Sandhill Cranes at Merced National Wildlife Refuge photo by Rick Lewis, used with permission

The Merced National Wildlife Refuge plays host to the largest wintering populations of Lesser Sandhill Cranes and Ross’s Geese along the Pacific Flyway. Each autumn more than 20,000 cranes and 60,000 arctic-nesting geese terminate their annual migrations from Alaska and Canada to make the Refuge home for six months. Here they mingle with thousands of other visiting waterfowl, waterbirds, and shorebirds – making the Refuge a true winter phenomenon1.

This refuge, part of the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Complex, encompasses 10,258 acres of wetlands, native grasslands, vernal pools, and riparian areas. It was established in 1951 under the Lea Act to attract wintering waterfowl from adjacent farmland where their foraging activities were causing crop damage. In the last few decades, changes in local agricultural practices and Refuge management activities have reduced these wildlife/crop issues1. Click on photos for full sized images.

Merced NWR

Merced National Wildlife Refuge is located in the San Joaquin Valley of Northern California, just southwest of the city of Merced. About 110 miles south of the state capitol Sacramento, the refuge lies between interstate highway 5 and highway 99.

The Merced NWR features an interpretive auto tour route, three nature trails, and two elevated observation platforms to view and learn about wildlife. The Refuge hosts many tours and several special events throughout the year including the annual Crane Day in the fall and Arena Plains Vernal Pool and Wildflower Day in the Spring.

Merced National Wildlife Refuge Map

My tour of Merced National Wildlife Refuge began at San Luis NWR back in September. They had just begun flooding the wetlands but there were birds to see for my year list that I had not seen anywhere else.

The sign pictured above greets you at the parking area where there is an observation platform and other signage explaining the loss of wetlands and the reason the myriad species come to the refuge.

A Haven and a Home

This is the view from the observation platform…

Merced NWR

And the beginning of the five mile auto tour route.

Merced NWR Auto Tour

The interpretive panels on the auto tour route were excellent, not only highlighting groups of species found on the refuge but explaining what’s involved in management of those species and the habitats they require.

Merced NWR Marsh Signage

The first groups of birds I saw were a mixture of shorebirds, White-faced Ibis and a few ducks.

Shorebirds Merced NWR

They were soon joined by more White-faced Ibis flying in from another marshy area nearby.

White-Faced Ibis in Flight

At one point along the backside of the auto loop, I came upon a large clustering of Red-winged Blackbirds, White-faced Ibis, and Cattle Egrets, a species that had not yet been placed on my 2013 year list!

White-faced Ibis, Red-winged Blackbird and Cattle Egr

I snapped a few photos of the Cattle Egrets as they flew off…

Cattle Egret in Flight

And there was also a small squadron of American White Pelicans circling overhead.

American White Pelican in Fligh

More interpretive signage along the auto tour route explained the importance of water management…

Merced NWR Managing Water

And the seasonal changes relating to water usage on the refuge.

Merced NWR Seasonal Changes

I spotted a few Black-necked Stilts in the shallow water…

Black-necked Stilt

As well as another foraging White-faced Ibis.

White-faced Ibis Foraging

Unfortunately I was unable to check out any of the walking trails due to the lateness of the day but there is a viewing platform and picnic table near the Bittern Marsh Trailhead..

Observation Platform Bittern Marsh

Where you could enjoy a brief meal with beautiful views while listening to the sounds of nature.

Observation Platform View

I leave you with a video shot by photographer Michael Frye’s wife Claudia of the evening fly-in to Merced National Wildlife Refuge.

References: 1Merced National Wildlife Refuge

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