Taking Refuge

Ross’s geese

It was my traditional first journey of the season, my annual solo trip in winter to witness one of the world’s great migrations of birds. The rain was heavy as I slowly moved my car along the muddy auto route at Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, in search of this year’s initial sightings of some of the two million geese, ducks, and other birds who travel from Alaska and Canada to spend the winter in California’s Central Valley. Mine was the only vehicle.

The frigid wind was so strong that the shallow ponds, just a few inches deep, had waves on them. The ducks of many species huddled in the reeds as a windbreak, barely visible. I saw just a handful of the geese this time that are often here by the thousands. Where were they?

Eager not to miss their fly-off at dusk with the sound of thousands of wings beating together at once, I headed north on the rural back roads, passing miles of flooded rice fields post-harvest, scanning in all directions. And there they were—snow geese.

I parked on the shoulder. The wind and the rain pelting the roof and windshield this time were blasting from the other side of the car, so I could roll down the windows adjacent to the field. This sound is everything, and I bundle in warm layers so I can turn off the engine with the windows down. I listened to the chorus of countless white geese. Tears filled my eyes in the company of such beauty, again. And in a great whir of wings as the light faded, family groups took off to feed for the night.

It is this moment, this silent witnessing of yet another miracle of nature, that comes to mind now when I think of my year away from this blog. It has been a time of change and reflection, a time of looking inward, of maintaining equanimity during this difficult time in the world.

I’m returning to share my photos and musings on this blog. I’m touched that some of you noticed my absence and reached out in concern. I’m in good spirits.

As always, I welcome your feedback in the comments.

Wind and Wings

Snow geese near Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge

In early December each year, I head off for a solo retreat. I drive to see some of the millions of geese and ducks in the wetlands of their winter home, the wildlife refuges and agricultural fields of California’s Central Valley.

This is a different kind of nature experience than I usually seek out. The setting is ordinary—agricultural fields, highways and dirt roads. There’s often a strong wind that chills to the bone whether it’s rainy or sunny. I barely leave the car to avoid scaring the flocks into flight, and when I do park on the shoulder, I’m careful not to step in the concrete-like mud that can glue itself for days to my shoes.

The journey is about the birds, a spectacle of thousands of them all around me. Their honks and quacks are audible long before they’re visible. Up close, their wings whir like thunder when a flock of snow geese takes to the air all at once. The whole experience leaves me teary-eyed and breathless with wonder.

A late start meant I missed the sunset at Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, when snow geese typically take wing en masse heading to the surrounding rice fields to feed, and other birds fly in for the night. Just as it got dark, I decided to drive the six-mile auto route anyway before the staff locked the gate for the night. Blasting the heat with the windows rolled down, I could hear the honking of invisible geese in the air. I switched off the engine and just listened in the darkness. It’s a sound I crave all year during their absence, and there was something magical about hearing it for the first time this season in darkness.

I spent the night at a motel in Willows and climbed into the car in the rain before dawn. It was 47 degrees, about 20 degrees above what it can be when it’s clear. I arrived at the refuge and awaited the return of the geese at sunrise. Only they didn’t come that day, a first in my experience.

Eventually in full daylight, I meandered slowly down the dirt road watching the many species of ducks emerge from their evening resting spots. Bundled up in my thermals and layers, I opened the windows. For the first time in my years of morning visits at the refuge, I could hear the ducks’ calls that are typically drowned out by the chattering geese. It was a sweet, soft chorus. I smiled coming around the bends and greeting the species I hadn’t seen since last year.

Where were the geese? I would have to explore the backroads and look for them.

I took off in search of the snow geese, white-fronted geese and tundra swans, driving the backroads and stopping on the shoulder for whatever surprises greeted me on the way. I love these discoveries, the mix of knowing that something amazing will show up, just not knowing what.

At 8:00, the temperature had risen a single degree to 48. I’d been up for three hours. The wind was blasting now, whistling against the car even with the windows closed. A bald eagle on the ground took flight, working hard as it flapped in the wind and drizzle. A kestrel was wobbling on a wire, barely able to hang on. The horizon was full of distant geese aloft and on the move.

The sky opened up with rain in earnest as I slowly drove down Road Z in anticipation. And there were birds I always seek out, in their usual spot feeding and resting in the flooded field near some rice silos—tundra swans, this time in the company of ducks and white-fronted geese. I rolled down the window to listen to them cooing and put my binoculars up to my eyes. Immediately I was pelted in the face with rain so I leaned over to keep it to a drizzle. And then… thousands of snow geese flew in, circling and cackling away as they descended into the water with the swans. I turned the car around to watch instead through the passenger window, letting my belongings get wet instead of me.

The roaring in this video made on my older generation camera is the sound of the wind masking the more appealing sound of the geese.

Snow geese flying above tundra swans and ducks

I decided to take one more spin through Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge before my drive home. The visitor center staff, who have come to know me, explained that the geese typically spend the day in the refuge only when it’s sunny and prefer the farm fields when it’s overcast and rainy.

I drove the auto tour route again, well under the speed limit of 15, and looked upward for raptors. A soggy peregrine falcon was perched just above me. Further along, I saw a distant dark triangle in a tree, looking like a kite that had gotten stuck. Once I used my binoculars, the kite became a red-tailed hawk, spreading its wings and tail out to dry. There were multiple raptors in that position along the route, soaked from the earlier downpour and unable to fly until they dried out.

Turkey vulture drying wings in Sac Refuge 12-2015
Turkey vultures in Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge

I was a little sad when I pointed the car toward the freeway to head home. I drove across the overpass and as I descended before the entrance to I-5 South, in the field in front of me was an enormous flock of snow geese. I stopped on a pull-off and made the short video that’s posted at the top of this post. I couldn’t imagine a better way to end this year’s birding retreat.

Snow geese photo by Len Blumin
Photo of snow geese by Len Blumin, used with permission

I don’t know why being with these birds draws me so irresistibly. I only know that I am deeply moved by their company. My homing instinct brings me every winter on my own rejuvenating migration.

Len Blumin’s stunning bird photography can be found at his Flickr photostream.


The Long Journey of 4EZ

Photo by Mitchell Yee

Mitchell and I headed to the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge recently, the first visit of the season to the epicenter of migratory waterfowl. Every year I thank my lucky stars for the fact that after a couple hours in the car, I can be in the middle of one of nature’s spectacular events—the great migration of more than a million geese and ducks that spend the winter in this one spot in California’s Central Valley.

On this trip we were extra lucky, spotting the single Ross’s goose in the throng that had been tagged with a neck band. With our binoculars we could read the tag clearly: 4EZ.

We were beside ourselves wondering what her story was. After hours exploring the refuge and taking in the chorus of honking and quacking, we stopped in at the refuge headquarters to tell them about our sighting. They were also excited and asked us to describe the band.

Mitchell showed them the image on his camera. The ranger looked up the blue background and white lettering to determine that the goose had been banded in the Queen Maud Gulf area of Canada. She explained how geese are tagged when they are adolescents, not old enough to fly away when they are corralled with other young birds but big enough to be safely banded.

A refuge volunteer showed us Queen Maud Gulf on a wall map so we could see where 4EZ had come from.

We reported our sighting on the US Geological Survey’s tracking website. Staring at the image of this map, I am struck now as I was then by how extraordinary such a migration is for 4EZ. After summering and presumably breeding on the tundra near the Arctic Circle, she flew more than 2,500 miles to this wintering ground. And in a few months she will do it again in the opposite direction.

I am in awe contemplating the countless birds that have made this journey year after year and will continue to take to the air across great distances. Or course I’ve known since I was a child that birds migrate based on weather patterns and available food, but there is something about tracking a single bird’s journey that has reawakened the wonder of it for me. May 4EZ have a safe journey back to the tundra in the spring.

For information about visiting Sacramento Wildlife Refuge:


Bird Extravaganza in California’s Central Valley

Every year from November through March, millions of migratory birds winter in California’s Central Valley. The Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge alone is the winter home for three million geese and one million ducks, nearly half of the birds on the Pacific Flyway. For the last few years, I have been visiting the refuges and the surrounding rice fields, flooded after the harvest, where many of the birds feed to take it all in. The sound of all that honking and quacking alone is amazing, and when a flock of thousands of snow geese takes flight at once… well, see for yourself in this video by Mitchell and make sure you have your sound turned on.

Here are some photos from our trips over the past couple of years, with captions identifying the species, followed by another video recorded two days ago during the spring breeding season.

All photos and videos by Mitchell Yee

Northern pintail

Cinnamon teal

Northern shoveler

Snow geese lifting off from their feeding zone in a flooded post-harvest rice field

Western meadowlark

Cooper’s hawk

Mitchell and I went back out to Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge a couple days ago, the first time we have gone in the spring. It was incredible to see the place in a different season.

For one thing, we weren’t buried in thick layers in temperatures just above freezing, a welcome change. And the brown grasses and leafless trees have come to life in all their shades of green. We got to see the birds that stay all year in the breeding season–everybody is paired off, the male waterfowl are in their bright colors, and the silence of winter for songbirds has transformed into the music of birdsong.

Our recent trip included a photography outing with a ranger. He took us to a couple parts of the refuge that aren’t otherwise open to the public, and we got to see a nesting pair of bald eagles. The male flew right above us.

After the guided tour was over, Mitchell and I went on our own on the auto tour, where you have to stay in your car. Because the birds don’t associate vehicles with people, they aren’t alarmed and therefore you can get quite close to them. Unlike the winter season when the place has many visitors observing the overwintering birds, that day we had the entire place to ourselves. We were fortunate to stumble upon an elusive bird that is quite hard to see hidden in the reeds, and even observed it booming in its spring call. Check out this American bittern.

Nature continues to amaze and inspire. All you have to do is be there for the show.