After admiring the spectacle of the Pacific Flyway migrations through the evocative photography of local artists such as Michael Frye, David Hoffman and Franka Gabler, I resolved to experience a bit of this Central Valley magic for myself before the season was over.
When the local Yosemite Area Audubon Society (YAAS) announced their monthly field trip would be birding the Merced National Wildlife Refuge (MNWR), I jumped at the chance. After a remarkably brief drive, arriving at the MNWR felt a bit like landing in a different country.
Click on images to enlarge.
A landscape of watery marshland and reeds were barely discernible through the blanket of mysterious and moody fog, with the quiet punctuated by the intermittent, muffled honking of unseen birds.
Just as I was adjusting to this sleepy scene, a welcoming cacophony of thousands of geese, cranes and ducks rose through the mist as the birds circled to land again or continue on their journey. I can now say that goose-caused goose-bumps are really the best kind. That singular, raucous, thundering sound was worth the drive alone.
The refuge encompasses roughly 10,000 acres and includes wetlands, grasslands, vernal pools, and riparian areas to attract over-wintering waterfowl from damaging nearby farmland where their foraging activities are unappreciated.
Established over 60 years ago, MNWR includes a five-mile long auto-tour route with two over-water viewing platforms and a few short hiking opportunities, affording bird lovers spectacular peak-season views. Between late November and early February, migrating ducks, geese, swans and cranes take advantage of the Central Valley’s relatively mild winters, as compared to their Canadian and Alaskan summer homes.
One can expect to see the largest wintering population of lesser Sandhill cranes and Ross’ geese at MNWR; more than 20,000 cranes and 60,000 arctic-nesting geese make the refuge home during the winter months. Many thousands of other waterfowl, water birds and shorebirds, as well as various raptors and songbirds, make this a birding paradise.
While there with the experienced YAAS group, more than 75 different species of birds were identified, a record outing at this location for them. Among co-leader Cheryl Aoife Johnson’s cataloged highlights were the Blue-winged Teal, an Orange-crowned Warbler, Great Horned Owls, Cooper’s Hawks (male and female near each other in a tree), three Bald Eagles, a Golden Eagle, and a Peregrine Falcon. The main attraction was the pageantry of thousands of Snow and Ross’ Geese, Greater White-fronted Geese, and Sandhill Cranes.
Aside from the abundant wildlife, the stark beauty of the winter landscape itself was not to be overlooked. The misty background, with its expanses of silvery water, layered into the distance with reeds and bare-branched trees, was quietly intoxicating.
Though we are surrounded by our own striking terrain here in the mountains, I look forward to my next escape to the Merced National Wildlife Refuge for a different type of immersion in the extraordinary.
The Merced National Wildlife Refuge is located on Sandy Mush Road, eight miles west of Highway 59 near Merced.
YAAS hosts monthly programs and field trips in and around Oakhurst and Merced. Get more familiar with your avian neighbors!
It’s not too late to enjoy the winter migration for yourself! For more info: