Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge

When I was almost 16 we moved to Northern California from the San Diego area. My dad grew up in Tennessee so getting out in nature was an important part of life for him. Having been a beach baby growing up I was really missing the playing in the outdoors way of life after the move. So up to the Wildlife Refuges we went. Not only could we take short hikes out in the beautiful wild but we got to see all sorts of birds and wildlife...FOR FREE. 

My dad passed away in 2003 and I have to admit I have not been back to a NWR till we went to Colusa a few weeks ago. I had forgotten how much I love them. Our trip to Colusa NWR was quite the short one. We had limited time and that refuge has only a 3 mile auto tour so it seemed like a perfect idea. And it was...except it was too short. We both wanted more. Faced with "What to do for Valentine's Day", with the usual choices of dinner/movie/dancing, we decided that a day back up at the refuges was what we really wanted to do. So the teenage boy went to Gramma's house and we headed up to the larger Sacramento NWR.

Don't live in California? The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has sites all over the United States. Find one in your own area HERE!

If you follow this blog at all then you know I'm always trying to find new places to eat. This time was no different. So with the recommendation of a friend, and the help of YELP, we were able to find La Fortuna Bakery.

 Located on a side street right off of the freeway in Williams, you would never find this place on your own. But once you do you will be coming back every time you are in the area! You will see the sign first but if you look to the left you will see, placed lower on the building, the word Taqueria. This is the place. No, seriously. This is THE place. 
You order at the little counter and then you can walk through the bodega type store to the dining room area of the building. Pinatas hang from the ceiling, soccer trophies are perched everywhere proclaiming how amazing their local teams play the game and the feel is definitely Mexico.
 If you are a fan of food from Mexico, as I am, you will find many of your favorites here in the market! I often see Jarritos soda in Mexican food restaurants but the Grapefruit flavor is harder to find so imagine how happy I was to find it here!
I ordered the Chile Verde Burrito and my husband ordered the Steak Burrito. Two "loafs" arrived stuffed full of some of the most amazing food we'd ever eaten! The Chile Verde had huge chunks of tender pork, wasn't over seasoned and, even now, makes my mouth water. The Steak Burrito was even more amazing. The grilled steak was seasoned so perfectly we were picking out the strips just to get an even better taste! These are HUGE. Definitely enough to share if you'd like but at only about $6.50 per burrito, they are affordable enough to get two and share the different tastes...then take home the leftovers!
A storm the day before helped to green up the rolling hills. I have no idea what the yellow crop is but it certainly added a beautiful strip of color to our view.
 The storm had created an usual situation for us. Since the rain flooded the nearby fields off of the refuge lands many of the large groups of birds had flown off of the refuge to these new feeding grounds. So while the higher waters made scenes like the one above even more beautiful it meant that we didn't have much hope of seeing as many birds as we'd hoped.
 Let me clarify that. We didn't have much hope of seeing as many waterfowl as we'd hoped. Today wasn't about was about raptors and other birds that are fun to see. A flock of Turkey Vultures were flying over the Visitors Center when we arrived. These are just giant birds and, while not graceful flyers, they are fascinating to watch.
 Marsh plants are plentiful as well like this thistle. I love all the lines and texture of these plants.
 Typha, known as Cattails to many, are plentiful. For some reason I've always loved these. What I didn't know is that there are many parts of this plant that are edible! But the main purpose in the marsh is for birds to use for nesting material and some of the small rodents to use for food.
 If you practice walking slowly and quietly you get to see some special moments like this teeny tiny Sparrow hopping from reed to reed.
 The auto tour here at this refuge is 6 miles long. You will pass many fields and ponds on your way around the route. Your car is your "bird blind". They are fairly use to the cars coming around the route so you will get to see many types of birds and other wildlife along the way. If you want to stop and photograph them you will have to practice slowing down and creeping up on them so your stopping doesn't scare them away.
 Camouflage really works for the ducks. I know I focus on the "rare" sightings of birds but even your common Mallard Duck, found at most city parks, is a beautiful bird and deserves his spotlight.
But, of course, there are some of the more rare varieties. The White Faced Ibis winters here in the Sacramento refuge system. The pink fluorescent stripe of feathers caught my eye. For being such a "drab" looking bird they are actually stunningly beautiful...just in a more subtle way.
A quick word about the birds. If you stop your car too short you can actually frighten the birds and they will fly away. This is a great stress to them so, just like walking through the refuge, you will want to drive slowly and quietly as possible. If you want to see the birds in flight then just come to a gentle stop along the route and wait are bound to get lucky, as I did when this duck flew into the area I was watching.
 And, most of the time, luck is exactly what you need to see the wildlife sights that will take your breath away. We had come to a stop to look at a large raptor up in a tree when this Red Tailed Hawk flew right over the car.
He landed on a small spit of land not too far from our car and we were just stunned by his beauty! He pranced around on the spit for a few seconds and then flew off again. So wonderful!
 Part way through the route you will see a fenced off area with a viewing deck. I can imagine, on a normal February day, you would see these ponds stuffed full of ducks. Instead we got the treat of the beautiful wide open spaces with a few ducks. Still wonderful. This is a great place to stop, stretch your legs and enjoy the fresh air. There are a few of these stops along the route.
 This Rough Legged Hawk was just one of the many raptor sightings we had that day. (Remember to click on the small images to see the larger views!)
 Always remember to turn around when you are photographing an outdoor location. What looks wide open and blue in front of you may look dark and silvery behind you!
 We did take the walk up to the top of the deck. There is a pair of spotting scopes available so you can get a better look at the wetlands it overlooks. The deck is totally wheelchair accessible and one of the scopes is also set at that level so everyone gets a chance to enjoy the beauty!
 I got off one very quick shot of this Belted Kingfisher before he flew away! Such a cool bird! We actually saw two that day (same one maybe) but the second sighting was even shorter that the first. 
There are some more common perching birds here as well. The little Black Phoebe's dart from branch to branch, never lighting for long, so they look like little flashes of light in the trees.
 I won't say that we didn't see any geese on the refuge grounds. We did see the V's flying overhead and several on the fields. We had to go off refuge grounds to find the huge flocks...more on that later.
For some reason these geese crack me up. It seems like every time I would spot them they would be standing in a line and looking all the same direction! Called White Fronted Geese (for the white stripe at their beak) they are almost as common as the Snow Geese this time of year.
Egrets were also very common sights on the route that day. This Snowy Egret, a smaller and more colorful version of the Great Egret, was very patient with me. I was able to get a whole series of photos and didn't manage to scare him off. Unlike the Great Egret, the Snowy Egret has the yellow stripe on the legs as well as yellow feet. They are smaller than the Great Egret as well but it is really the legs that give them away.
 Amazing sightings are so readily available that it is what makes a trip to the refuge a wonderful family activity. Even if your little one can just barely see out of their windows they have these beautiful views available to them. Start kids out young and they will love it the rest of their lives. We were already stopped when these two White Faced Ibis flew into the little ravine filled with water next to our car.
This gives me the chance to show you how iridescent their feathers are and how beautiful this type of bird is when the sunlight acts like a spotlight.
 After we left the Sacramento NWR we decided we were going to hit one of the "cut through" roads and go back to Colusa NWR (more on that next week) and that is when we found the flocks of Snow Geese!
Thousands of Snow Geese live in this area each November to March so it's fairly common to see hundreds of birds in the air flying into or out of a pond. Truly beautiful. At times you will see equally large flocks of Tundra Swans in this area as well. Even more reason to come to this area at least once during the winter.

As I mentioned above...we went from one refuge to the other. I'll take you back there next week with the blog so you can see the vast difference between the visit I documented last week and a visit that happened just two weeks later! 

We already have plans of visiting another refuge, the San Luis NWR, while we are down in that area for a family event at the end of the month. That refuge not only has waterfowl and raptors but Tule Elk too! This time the teenager is going with us...I'll let you know how that goes! LOL!

Remember you can see more photos (since I can't possibly share ALL of them here) on Instagram or over at Facebook every day.

See you next week!


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