Two hours south of Sacramento, and equidistant between San Francisco on the coast and Yosemite in the Sierras, is a stretch of rural road called Sandy Mush Road. Despite its somewhat uninviting name, it leads you toward one of California's tiny treasures: Merced National Wildlife Refuge. A postage stamp-sized place compared to many of the state's other parks and preserves, this refuge is a resting ground for an abundance and diversity of migrating birds — a sight that leaves every visitor in awe.
Wildlife refuges like Merced are tiny airports for birds traveling along major migration routes, and in the case of birds on the West Coast, that's the Pacific Flyway. It's critical for birds to have places to rest and feed on their long voyages, and to birders, these gathering places are mini meccas where dozens of species can be spotted in a single afternoon.
Merced is one of these places. It features the largest concentrations of wintering lesser sandhill cranes and Ross' geese along the flyway, and also features nesting colonies of tri-colored blackbirds, a species that is endemic to California's Central Valley but has undergone a significant decline due to habitat loss and drought. To these species, a refuge is truly that: a place to find shelter in otherwise often inhospitable place.
As many as 15,000-20,000 lesser sandhill cranes gather in the refuge between November and March. These large birds stand upward of 4 feet tall and have a wingspan of 6.5 feet. This size makes them an impressive sight not only as they fly through the air, but also as they perform courtship dances, jumping into the air with heads bowed and wings outspread. Visitors to Merced NWR can witness these birds lingering in fields, dancing, and of course taking to the skies at sunrise and sunset.
Wildlife photographer Donald Quintana, a frequent visitor to the refuge, calls the place Bosque del Apache Lite. Bosque del Apache is a national wildlife refuge in New Mexico and one of the most beloved locations for bird photographers, with shutterbugs jostling for space to place their tripods. Merced NWR features the same beautiful light and diversity of birds, but without all the crowds.
For those interested in bird photography, Quintana heads up the leading photography workshop at the refuge, and offers three-day workshops in February and March each year. Participants learn how to get professional-level wildlife photos and enjoy one-on-one instruction.
The chance to spot rare or unusual birds is a big draw. Among snow geese, the blue morph is an exciting sight. Here, two blue morph geese stand together in a flock of snowy white peers. Because birds gather in such great numbers here, you never know what unique individuals you might spot.
Not only is the refuge a spectacle in winter for migrating birds, but it's also an important place during the breeding season. Merced NWR's website notes that the refuge "provides important breeding habitat for Swainson’s hawks, tri-colored blackbirds, marsh wrens, mallards, gadwall, cinnamon teal, and burrowing owls. Tri-colored blackbirds, a colonial-nesting songbird, breed in colonies of more than 25,000 pairs in robust herbaceous vegetation. Coyotes, ground squirrels, desert cottontail rabbits, beaver, and long-tailed weasels can also be seen year-round."
There are several ways to travel around the refuge. A 5-mile auto tour route skirts the outside of the seasonal wetlands and upland grasslands. Visitors can cruise slowly, using their car as a blind so as to better see resting and feeding birds without disturbing them. But for those who want to get out and enjoy the refuge on foot, there are three walking trails that take visitors through meadows, riparian corridors and wetlands. Merced NWR holds 10,258 acres of habitat, so there's plenty to see.
Another reason why Merced NWR is a particular treasure is that it's right next to the San Luis NWR, a 26,800-acre refuge of wetlands, riparian forests and native grasslands with three auto tour routes and several walking trails. It's just half an hour down the road from Merced NWR, which means you can get a two-for-one experience when visiting the area. But if you're going to pick one of these two locations to enjoy the morning fly-outs and evening fly-ins of thousands of birds, Merced NWR is absolutely the place to be.
At around 6:30 in the morning in winter, the gates to the refuge are opened and visitors are welcomed in. Taking the auto tour route, a visitor can slowly drive toward the ponds were roosting cranes, geese and ducks are waking up. As the sky lightens and the sun inches up toward the horizon, groups of tens, dozens, and hundreds of birds take to the air on their way to feeding grounds, usually harvested cropland in the surrounding area. Some birds, however, will stay behind, resting and feeding in the refuge throughout the day.
During much of the day, visitors can spot raptors including red-tailed hawks, red-shouldered hawks, kestrels, merlins, northern harriers and even sometimes a bald eagle or two. These raptors feed not only on waterbirds but also on the abundant ground squirrels, rabbits and hares that live in the grassland portion of the refuge. If you're lucky (and at least one critter is very unlucky) you'll be able to witness hunting behavior and a catch.
Raptors aren't the only predators in the area. Coyotes and bobcats also frequent the refuge. It's common in the mornings to come across a little patch of land here and there covered with feathers, the last bits of a goose or duck caught the night before.
Another bird species that's a draw for visitors is the white-faced ibis. While it's more common to see one or two alone, sometimes you can spot an entire flock together, which is quite a sight. This white-faced ibis is still in winter plumage. As the season shifts to spring, the feathers lining the bird's bare face will lighten to white and the legs will brighten to a red color.
Shorebirds are also common around the refuge, and visitors can watch the feeding behavior of black-necked stilts, American avocets, killdeer, long-billed curlews, sandpipers and many other species.
And finally, many species of songbird call the refuge home, and these can be a particular delight to visitors who visit in early spring when the breeding season is beginning. It's a reminder to bring your binoculars or spotting scope because there are quite a few species that are uncommon to see but just might turn up at the refuge in the midst of all the activity. If you have a long list of birds to mark off your checklist for the year, Merced is a place you definitely want to visit.
Wildlife refuges are special places, often found just off the beaten path or unexpectedly close to the hustle and bustle of city life or farming activity. They are set aside for the preservation of wildlife, and many are open to visitors who want to witness what a healthy, abundant ecosystem looks like — a wonderful, educational and inspiring thing.
The National Wildlife Refuge System states, "We are land stewards, guided by Aldo Leopold's teachings that land is a community of life and that love and respect for the land is an extension of ethics. We seek to reflect that land ethic in our stewardship and to instill it in others."
Taking a day or two to spend time in a refuge — particularly those that are often overlooked, such as Merced — can help you become refreshed and energized about how important the conservation of our public lands is for plants, animals and people alike.