The cancellation of the 2021 Snow Goose Festival, which would have been held last week, didn’t stop people from enjoying the experience of the local wildlife refuges.
While COVID-19 kept organized events at the refuges from occurring this year, the worldwide pandemic had no effect on the spectacular winter waterfowl migration in the Northern Sacramento Valley, nor the desire for birdwatchers and outdoor enthusiasts to visit their winter habitats.
The Colusa Refuge, and five others in the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex, have more than 10,000 total acres of wetlands, grasslands, and riparian habitat that attract hundreds of species of birds and other wildlife.
The Colusa refuge, as well as the SNWF headquarters, located south of Willows, have walking trails, auto trails, and viewing platforms for visitors to enjoy, and people have flocked there – more than usual – since the emergence of the pandemic exactly one year ago.
“Our visitor numbers are up more than three times,” said Lora Haller, visitors service manager, U.S. Fish and Wildlife. “It started last April, with people looking for places to go. They wanted outside, and they just found us.”
Millions of geese, ducks, swans, and other birds arrived this winter from as far away as the Arctic regions of Alaska, Canada, and Siberia, making the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuges the most important wintering spot along the great Pacific Flyway.
Both the Colusa and SNWR headquarters in Willows are part of the United States system of National Wildlife Refuges, and each has plenty of open space for the public to enjoy. Only the Visitors Center at the SNWF headquarters is shuttered to avoid the spread of COVID-19.
“One of the things we were missing during the pandemic, was missing out reaching our youngest audience,” Haller said. “Typically our littles kids could come into the visitor’s center and play with the stuffed animals, we would talk to them, and they could hear bird noises. But they are not able to do that with the visitor’s center closed.
Haller said as a way to entertain children, she discovered StoryWalk®, which are laminated book cutouts that are now posted along the walking trail at the SNWR, in Willows, for kids to enjoy.
“Some kids find it hard to focus on the auto tour,” she said. “Now they can read books on the walking trail. It’s a quarter mile loop.”
While the visitor center is closed, the auto trail, walking trail, viewing platforms, and public restrooms are open. Facial coverings are now required on federal property, as mandated through executive order by Pres. Joe Biden.
There is no charge to enter the Colusa Refuge. A $6 per car fee at the main headquarters is payable at the kiosk at the entrance to the refuge in Willows.
At the Colusa, Delevan, and Sacramento (Willows) refuges, duck and geese numbers peak in November and December. Snow and Ross’s geese, mallard, wigeon, teal, bufflehead, ruddy duck, and other species attract the attention of visitors daily.
On Friday, a group of five people, all members of the Golden Gate Audubon Society visited the local refuges.
It is an annual trek for the bidders, said Dawn Lemoine, of Alameda, and they try to come on a perfect day.
“We were watching the count and we were watching the weather,” Lemoine said. “It’s got to be a Friday, it’s got to be in the winter, and it has to be a day when it’s not raining.”
The group started out at the Sacramento Wildlife Refuge in Willows, before traveling to the Maxwell Cemetery to see the famous vermillion flycatcher, which has lived among the tombstones for five years.
The bright red male, which was first spotted at the cemetery in February 2016, is a favorite among birders, and is a legend among ornithologists.
“The bird has returned every winter, and they believe it has not outlasted his life expectancy,” Lemoine said.
At the Sacramento Refuge, the group was on the watch for owls, which turned out to be elusive on Friday, but they did spot a large number of eagles.
At the Colusa refuge, the group watched the snow and Ross’s geese, along with a variety of ducks, feeding on plants and insects under the surface of the water, often tipping completely upside down as they grabbed the delicacies of their choice.
Duck hunting for general adult hunters on the refuges closed Jan. 31. The Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge will host a post-season youth hunting event this weekend, and a junior spring turkey hunt in March. A special hunting event will also be held this month for veterans of military service.
To celebrate the end of the regular duck hunting season, five Colusa restaurants served duck dishes from Jan. 24-31. This was the first “Duck Week” event, organized by the City of Colusa.
For more information about the local refuges, which are open from dawn to duck, visit fws.gov/refuge/Sacramento/.♣