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Merced National Wildlife Refuge
Ross and Snow geese dominate the scene in this flooded area at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge, both in the water and in the air. In lesser numbers in the water are the common coot, mallards, and wood ducks. - photo by ROSE ALBANO RISSO

Now is a perfect time to have a good eye-to-eye contact with many feathered friends that make themselves scarce outside of winter in the San Joaquin Valley.

But be warned. They are noisy. However, where they excess to the point of annoyance in verbal behavior, they more than make up for it in awe-inspiring plumage beauty and wonder.

We’re talking about the National Wildlife Refuge Complex in the San Luis, Merced, and San Joaquin River locations. Bird sightings mentioned in this story, however, refer only to the Merced National Wildlife Refuge where the accompanying observations and sightings were gathered over this past weekend.

With the 10,258 acres of wetlands at this complex fully flooded for the winged winter visitors, making their presence known by the tens, if not, by the hundreds of thousands are the Ross’ and Snow Geese, Cackling Geese, and Aleutian Cackling Geese. In lesser numbers are the Sandhill ranes, Northern Pintails, mallards, egrets, Long-billed Dowitchers, Lesser Sandhill cranes, pelicans, snipes, wood ducks, swans, and the common coot.

It’s the geese that pierce the silence with their cacophony of bird songs that is so unique to their species. When a flock of them decide to stretch their wings in the air, the whooshing sound they make add a level of sound that is like a refrain to their avian concert.

If you want to know their whereabouts in the refuge, let their sounds lead you to them. Or, alert your vision to what would look like a solid white concrete wall around the waters. That’s not a solid structure you are seeing. Get a little closer, or as close as the rules allow, or train your powerful camera lens and you won’t miss them.

Of equal visibility as the geese, mainly owing to their size, but are much less vocal are the Lesser and Greater Sandhill cranes. This is a great opportunity to watch the cranes perform mating dances which are a sight to behold. They jump and flap their wide wings as they dance around their mates to the music that they alone can hear.

All these feathered friends live in peaceful co-existence at this wildlife refuge, swimming and foraging for food in the same flooded areas.

These wildlife refuge areas are a haven for photographers and avid bird watchers. At the Merced Wildlife refuge, there is an observation platform where visitors can train their cameras and binoculars at an elevated level for better visibility. There is also a viewing telescope in place for a better close-up of the birds. The same amenities are available at the San Luis and San Joaquin River refuge complexes.

Don’t miss the Auto Tour route which not only brings you to more excellent vantage photographic points – there are observation points where you are allowed to get out of the car – as well as to trails where you can further explore on foot. You can choose from the Bittern Marsh Trail, the Cottonwood Trail, the Kestrel Trail, and the Meadowlark Trail.

The refuge is also family friendly. There is a picnic table with bench at the main entrance, plus a restroom facility nearby.

The refuge plays host to what is being considered as the largest wintering populations of Lesser Sandhill cranes and Ross geese along the Pacific Flyway, an ancient super-highway for birds stretching from northern Alaska south into Central and South America. The San Luis, Merced, and San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge complexes lie along this ancient bird-migration route which, according to historical accounts, at one time was used by flocks of ducks and geese so large that they darkened the sky.

If you want to explore avian nature such as those found at San Luis and Merced, but a little bit closer to Manteca, you can head down to the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge. Along the way, you can also explore wilderness at the Dos Rios Ranch.


San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge and the Dos Rios Project

The Dos Rios Ranch, located between the Tuolumne River Regional Park and the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge, is a 1,603-acre agricultural property west of Modesto owned by River Partners, a non-profit environmental group. River Partners, in partnership with the Department of Water Resources and other local, state and federal agencies, acquired Dos Rios to the tune of $21.8 million to develop a multi-phased project aimed at improving flood protection, increasing inundated floodplain, and restoring wildlife habited along the confluence of the San Joaquin and Tuolumne rivers.

A future phase of what is being called the Dos Rios project, is to improve habitat that will complement the habitat of the adjacent San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge –

To get to the Merced National Wildlife Refuge, take southbound Highway 99, exit at Highway 59 at the Martin Luther King Drive, and watch for the sign that directs you to the area. For further details, call 209.826.3508 or visit