Saturday, December 15, 2018

The Hunters' Mercy: Merced National Wildlife Refuge

November 2015, A cloud of Snow Geese

Date: November 24, 2018
Place: Merced National Wildlife Refuge, Merced, California
Address: 7430 W. Sandy Marsh Rd. Merced
Length: all three foot trail loops are under a mile and very easy. The car tour route is about 3 miles long, and is a one way loop.

Once Upon A Time the California Central Valley was a rich wetland teeming with wildlife and a home to countless birds that would darken the sky when taking to the air. It was the winter home of many migrant species that flew over from the North. It was as also the home and hunting grounds of the local Native California people.
Modern settlement changed all that. Seen as useless swamps, the wetlands were eliminated. The rivers flowing down from the mountains were dammed, the let through water was trained into s system of canals, and the rich peat soil drained and made arable. The Native people were removed or killed, and the animals hunted, some extinction. Within a few decades of modern human activity all the  richness and splendor of the California Central Valley was gone forever.
Ironically, the first wildlife refuge areas in the Valley were preserved by the hunters clubs. Now there is more awareness of the need for preservation and the National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) system, as well as the State's preserves are maintaining a life line for wildlife in the Valley and a place for migratory birds to be in winter.
Long-billed Curlew, 2016

Ever since we discovered the NWR system when chance led us to Colusa NWR we never miss an opportunity to explore these nature gems. One of our best finds is the Merced Unit of the San Luis NWR, near the city of Merced. I've been planning to write a post about this refuge ever since our first visit there but only now came around to do it, so this post has now photos from four separate visits.

So far we visited the Merced NWR four times, all during the week of Thanksgiving, late in the month of November. Depending on the start of the rains that year, the place was either brown or green with new growth.
The Merced NWR does not have its own visitor center. There's a parking lot at the refuge's entrance, and an observation deck looking out over a flooded pond of shallow water and wetland vegetation. Naturally, this observation deck is the first place we go to when visiting the refuge.
View from the observation deck at the refuge's entrance. 2015

The most common bird year round in the refuge (and seems everywhere in California) is the American coot. It is so common that Pappa Quail doesn't really bother to photograph them anymore. Still, even now and then he makes an exception.
American Coot, 2015
A bit less noticeable is the common gallinula (formerly moor hen), a relative of the coot. Gallinulas can often be seen where coots are but take a more careful observation to see.
Common Gallinula, 2016

Yet harder to see are the little sore, about half the size of a coot and much less likely to swim out in the open. This shy bird prefers to hide among the tule and cattails. With enough patience, we do see them from that observation deck of the Merced refuge. 
Sora, 2018

Another shy bird that we see in this spot more frequently than anywhere else is the Wilson's snipe. It's unique stripe pattern camouflages it very well in the wetland vegetation. The elder chika, however, has the sight of a hawk and she always finds them.
Wilson's Snipe, 2018

After spending a good amount of time looking down from the observation deck we usually go hiking on one or both the little loop trails that begin across the parking lot from the observation deck.
The weeds were brown or green depending on the rainfall up to the time of our visit, but the trees were all turning leaf or completely bare by them.
The short hikes at the refuge provide an excellent opportunity to stretch the limbs after a long drive, and also to see wildlife. Rabbits are a common sight there.
Cottontail, 2016

The meadowlark Trail is an easy loop along a row of poplars and a flat field, and bordering another field that is flooded seasonally.
Meadowlark Trail, 2016

The trail is of gravel, which makes a perfect background for the killdeer. We spot them by movement and by their calls. When perfectly still they are pretty much invisible.
Killdeer, 2015

In the flooded field we saw mostly the common water fowl: coots, mallards, and an occasional ibis. Pappa Quail hardly bothers to photograph them anymore.
I take in the scenery and sometimes find a plant that is blooming, even so late in fall.

The Kestrel loop trail also starts (and ends) at the entrance parking lot. It is shorter than the Meadowlark Trail, and also flat and easy.
Kestrel Trail, 2016

The trail goes by a small creek which was completely dry on each of our visits. The tall bushes and dry fennel were teeming with little bush birds such as sparrows and warblers. 
Yellow-rumped Warbler, 2016

Fly catchers were overseeing the parking lot area, perched on thin bare branches.
White-crowned Sparrow (left) and Black Phoebe (right). 2018

Another type pf fly catcher, the Say's phoebe, perched on a pole at a respectful distance from its cousin, the Black phoebe.
Say's Phoebe, 2018

After thoroughly exploring the parking lot area with the observation deck and the little loop trails we go on the auto tour. It is a 3-mile one way loop around the flooded areas. Most of the waterfowl and other avian attractions are seen along the auto tour.
White-faced Ibis, 2016
The water isn't the only place to look for for water-loving birds, of course. As we drove slowly along the gravel road we were looking for birds in flight as well.
Belted Kingfisher, 2014

The flooded ponds are emptier in mid-day when many of the birds go to feed in the surrounding fields. The mirror-calm water make a very pretty sight. 

The water in these flooded fields is very shallow. Enough for short-legged shore birds to wade and forage. 
Dowitcher, 2015

But even the larger fowl are attracted to the water. I don't know if these ponds are stocked but apparently there are enough fish there to feed many. 
American White Pelican, 2015
Side road split off the main path, but all of them are off limits to the general public. Keeping watch on one of these signs - a northern mockingbird. Simple to look at but a marvelous singer. 
Northern Mockingbird, 2016
On our first visit there we noticed a siege of sandhill cranes. They were to far. Later on we got to see them more closely, though not in this unit of the refuge. 
As the car turns around the dirt road the Sierra Nevada range comes into view. On 2016 snow was already apparent on the high peaks. 
Sierra Nevada, 2016
Geese are very common in this refuge, and many wintering species fill the ponds. 
White-fronted Geese, 2016
Of the wintering goose species, the most striking in appearance are the snow geese.  Especially when in large gaggles. 

On our second visit at the refuge as we were driving toward the second observation deck, the elder chika gave a sudden cry that made us stop and look in the direction she was pointing at. There we saw a Virgina rail wading just outside the cattail line.  Rails aren't easy to see, and we're always excited whenever they grace us with appearance. The elder chika is particularly fascinated with rails ever since she'd seen her first on at the Humboldt Bay NWR two years before.  Every since then we took for the rai each time we drive past that spot. 
Virginia Rail, 2015

When arriving at the refuge late in the day we get to see the birds prepare to roost for the night. 
Great Egret, 2016

Whether solitary or in groups, the roosting birds are always fascinating to see. 
The saying goes that birds of a feather stick together but in the image below there are actually four different species of birds: starlings, Brewer's blackbirds, red-winged blackbirds, and try-colored blackbirds. This can be seen only after enlarging and manipulating the image's levels, and the result, while recognizable, isn't very pretty.  

Alone on its tree - a red-shouldered hawk looking at us curiously. Its work was done for the day. 
Red-shouldered Hawk, 2018

The most common raptor there is the red-tailed hawk, but I never get tired of seeing and admiring these magnificent birds. 
Red-tailed Hawk, 2015

Our visits to the refuge are focused on birds but every now and then I take a moment to appreciate other nice views in the park. This photo was taken in mid-day when most birds were away, foraging. 


And flying from one field to another - a small flock of Ross' geese, white as the snow geese but smaller and with smaller beaks. 

Ross's Goose, 2016

The geese favorite hangout place is in the shallow pond near the end of the auto tour. There they cover the water like a white, noisy carpet. 


Every now and then they take to the air all together. Perhaps scared by an eagle or because of another reason, either way it is a magnificent sight! 
Around the corner there is a parking lot and another observation deck. There we stop to take another close look at the birds in the pond. 

There is also the Cottonwood trail, another small and easy loop trail. We hiked it twice, not seeing anything particularly special, but still happy to stretch our limbs after the slow drive along the auto path. 

Cottonwood Trail, 2018

Then again, interesting thinks can be seen even on a short side trail. 

A small hunter we saw on that trail on our first visit there - the loggerhead shrike that likes to impale its victims on thorns and barbs. 
Loggerhead Shrike, 2014

We didn't plan to go hiking there on our last visit. Pappa Quail and the elder chika went to the observation deck and I remained near the car to stay close to the younger chika who was too tired to get out. I leaned against the car and watched a few people come out of the hiking trail. Two of them pointed at a faraway tree and said that there was an owl there. I called Pappa Quail and within less than a minute he and the elder chika zoomed past me and hurried down the path to look at the owl. 
The owl looked at them too :-) 
Great-horned Owl, 2018

As the light of day waned the parking lot filled with cars and people carrying binoculars, telescopes, and huge lens cameras, flocked at the observation deck. The sky filled with the loud cackling of cranes - it was the fly-in time.
Cranes feed in the harvested corn fields but they come to the flooded fields of the refuge to roost for the night where, standing in the water they are protected from land predators. We first saw this fly-in at the Sandhill Crane Festival in Lodi, and went back there several times to see it. This was the first time we've seen it in the Merced NWR.
Flock after flock they arrived, calling each other in loud voices. The darkening sky was full of movement and the air was vibrating with the crane calls. I took leave of my younger chika and went up to the observation deck, and I watched this magnificent sight of hundreds of cranes coming down for their night sleep.
Crane Fly-in, 2018

When darkness set in I returned to the car. Pappa Quail and the elder chika returned as well, happy with their owl sighting. Seeing everyone else filing down the observation deck we hurried to drive out before getting stuck in the birders' convoy. It was time now to fine a place for dinner and to head back home.