Well, it's for the birds. For them, this bleak environment is survival. As I have mentioned in recent posts, 95% of the original natural environment of the Great Valley has been co-opted for agricultural and urban development. Millions upon millions of birds once used the valley as a wintering ground or for critical food-gathering during their migrations elsewhere.
This week I was continuing my for-the-first-time exploration of one of the most spectacular displays of nature by paying visits to the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge. I'm still sort of stunned that this has been in my own backyard, but was so easy to overlook (I should add that I never learned to surf despite living in Santa Barbara at one time, and never learned to ski despite living next to Lake Tahoe for a time; I just sorta miss stuff). Like the San Luis and Merced refuges, The San Joaquin River NWR provides year-round habitat for the local native species (not just the birds), but in winter it is home for thousands upon thousands of Snow Geese, Ross's Geese, Aleutian Cackling Geese, Sandhill Cranes and many others.
The San Joaquin River NWR is notable for the role it has played in the recovery of the Aleutian Cackling Geese, a species that was down to around 300 individuals in 1963 (foxes had been introduced on the islands where they nested). Many of them winter at San Joaquin, and in recent years they have numbered in the tens of thousands. Thousands of Sandhill Cranes can also be found there.
There are two main ways to explore the San Joaquin River NWR. There is a wildlife viewing platform on Beckwith Road about 8 miles west of Modesto. It makes absolute sense that people wouldn't be allowed to tramp all over the fields where the birds eat and roost, so the platform offers a high viewing point, and when I was there, thousands of birds were visible. Mrs. Geotripper was kind enough to make her video available of thousands of birds swarming around the plowed corn crops that were grown to feed the birds. It may recall the incredible flight of the Snow Geese at the Merced NWRI posted the other day.
Our other exploration was much quieter and intimate. South of Highway 132 and off of River Road and Dairy Road, there is a recently constructed foot trail that winds through 4 miles of fields and river woodlands. The seasonal wetland had not been flooded yet (if it will be at all, given the drought), so the vast flocks of migratory birds weren't present. On the other hand, we had a chance to seek out the resident year-round species.
|White-tailed Kite (Elanus leucurus)|
|A Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia), perhaps?|
|Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus)|
|Egret in a tree at sunset|
We didn't arrive until around four o'clock in the afternoon, so the sun was sinking fast as we made our way back to the parking lot walking atop the levee that protects some of the regional farmlands from flooding. A thicket of trees and brush kept us from seeing very far, but the chirping and hooting told us that numerous birds were hiding there.
One last Redwing Blackbird greeted us as we got back to the car and headed home. The San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge will be on our list for further exploration if the rains ever come and replenish the grasslands!