Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Colusa Wildlife Refuge

All over the United States there are wildlife refuges that will take your breath away. In California the best time to visit is in the winter. California is part of the Pacific Migratory Flyway so, especially in winter, you can see lots of different birds in just a short time. Our nearest refuge that has an "auto tour" drive route is Colusa but there are plenty of refuges in California that have these tours and even more that have trails you can explore on foot. We were on limited time so we chose to go to the smallest of the auto tour routes for our afternoon.

Colusa NWR is located about an hour north of Sacramento. I'll be honest and admit we got a bit lost before we found the entrance we wanted so round trip we spent about 3.5 hours away from home. If we had had more time available we would have gone a bit further north to the Sacramento NWR that has a much longer route. However we were thrilled by our experience that day. (Don't forget to click on the small photos so you can see the larger versions!)

 It was really foggy that morning so the Red-tailed Hawks were still on the branches. It needs to heat up a little before they can fly easily. When it's cold or wet it takes too much energy to take flight so they watch from their perches for easy prey to come near enough before they will swoop down and try to catch a meal.
 But the fog added a bit of fun texture to the scenes like these Greater White-fronted Geese waddling their way across the fields. 
 As I mentioned we got lost first. GPS will get you to the refuge but maybe not the front entrance. At this point it's great to have the map view or, as old fashioned as it seems, a real map, on hand. We took the first little sign we saw which actually led us to the hunters entrance which was not where we wanted to be. The upper part of the refuge is for the general public and the lower section is where you can get permits for hunting. So we went five miles out of our way down this long road...but there were definite pay offs for getting a bit off track. This egret was one of those rewards.
 Keep in mind that most of these photos are taken FROM THE CAR. I do have a 300mm lens which is a "long" lens but not a super long lens. So these birds are not far from us or the road. Easy to see.
 We got quite the treat when we came upon two Ibis facing off over feeding area. If the morning had not been so dark and foggy I would have been able to capture more colorful images since they are very iridescent birds but this was so sudden, and not a common sight, that I took what I could get! (click on the small photo to see the larger one where you get a better look at their colors!)
 Ibis are not confrontational birds so it's uncommon to find them putting on this display. I was thrilled to be able to see it! This only lasted 3-4 minutes but it was very cool to see them popping up and down into the air with wings spread wide. Thank goodness we got lost or we never would have seen this!
 We did find our way to the official entrance where there was a very large sign as well as a welcome sign as we approached the entrance. At this point there are restrooms as well as a white board that tells you what species has been seen in the park. And the views...oh the beautiful views. This is from the very first overpass that you take into the auto tour area.
 Right as you start there is an overlook deck where you can get out of your car and see the birds easily. But here is the tip. Park in the first parking lot and stroll over to the deck since there really isn't any parking, except handicap parking, near the deck. There is a ramp to make wheelchair access easy. After seeing the deep fog over the fields we were a bit worried about how much we were going to be able to see on the tour...we were worried for nothing. The water areas were totally clear.
 The draw for visitors this time of year is the Snow Geese migration. Thousands of these beautiful birds fly the PMF (Pacific Migration Flyway) so you can commonly see V's of them in the sky overhead. 
 You get a much closer look from the deck. Of course the outer water areas, accessible by footpaths, hold the larger populations of the birds, but it doesn't mean you can't see plenty right from the deck or the roads.
 We were on a limited time schedule so the short auto tour route was really all we had time to do. But, as it turned out, it was perfect. Sights like this Greater White-fronted Goose spreading his wings were breathtaking!

 The Northern Pintail Ducks were plentiful and definitely my favorite bird. Their coloring is just so elegant and beautiful. 
 Sights like Great Blue Heron's and Ruddy Duck's swimming in the beautiful ponds were just breathtaking. 
 The fog was still definitely a main player in the day making visibility short but we were still able to see quite a bit of "wonderful" from our car.
 Like this grand Great Blue Heron. He just looks so majestic to me huddled against the cold. A word about that. Dress in layers so you can put on a coat at that first stop. You will be driving with your windows down and it can be quite cold while you are on the tour. After the tour you will want to be able to remove your jacket so that first big parking lot comes in handy twice, even if you don't need the restrooms!
 The 3 mile auto tour loop takes you along the ponds and rivers of the upper Colusa NWR. If you are very lucky you may get to see the river otters that can be found here. We were rewarded with beautiful views but no otters.
 Parts of the refuge are quite "mucky" which is perfect for birds like the Cattle Egret. A smaller version of the one pictured at the beginning of this article, they hunt for the same type of food, insects and smaller animals.
 We rounded the last bend of the tour believing that we had pretty much seen what there was to see. It had been a great day filled with beautiful views, beautiful birds and even one deer that we saw scamper off into the trees...but we were not done yet.
 First we saw this tree and I couldn't believe my eyes. I have seen Black-crowned Night Herons before but never more than 2-3 at a time. So imagine my joy at finding a whole tree of them! (click on the small photo to see the birds more clearly)
And now imagine my shock at finding a whole nesting colony!! Over 100 of these gorgeous birds were in these stick-nest trees. Originally we thought that the huddled brown shapes (click on the little photo to see the bigger one!) were other birds like owls or hawks but I have learned that these are the adolescent herons which have not developed their colors yet. I have the photo in front of me right now and I still can not believe what we saw. Awesome...in every respect of the word. Awesome.

An Auto Tour of a Wildlife Refuge is the perfect way to get a taste of the amazing natural world or maybe just to get someone who is normally not a "nature" person out to see what is so cool about it. So if you have never been to one before look up your local refuge and see if they have an Auto Tour and go give it a try...you may just love it enough to go again and get out on foot to explore those areas you can't reach by car!

As mentioned before, there is another refuge a bit higher up with a longer auto tour and more trails and more decks where we can see more great views ...we'll be headed up there in early February and I'll share with you whatever it is we are blessed to find there!

See you next week!


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