the bay and we were able to get some fantastic looks. We got our first look at several species of sea birds including Common Murre, Rhinoceros Auklets, Ancient Auklets, and Black-vented Shearwaters. We really enjoyed our 4.5 hours with Kate on her fast raft and look forward to joining her sometime in the future. Glad to be back on land we headed back to Monterey Bay where we got a look at the Brown Booby.


Salinas National Wildlife Refuge January 2, 2015

We left Monterey Bay an hour before sunset and decided on a quick stop at Salinas National Wildlife Refuge in case we might be able to bird at the entrance to refuge before dark. The entrance road to the refuge was one big muddy mess that looked impassable even for a 4 wheel drive vehicle. We would definitely come back to this refuge on another day, it has 2 hiking trails leading to the beach. Summer might be a good time for a visit as there are Snowy Plovers breeding here in the summer months. The sun was dropping lower in the sky, time to head back to San Francisco. Easier driving conditions than we had expected we arrived at our hotel in Brisbane by 8 pm, we would be ready for our flights the next morning out of the San Francisco Airport. Our California National Wildlife Refuge Birding Trip was a success we had spent time birding at 12 California National Wildlife Refuges.


Brisbane, CA spent the night January 2, 2015


Flew home January 3, 2015


We visited 13 National Wildlife Refuges during our 2 week trip

Colusa National Wildlife Refuge 12/21/14

Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge 12/22/14

Stone Lake National Wildlife Refuge 12/23/14

San Joaquin National Wildlife Refuge 12/23/14

San Luis National Wildlife Refuge 12/26/14, 12/27/14

Merced National Wildlife Refuge 12/27/14

Pixley National Wildlife Refuge 12/28/14

Kern National Wildlife Refuge 12/28/14

Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge 12/28/14

Tijuana Slough National Wildlife Refuge 12/29/14

Sweetwater Marsh National Wildlife Refuge 12/29/14

San Diego National Wildlife Refuge 12/30/14

Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes National Wildlife Refuge 12/31/14

Salinas National Wildlife Refuge 1/1/14 road to parking lot extremely muddy-didn't visit

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