By Bob Lewis
February is a great time to explore the refuges in the Central Valley, and Merced National Wildlife Refuge is especially interesting right now. The Bay Area Birds class that I co-teach with Rusty Scalf finished up the quarter with a weekend visit. A check with the ranger at the refuge revealed that there are 35,000 Snow and Ross’s Geese currently present. The majority are Ross’s Geese, spending the winter in the corn fields grown on the refuge specifically to feed the waterfowl. They’ll shortly depart for Northern Canada and their nesting grounds. We had a chance to observe some White-fronted and Cackling Geese too, but their numbers are dwarfed by the white geese.
Mixed in with the geese are majestic Sandhill Cranes, mostly just taking advantage of the food in the fields, but a few are beginning to “dance,” bouncing on their long legs and flaring their wings – establishing or renewing pair bonds. They’ll also soon be heading north to their nesting grounds. Some of the Greater race nest in Sierra Valley, where our Birds of the Sierra class gets to observe the rusty-colored chicks with their parents.
Not to be forgotten are striking White-faced Ibis. They’re in their non-breeding plumage now, but in March they’ll get their white faces. Even in their less striking plumage, the green iridescent wing coverts contrast with their red-brown body plumage, adding to the already notable image of a large bird with a decurved bill. They feed along the marsh edges, probing for worms, insect larvae and snails.
Add to the list raptors (including Swainson’s Hawk and Bald Eagle), ducks (all three species of teal) and shorebirds (Wilson’s Snipe) all wintering in the refuge and a variety of residents like Marsh Wren, Bushtit and blackbirds and Merced Refuge is really worth a visit!
Our class list is on EBird at ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S21868063.
Directions and information about the refuge are at fws.gov/refuge/merced/.
Bob Lewis, a Golden Gate Audubon board member and chair of the Education Committee, will co-teach Birds of the Bay Area again in the fall. There are still spaces available in the first session of his Birds of the Sierra class, which takes place over a three-day period in June in the Sierra. Click here for information on the Sierra class.