|Great Blue Heron at the entrance to the San Luis NWR|
|San Luis National Wildlife Refuge from above. It lies on the floodplain of the San Joaquin River.|
Many people find the journey an arduous exercise in white-line fever, an endless flat region covered by millions of acres of orchards and fields of crops, or cattle stockyards, or used car lots on the edges of poor-looking towns. I'm willing to grant that it is often not a pretty sight. There is a reason that our cities often wind up last on the lists of "best places to live". Our skies are often the most polluted in the United States.
In the thirty years that I've lived here, I've come to discover a different Great Valley. It's the five percent of the valley that still retains the character of the land that existed before it was co-opted by agricultural development. It's a recurrent theme of my blogging adventures because each of these adventures expands my world just a little bit.
San Luis National Wildlife Refuge. The refuges range the length of the valley, providing winter sanctuary for migrating birds, but also providing a last stand for many native species of the valley from the smallest of bugs to the rodents and larger grazing animals to the largest remaining predators, the eagles, the hawks, the coyotes and foxes, and sometimes even mountain lions. The gigantic herds of Tule Elk and Bison have been gone for more than a century, although the elk are protected as a species in some of the refuges, including 60 of them at San Luis. Without the millions of grazing animals, the refuge managers allow limited grazing of the prairie by sheep and cattle to maintain the integrity of the grasslands. I imagined the scene above as a wolf patrolling the margins of a giant herd grazing elk, looking for a weak or sick individual to take down. The reality was the opposite, of course. The dog was watching over the sheep.
I don't see them often, but Mule Deer do inhabit the grasslands. We saw nearly a dozen of them today. I've mostly given up on trying to take decent pictures, but I really liked this one.
|Red-tailed Hawk at the San Luis NWR|
The stars of the refuge are the myriads of bird species that call them home. Some of them only stay for a few days or a few months as part of a long migration, while others stay year-round. Each refuge includes a wide range of habitats, including freshwater marshes, riparian areas (river channels), prairie grasslands, and alkali salt flats. The auto-tours at the refuge sample most of these environments, and several hiking trails are available as well.