Tuesday, March 3, 2015

San Luis National Wildlife Refuge

At one of the refuges we visited last month we picked up a brochure and in it was a map of all of the refuges in California. We've visited several in Northern California but we'd never even heard of the San Luis NWR. It is located right of a regular route that we take to get to Monterey. It wasn't until we visited that we got a clue on why that would be possible.
 First of all a bit of advice. Whenever going to a new refuge I look it up on a map, visit their website and try to get really exact directions. If possible I also go to Google Earth and track the directions at "street level" so I can see landmarks along the way as well. I have to say that if I had not done this process this time that we may not have found the refuge. From the direction we entered Los Banos we needed to hang a left to get on the highway to the refuge. General directions told us that the entrance to the refuge was on the highway...but it's not. In fact you have to turn off the highway onto a road that winds it's way for almost 2 miles through farms before you hit a dirt and gravel road to the refuge. But when we DID arrive we were very surprised to find a state of the art new Visitors Center. While the land has been in conservation for decades, this new center is a wonderful way to welcome visitors to the complex.
 As you walk into the center make sure to check out the wetlands as you cross the bridge. This little frog sculpture sitting on the railing actually made me laugh out loud, garnering a strange look from my husband, when I saw him.
 Our first Robin of Spring welcomed us as we walked in. This was the first of many different types of birds that we spotted along our way. If you are a "birder" then NWR's are a great place to go and discover a diverse population of the areas birds.
 This beautiful sculpture is right near the front door of the center and represents the Tule Elk and waterfowl of the area.
Inside is new and modern and very well set up with displays of the habitat you are going to find on your explorations. The kitty was just a great extra! A small warning. I'm not a "stuffed" animal person. I know, they die of natural causes before taxidermy occurs but it's just a bizarre practice to me. BUT, if you think they are cool there is a whole room that will fascinate you. 
 The "Cattails" were all around the center. As with all wetlands, they are an important part of the habitat. The plant is a food source as well as a nesting option for the local song birds.
There is a lovely spot in the center with overstuffed chairs and binoculars where you can watch the song birds out of a window while they play on the Cattails outside. Such a cool section to enjoy!
 From the front door you can see the first station on the auto tour. The wetlands tour is an 8.5 mile tour that takes you past several ponds as well as grassland areas.
 We had just started the tour when we came upon this Great Blue Heron and Great Egret (as well as a few Coots) hanging out near the Center. You can often see these birds near each other but they are not friendly. If you watch long enough you will see one of them bully the other out of the area. They don't like to share.
 That first stop was a wonderful surprise! There were several raptors circling the area including this Sharp-shinned Hawk.
I have no idea what type of aquatic floating plant this is but this red duckweed type plant had completely taken over this part of the wetlands. The Coots seemed to love it but, while it makes for a very dramatic landscape, this type of total invasive population isn't usually a good thing.
 It was fun to see shorebirds I don't get to see often like this Greater Yellowlegs.  This one was right next to the auto tour route. You don't need to go hiking to see a great diversity of birds. This makes it a very nice option if you, or someone in your family, has mobility restrictions.
The Greater Yellowlegs was hanging out with these Black-necked Stilts. These are really common birds that you can find at almost any California wetland but I still adore them. As "girly" as it sounds I really think it has to do with the fact they are black and white with pink legs. Silly, I know but I just find them to be cute!
 One of our biggest surprises was just how beautiful this refuge is.  The views are simply breathtaking. Due to our severe drought there were not as many ponds as we had hoped but the grasslands were just beautiful.
 We did find some ponds. Lush with reeds and aquatic plants they are a haven for the ducks and other waterfowl in the area. The population of ducks and geese was not as high as we have seen it at the other, more Northern, refuges but we did see quite a variety.
If you drive very slowly and make sure to always look ahead of you and not just out of your window you will catch the songbirds like these Red-winged Blackbirds and Sparrows perching on the marsh reeds. Get too close and they are gone in a flash!
 Spotting a Ring-necked Duck was truly fun. These are such dramatic looking birds with their domed heads, yellow eyes and sculptured looking feather pattern.
 But to find both a female, which I think is even prettier, and a male together was one of the perfect finds that day.
 Pintail Ducks are rather common in the wetlands of central California but it was the little guy behind them that caught my eye. If you can't see him click on the photo to bring up the larger image. He's the one with the teal stripe on his head! In fact he is called a Green-winged Teal Duck. One of the prettier ducks you will find.
 I have a soft spot for Grebe's. They are such an awkward looking bird. They are common at the ocean so I see them all of the time but Pied-billed Grebes are more commonly found in the wetlands.
My husbands favorite is the Cinnamon Teal. With the reddish brown color and red eye color they are definitely dramatic birds that stand out easily against the bright green of the Spring reeds.
 Yes, there were geese as well. Not nearly as many as we had seen in the other refuges but you could see the occasional V in the air. Catching a good shot of them is largely a matter of luck. I had already focused in on these White-fronted Geese when they decided to take flight. While I'm in the refuge I keep my shutter speed high so I can catch whatever might be moving quickly. I only change it if I know I'm taking a scenic landscape shot there.
 As soon as we began the main auto tour route we kept seeing these little perching birds flittering all over the grasslands. They are really very quick and hard to catch so it was quite a few tries before I was able to get a quick shot of one and actually try to identify it. My shock was finding out that they are Western Meadowlarks. I've seen them here or there in our area but only one at a time. These were flying in flocks of 4 and 5 at a time!
Their bright yellow color is quite dramatic so I was very happy that a few of the images did come out. One of the blessings of shooting with a digital camera is the fact that you can take a couple of dozen frames in the hopes of getting one sharp image and it took about that many to come up with about 3 good shots. So don't feel badly about filling up your memory card. It will mean more work when you get back but it would be worse to only take a few frames and realize that you missed each shot.
 Our biggest thrill and surprise of the day was finding this flock of Sandhill Cranes! We have seen them in the Sacramento area before but only from a very great distance. While the pond they were wading about was still about a hundred yards away we were able to see them quite easily. 
The information we had gathered said that they are quite abundant in Fall and Winter but it's unusual to see them in Spring. With our very warm weather starting in mid January we were very surprised to see the cranes still here and in such huge numbers!
 Around each corner we found gorgeous views. We were there on a Monday so we didn't have to worry about holding any other visitors up by stopping and enjoying these views. While on the auto tours you are required to stay inside your cars except at marked stops but, if the traffic is low, you can always spend a few minutes enjoying a beautiful view.
This Red-tailed Hawk was just a bonus to the beautiful view!
 You never know what you are going to find when visiting a refuge. We expected ducks and geese, raptor and song birds and wetland views.
 What we didn't expect was sheep! This lovely bucolic scene was a big surprise!
 As we came around the final corner that leads back to the Visitors Center we found these wooley sheep in the grasslands.
They seemed as interested in us as we were in them. For some reason sheep crack me up so it was a treat to get to see them in such an unexpected location.
 Our final thrill on the Wetlands Auto Tour  was seeing the Great Blue Heron just hanging out in the field. These birds are simply huge. They can be as tall as an adult woman and have over a 6 foot wingspan. Just enormous birds....and so very beautiful! They are very graceful in flight and while I was grateful he wasn't feeling threatened enough by me to take flight I would have loved to see him take off.
One last word about this refuge. I mentioned the Tule Elk earlier. Don't get your hopes up. There is a Tule Elk Auto Tour Route but there is one small herd of elk on the refuge. Made up of about 20 animals they are behind very tall fences and quite a ways from the route. They do live here year round but you are more likely to get better views at the nearby San Luis Reservoir Recreation Area than here at the refuge. What IS great about this route is that there are several fishing stations. So you can stop along the way and get some fishing in before you leave.

This refuge is very easy to reach, right off the central corridor of Highway 5. We are hopeful that next year will be a much more wet one and, if it is, we'll return to see what the wetland route looks like filled with more ponds and less grassland areas.

As I mentioned in my last refuge blog. Most of these are totally free for you and your family or have a very low day use fee. For small children this is a great way to introduce them to the wetlands and the idea of enjoying the birds, animals and plants that live in these areas. We did take our 13 year old and while he wasn't thrilled at first he quickly warmed up to it as we made our discoveries along the way. He was very interested to see the photos and he seemed to enjoy discussing them after we got back home. Of course he had his electronics in the back seat but he did end up spending most of his time looking out of the windows. So my advice would be to take the small ones with you and let them see what they can from their car seats and drag the teens with you, with their electronics, and see if you can overcome their apathy. Either way you will be making an impression that they will remember forever. 


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