Okay, maybe not so wild.
California is home to over fifty National Wildlife Refuges, a large number of which are located in the central and north-central valley; one of the most important wintering areas for waterfowl in North America. The Bypasses offer thousands of acres as a haven (of sorts) for waterfowl, shorebirds, wading birds, migratory birds, as well as bats, turtles, toads, snakes, and other critters and creatures. I say a haven ‘of sorts’ because most have some acres blocked off during the October to January hunting season so that waterfowl hunters can ply their hobby.
We are lucky enough to live within one to three hours driving time to many of the larger refuges. I visit them often as I try to figure out my new telephoto lens and one of these days I’ll conquer it or at least the fear of it!
All of the refuges are worth a visit, but the Merced National Wildlife Refuge and the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Complex are by far the most interesting and have the most varied wildlife. So it was in just one day that I was able to visit both complexes since they are only about thirty miles apart. My early-morning drive of two and a half hours to the Merced area went without a hitch as I left early enough to avoid the dreaded commuter traffic on Highways 80 and 99. Being armed with a Vente Starbucks coffee helped considerably.
The Merced Wildlife Reserve was first on the docket as I arrived shortly after 8am. I was hoping to find local Turkey Vultures sunning and warming their wings like they were doing the last time I was there. Not so lucky this time; they were nowhere to be found except one lonely vulture hiding out in a tree. This is what I found a month or so ago (just in time for Halloween) as I pulled into the reserve:
They posed for me for a few minutes and then very slowly, one by one, flew away. I craved more shots of these beautifully ugly beings. I did get some close-ups, but as it turns out, they are much more delightful from this distance!
So this day was not to start out with the vulture Halloween fare, but rather a large contingent of Canadian and Snow Geese in a very loud gabfest, talking over each other and endlessly moving about. Except for one couple who only had eyes for each other.
I moved on around a bend and found four (count’em four!) Sandhill Cranes. I was hoping to find a larger flock, but had to settle for these few that were too far away to get a good shot.
The fields were well flooded so the requisite gazillions of ducks, stilts and other small waterfowl were happily feeding, flying, dozing, and chasing each other.
Then a few yards down the road, I happened on a lovely hawk posing on one of the information signs. He/she warily posed just long enough for me to get in a few shots.
A couple of hours spent at the Merced Reserve had me feeling like it was my lucky day. So many birds, so little time! I opted to move on to the San Luis Wildlife Complex about thirty miles to the west.
Yikes! I was surprised and dismayed to see that a controlled burn managed by the U.S. Fish & Wild Service had made the wildfowl viewing area unpassable. I understand and commend the service for controlling the habitat so as to avoid harmful wildfires, but did they have to be conscientious on this day? They actually would have let me drive through, but they also told me that I wouldn’t see much, possibly be dangerously inundated with smoke, and that I and my car would smell like smoke for days to come. I opted to listen to them and avoided the wildfowl area, but not before I stopped and took a couple of photos.
The San Luis Complex is also home to an enclosed Tule elk herd. The San Luis NWR has played a key role in the recovery of the Tule elk, a non-migratory elk subspecies found only in California. Prior to the mid-1800s, an estimated 500,000 Tule elk lived in California. Due to over-hunting and loss of natural habitat, they were driven nearly to extinction by the turn of the twentieth century – by some accounts, the population was reduced to as few as 20-30 individuals. In 1974 a herd of 18 animals was established in a large enclosure at the San Luis NWR and has since thrived. Elk from this herd are periodically relocated to join other Tule elk herds, or establish new ones, throughout California. The statewide Tule elk population has recovered to more than 4,000 animals.
Not too far into the elk area, I was pleased to see a small herd with two bull elk standing guard over a number of does grazing in a field. They were wary of the huge white SUV trundling along the gravel road, but as I stopped, turned off the engine and got out, they simply stood their ground and watched me. When I carried my monopod and camera closer, one of the bulls took a couple of steps toward me in a warning posture telling me to keep back. We both knew there was an extremely high and fortified fence between us, but I got the drift! The bulls posed for me while the does hid behind some trees.
What’s better than a handsome Tule bull elk? Two handsome fellas.
So the pain of being shut out of the wildfowl side of San Luis NWR was lessened considerably by the sighting and discussion I had with these beautiful Tule elk. All in all, a long drive and a day well spent.