Saturday, February 1, 2020

Pictorial Celebration of Wetlands Day: the Great Valley of California

Sunset at the San Joaquin River NWR near the Beckwith Road Viewing Platform
Before going any farther, please go over to Siera Nystrom's wonderful blog Natural History Journal for this excellent piece on World Wetlands Day, which is on February 2. She's delivered an excellent review about the meaning and value of wetlands to all of us.

Really! Go read it first!....okay, are you back now?
Snow and Ross's Geese taking flight at the San Joaquin River NWR
I wanted to add my own celebration of wetlands here at Geotripper because I happen to live adjacent to some of the most important wetlands in the world, and those wetlands are under attack. The Great Valley of California is to many a featureless plain 400 miles long that is covered by millions of acres of agricultural lands. That's true, but that reality obscures an even more important reality: the Great Valley is a critical and priceless link in the Pacific Migratory Flyway, and as such it provides shelter and food to millions upon millions of bird species who travel the region with the seasons.
Snow and Ross's Geese at the San Joaquin River NWR
95% of the original prairies and wetlands have been converted to agricultural development, but the 5% that remains includes critical habitat for these birds, preserved as a string of wildlife refuges and parks along the length of the valley. It's not enough, but over time as some farmlands are retired, the acreage for the birds slowly increases. There are a number of National Wildlife Refuges that I visit on a regular basis. The first, shown in the first four pictures above, is the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge.
Aleutian Cackling Geese and Snow Geese at the Beckwith Road Viewing Platform
The refuge has two principle areas where observations and exploration are possible: a viewing platform at the western end of Beckwith Road about 7 miles west of the town of Modesto, and the Pelican Trail, a 4.5 mile long loop trail along the San Joaquin River south of Vernalis and Highway 132. The principle attraction during the winter are the huge flocks of Aleutian Cackling Geese (much or most of the world's population of the species), and tens of thousands of Sandhill Cranes, Snow Geese, Ross's Geese, and Greater White-fronted Geese. The diverse environments within the refuges support nearly 200 species of birds along with the mammals, reptiles, fish, and amphibians that form the complex web of life along the rivers and marshes.
Merced NWR at Sunset


The other main complex is the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge, which has several units along the San Joaquin River south of Turlock. The refuge includes the main San Luis refuge and Tule Elk Preserve, along with Bear Creek Unit and the Merced National Wildlife Refuge.
Sandhill Cranes at the Merced NWR

The Merced Unit is home to well over 200 species of birds, which in winter includes tens of thousands of Sandhill Cranes and Snow/Ross's Geese. There is a six mile auto tour that allows visitors to see vast numbers of birds in seasonal and permanent ponds. We were there on Friday for a few hours and recorded nearly fifty bird species, including my first decent pictures of a Common Yellowthroat (not so common for me!).
Common Yellowthroat at the Merced NWR
Along most of the tour visitors remain in their vehicles, which thus act as a sort of blind. Because of this, birds often remain close to the road and it is possible to get some extreme close-ups of some very colorful birds like those seen below. There are also three short hiking trails where one can stretch legs and get a chance to hear the quieter and more well-hidden bird species.
Gadwall at the Merced NWR
The main part of the San Luis NWR has two major auto-tours and an extensive new visitor center, along with a variety of hiking trails. A major attraction is the Tule Elk compound, a square mile area where the elk are free to roam about. Visitors can follow a road that completely surrounds the compound.
Tule Elk at the San Luis NWR

The Tule Elk have a tortured history in California. They are a distinct subspecies of the elk clan, native to the state. They were one of the most abundant large grazers on the California prairie prior to the arrival of European colonists, with numbers estimated at about 500,000. They were hunted literally to oblivion, and when hunting of the elk was outlawed in 1873 they were thought to be already extinct. A small number, either two or four according to the story, were found on Henry Miller's ranch in the south San Joaquin Valley, and Miller undertook to protect them. They hovered near extinction for the next several decades, but preserves have been established around the state and the herd has reached a population of more than 5,000 individuals. They are still threatened by lack of  genetic diversity, given that they are all descended from a single pair or two.
American Wigeon
The second auto-tour at the San Luis NWR, the Waterfowl Route, is a fascinating journey through a land that closely resembles the primeval appearance of the Great Valley, with stretches that include open prairie, marshes, and riparian (river) habitats. We see all manner of raptors such as Northern Harriers, White-tailed Kites, Red-tailed Hawks, and Great Horned Owls. There are thousands of geese, swans, ducks and coots in the ponds and marshes, and we've seen Muskrats, River Otters, Raccoons, Deer, and Coyotes.
Ruddy Duck at the Merced NWR
There is a less traveled part of the San Luis NWR called the Bear Creek Unit, accessed off of Highway 165 south of Turlock and Hilmar. There is a short two-mile auto-tour and two trails, but birders have only made about 150 reports there compared to over 1,000 at the Waterfowl Route, and more than 2,000 at the Merced NWR.
Green-winged Teal at the Merced NWR
The ponds are often dry and the birding can be sparse, but when the ponds are full there are thousands of Red-winged Blackbirds, and it is the only reliable spot where I've found Yellow-headed Blackbirds. These birds are incredibly beautiful to photograph, but their call is not nearly so attractive. To me it sounds a lot like scraping metal!
Yellow-headed Blackbird at the Bear Creek Unit of the San Luis NWR
There are other areas throughout our region that I have not had a chance to explore yet, including the Great Valley Grasslands State Park, the Kesterson Unit of the San Luis NWR, the Los Banos Wildlife Management Area, and the Merced Vernal Pools and Grasslands Reserve. Life is so short!
American Avocet at the Merced NWR
Unfortunately, in the midst of a celebration of the diversity of life and an appreciation for the beauty to be found in our wetlands, there is a tragic reality: our government is in the hands of those who see protection of wetlands as an impediment to their quest for profits, and that government is actively seeking to destroy our precious remaining wetlands in the name of unconstrained development. They literally want to poison our water for the sake of monetary gain.
Great Horned Owl at the Merced NWR

You can read some of the details in this article, but here is the main takeaway...

This sickening gift to polluters will allow wetlands, streams and rivers across a vast stretch of America to be obliterated with pollution," ... "People and wildlife need clean water to thrive. Destroying half of our nation's streams and wetlands will be one of Trump's ugliest legacies. We'll absolutely be fighting it in court.
After so much that has been lost, especially here in California, and here in my home in the Great Valley, I am sickened at heart that men so craven have been allowed to destroy so much that is good. I hope you can appreciate the incredible legacy we have in our valley, and that you might become part of the fight to preserve the small parts that remain.
Sunset at the Bear Creek Unit of the San Luis NWR