White-faced Ibis (Plegadis chihi) (click on photos for full sized images)
Sutter National Wildlife Refuge, the southern-most refuge in the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex, is located in the Sacramento Valley of California, about 50 miles north of the metropolitan area of Sacramento (map). The refuge consists of about 2,600 acres, primarily of wetland impoundments with some riparian and grassland habitat1. It is known to have the largest colonies of White-faced Ibis in the California Central Valley.
You will begin your exploration near the southern boundary of this refuge where recently opened walking trails leave a parking area with an informational kiosk. This is the view from the bridge over the waterway bordering the eastern side of the refuge.
This refuge is undoubtedly the least known of the Sacramento NWR Complex and is a real treasure if you enjoy hiking or walking. Over six miles of newly accessible trails are open from February 15th through June 30th offering a diversity of ducks and water birds in early spring, then as water is drawn down, migrating shorebirds are attracted to the mud flats to feed.
Cliff Swallows were all around the bridge and Tree Swallows were seen in great numbers searching for nest cavities along the tree lined waterway. The next most obvious inhabitants were large numbers of Double-crested Cormorants perched in several snags along the slough.
Double-crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus) Adults in Breeding Plumage and Juvenile (right)
As I made my way along the riparian trail I heard a Nuttall’s Woodpecker which I observed foraging in the oaks. I also found a few songbirds among the trees and bushes including Yellow-rumped Warblers, White-crowned and Golden-crowned Sparrows and Savannah Sparrows as well.
Savannah Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis)
As I was photographing the sparrow an American White Pelican unexpectedly flew overhead. Fortunately the pelican (in breeding plumage) made another pass.
American White Pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) in Breeding Plumage
This year the songbird migration seems to be coming late, however, I did seem to be surrounded by the loquacious House Wren, calling for a mate I imagine, to begin the nesting process.
House Wren (Troglodytes aedon) Singing
The mixed riparian forest habitat on the refuge is important for breeding and migrating passerine birds, and supports a large heron and egret rookery. Consequently I observed several Snowy Egrets and a few Great Egrets along the waterway.
Great Egret (Ardea alba) on the right with Snowy Egrets (Egretta thula) left in Breeding Plumage
There were also Great Blue Herons fishing the slough. This one thought it was hiding from me after perching in a tree.
Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias)
There were plenty of Turkey Vultures overhead riding the thermals and I saw an occasional Red-tailed Hawk circling above. I unexpectedly flushed this juvenile which flew to the other side of the slough.
Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) Juvenile
This is the view of the wetland impoundments from the levee road with the slough in the foreground…
and looking North from the other side of the slough to the Sutter Buttes looming above the wetlands.
A flock of White-faced Ibis join others already foraging one of the ponds…
and a mixed flock of Snow Geese and Greater White-fronted Geese take off from an adjacent impoundment.
This is what the mowed trails look like around the impoundments. Wide enough for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service vehicles to drive through.
On the way back to the bridge I spotted a group of American White Pelicans lounging in the sun on one of the islands.
Sutter National Wildlife Refuge typically supports wintering populations of more than 175,000 ducks and 50,000 geese1. Here a large mixed flock of geese are roused into flight from one of the ponds.
Probably the coolest thing I observed was a colony of Black-crowned Night-Heron that were hidden in a swampy, tree lined area between the ponds and the mowed trail. As I walked the trail I was looking for Wood Ducks in this area because it looked like a perfect habitat for them. Then I noticed movement in the trees.
Black-crowned Night-Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax)
Even though I was standing still and some of the birds were observing me, they would take off from their perches and circle the swamp, only to perch in another tree nearby.
It was a perfect way to end a beautiful walk in an undisturbed habitat. If you visit the Sacramento area between February 15th and June 30th, and you’re looking for an out of the way hike, I recommend Sutter National Wildlife Refuge.
Do you have a favorite National Wildlife Refuge in your area that you would like to share? We would love to hear about it! You know today, there are more than 550 national wildlife refuges across the country, with at least one in every U.S. state and territory. We would like to hear, first hand, about every single one of these magnificent refuges on our way to creating a Federal Wildlife Conservation Stamp.
References: 1U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service