The Stone Lakes National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), located south of Sacramento, California, lies within the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta, the destination of thousands of migrating waterfowl, shorebirds, and other water birds. The refuge was established in 1994 and is one of the few urban refuges that have the potential to attract and educate thousands of visitors in a region that is becoming the new Silicon Valley of California1.
With acquisition of its first land in 1994 Stone Lakes NWR was officially designated the 505th unit in the National Wildlife Refuge System. It joined the ranks of other local land management projects, including the Cosumnes River Preserve to the south and the Vic Fazio Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area to the west, which have similar goals of protecting and enhancing imperiled Central Valley fish and wildlife habitats.
The approved refuge boundary for Stone Lakes NWR — the area within which the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) is authorized (depending on willing landowners) to acquire, protect, and manage land — is 17,640 acres. Within the approved boundary, the FWS owns or manages 6,550 acres. Another 5,000 acres are already owned by Sacramento County and several state agencies2.
What these maps don’t show is the lurking problem of a wildlife refuge located in a fast growing urban area. Located in the San Joaquin-Sacramento Delta and the 100-year floodplain, the Stone Lakes NWR provides vital feeding and resting grounds for migratory birds on the Pacific Flyway and protects habitats that are rapidly disappearing in California’s Central Valley: grasslands, wetlands, riparian, oak forest, and agricultural lands.
In the 10 years since the refuge was established, nearby Sacramento and its surrounding counties have grown at staggering rates—up to 20 percent annually. As what was once open country around the refuge lands fills with tract houses and strip malls, Stone Lakes NWR is struggling to connect its isolated parcels and acquire that planned total acreage of 17,640 acres3.
Note that large area of conservation easement located on the northeast boundary of the refuge in the above map. What looks like about a third of that section inside the refuge boundary is under private ownership. In 1999, a 460 acre subdivision was built on that property consuming a large portion of valuable wildlife habitat. You will also note that the City of Elk Grove directly abuts the eastern refuge border.
To counter this threat of urban sprawl, Stone Lakes NWR has built partnerships with other agencies, conservation groups and many of its farming neighbors. One of the most important aspects of this urban refuge is educating the public about wildlife, plants, habitat and ecology. Blue Heron Trails, located at the refuge headquarters, provides accessible year-round trails for visitors and school groups along restored wetlands and upland habitat just minutes outside the city.
The refuge offers environmental education to school classes of all ages for hands on learning. Along Blue Heron Trails are eight environmental education panels on four kiosks (two panels on each kiosk), each with a different theme. The panels are aligned with the State of California Education and the Environment Initiative (EEI) for grades K-6, and incorporated into the “Bee” the Biologist’ program and field journal activities.
They also have a brand new amphitheater which stands ready for special events and educational activities.
On the day I visited the refuge there was a brisk wind blowing across the open grassland at Blue Heron Trails but I was able to spot some of their more obvious wildlife visitors like the Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) that were conspicuous in the bulrush around the ponds.
There was a closed section adjacent to one of the walking paths as one of the very helpful volunteers at the visitor center explained to me that there was a nesting Cinnamon Teal in that area.
If you visit National Wildlife Refuges you will likely have seen the “area closed sign” before but this is the first time I have seen the “Birds Only” sign and it put a big smile on my face 😉
Nearly invisible along the shore of one of the waterways I spotted a Wilson’s Snipe (Gallinago delicata)
Although there is plenty to see and do at the Blue Heron Trails headquarters of Stone Lakes NWR, the vast majority of the refuge can only be seen by docent led weekend excursions. In the fall and through the spring, several free special docent or staff led walks are offered on the weekends along seasonal wetlands in normally restricted areas. This is a great opportunity to enjoy the migratory birds, learn about your wild neighbors, and get the family outdoors. You can find out more about these “special events” on their Events Calendar page. At the time of this posting, there were two docent guided walks, an outdoor festival and a paddle tour!
For more information on Stone Lakes National Wildlife Refuge you can visit their home page. They have an excellent website with information about all their upcoming activities. You can also download their general brochure or the Stone Lakes NWR bird list.