Autumn at Merced National Wildlife Refuge

The first post in a series of “California in the Fall.”

Reflecting cranes in a row
Lesser Sandhill cranes begin their autumn arrival at Merced National Wildlife Refuge

It’s only just begun — the fall and winter visit of thousands of migrating birds that winter in California’s Central Valley.

When we aimed our Eurovan named Gilda toward Merced National Wildlife Refuge, we passed sign upon sign decrying any and all environmental regulations when it comes to water disbursement in this massive agricultural valley. Bold lettered demands to “Make America Great Again,” interspersed the other gripes. Gilda’s apolitical, so I’ll not drive into that dusty political battle. But I will say that at one time California Central Valley, a 13 million acre region, once hosted 4 million acres of wetlands. Now this rich Central Valley is the go to for much of America’s supply of tomatoes, almonds, grapes, cotton, apricots, asparagus and more.

Consequently, where abundant wetlands once welcomed migrating birds along the Pacific Flyway, the wetlands are either drained, pumped and/or fields of agricultural wealth.

It’s safe to say that the Merced NWR is a 10,258 acre wetland island in the midst of fields of cotton, grains, produce, and orchards.

Merced National Wildlife Refuge’s welcoming wetlands view

Thousands of dragonflies hovered over the wetland’s blue waters upon our early October, warm afternoon arrival. “This is my Valhalla for dragonfly photos,” I announced while overlooking the bird viewing possibilities. (The dragonflies successfully eluded Oly’s focusing abilities.)

The distinct trumpeting of lesser Sandhill cranes rolled over the Merced NWR ponds — a sound that can carry over 2.5 miles. Other waterfowl floated or stood in the first ponds on the refuge’s tour.

Click link for Sandhill crane sounds:  A Sandhill crane’s sound

The refuge is mostly an auto tour site. As usual, time was not on our side, so the opened hiking areas were not a possibility. I feared that this trip might be a disappointment.

The hawk that escaped Oly.

We rolled Gilda along the first part of the auto tour, when suddenly I sited what I’ll call a harrier hawk on a snag right next to the road. By the time I rolled down the window and focused Oly, the hawk was out of there. It could’ve been my money-maker photo!

Lesson learned: keep the windows opened and camera armed and ready to shoot.

The graveled road made a slight turn, and the first flock of lesser Sandhill cranes — a gorgeous waterfowl that stands 3 to 5 feet tall and weighs about 6 to 7 pounds — gathered together in a wet, golden field of marsh grasses and plants. The superstars of Merced NWR performed an opera of chortling, honking, and bugling songs in the field. Other waterfowl appeared to be their silent, standing or floating audience, like this heron below, who posed for the camera.

Heron on a log in a Merced NWR marsh.

About 20,000 lesser Sandhill cranes will make habitat at Merced NWR by winter. We were on hand for the early arrivals. We were also the only humans taking the tour that afternoon. Watch for Arctic-nesting geese and an abundance of other wildlife as the seasons progress.

Arriving cranes in the distance.

The Eurovan has more adventures coming along the wetlands of California’s great Central Valley.


Things We Learned

  • Gilda’s next road trip to any of these wetland islands will be pre-planned with a PRINTED MAP and HIGHLIGHTED ROADS. Siri and the rest of googled maps will get you there, but let’s just say that the “shortest” way is a road trip experience of its own kind.
  • A 300 mm lens is not the optimal photo tool for this locale. Bigger might be better.
  • Plan for golden hour visit–sunrise or sunset. Refuge opens just before sunrise and closes at sunset.
  • Camping: There are options within range of the wetlands experience. This trip did not include a camping site near the wetlands.
  • Facilities at Wetlands: Nada, except for vault toilets which were really gross.

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