Spending a day feeding the ducks and geese that inhabit area parks and the Stanislaus State campus is a popular pastime, but serious birders should head to the Merced National Wildlife Refuge which is host to the largest wintering populations of Lesser Sandhill cranes and Ross’s Geese along the Pacific Flyway.
The refuge stretches across 10,258 acres of wetlands, native grasslands, vernal pools and riparian areas and is a great place for locals to visit—specifically from fall through winter.
“Many people have lived in the area their entire lives and have never been to the refuge,” said Madeline Yancey, park ranger with San Luis NWR Complex. “Their reaction once they go is that they can’t believe what they’ve been missing; it’s really just spectacular.”
The Merced NWR is one of the three refuges that make up the National Wildlife Refuge Complex, with the San Luis Reservoir and the San Joaquin River being the others.
It was established in 1951 under the Lea Act because the wintering waterfowl were causing crop damage to adjacent farmland. This was a successful effort to attract the wildlife to the refuge.
The Merced NWR has nearly 20,000 cranes using the refuge during these colder months, making it a true winter phenomenon.
“It’s probably our most popular time for wildlife refuges in the valley all the way up to early spring, it’s a sight to see,” said Yancey. “A lot of people come to enjoy it for the day and bring a picnic lunch.”
National wildlife refuges are managed for wildlife first.
Theodore Roosevelt, American President, outdoorsman, naturalist and leader of the early conservation movement, put into perspective the importance of refuges not only for the crops but for the many species that they host.
“Wild beasts and birds are by right not the property merely of the people who are alive today, but the property of unknown generations, whose belongings we have no right to squander,” Roosevelt said.
Yancey agrees with Roosevelt’s sentiment, adding that one of the most important reasons for having a refuge is to protect the biological diversity of the species and animals that depend on the habitat to survive, as without it they would fail to exist.
Although extinction would be realistic she also understands that humans are, in a way, in as much of a need for the refuge as the wildlife.
“There is a need for open space,” said Yancey. “People need to get away from man made things and have a place where they can connect with nature, whether that’s plants or animals, to observe things or to have quiet time, reflective time… So it’s just as important for people.”
The Merced National Wildlife Refuge is open from dusk to dawn and is a great place to plan a trip.
“The refuge has so many recreational uses, there’s nature photography, waterfowl hunting and interpretation in the form of a tour or an event led by a staff member that can explain what it is you’re seeing,” said Yancey.
Wildlife viewing provides visitors many different ways to observe the wildlife complete with an auto tour route with three nature trails. Information kiosks are set up along the way to help with interpretation that Yancey says allows visitors to understand the importance of valley wildlife.
Contact the San Luis NWR Complex Headquarters and Visitor Center to find out what events are coming up and to request a tour guide at the Merced location.
Yancey advises visitors to bring binoculars or a spotting scope, a camera and bug spray as sometimes mosquitoes can be a problem.
“They should dress warm because it’s usually chilly and rainy during the fall,” she said. “But I’ve never had someone tell me they didn’t enjoy their visit, their only regret is not seeing it sooner.”