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Sacramento National Wildlife Complex – a Birding Paradise

The annual mass migration along the Pacific Flyway is in full swing by Thanksgiving.  Over 1.5 million ducks, geese, and other waterfowl pass through the Sacramento National Wildlife Complex or stop to claim it for their winter home.

Snow geese may be the stars of the show.  A brilliant white, they flash black wingtips when they take flight.  More than a quarter of a million make the long journey from Siberia, Alaska and the Canadian arctic, flying night and day, resting in British Columbia and Washington.  After another rest along the Klamath River, they settle for the winter in the flooded ponds of the complex.

They are joined by hundreds of thousands of ducks, grebes, herons, egrets, ibis, cormorants, pelicans, gulls, and shorebirds. 

If you are driving on I-5 through the Sacramento Valley, make a short detour between Maxwell and Willows to visit the Sacramento NWR.  Stretch your legs along the 2-mile hiking trail or take the leisurely 6-mile driving tour.

We cruised slowly along the driving tour.  Northern harriers glided low over the marshland searching for voles and ground squirrels.  Jack rabbits scurried through the high grass.  Hawks rested in the trees contemplating their next easy meal. Turkey vultures circled overhead.

We stopped at a viewing area where thousands of snow geese rested in a pond.  A small cluster got spooked, and it quickly spread.  Honking and chattering, they rose en masse in thrilling chaos, filling the sky.  Gradually they circled and returned to feed and relax in their pond.

You can make a day of birding with a drive through the Valley between I-5 and the Sacramento River visiting some of the other four refuges of the complex. Colusa NWR, east of Williams, is spectacular.  We spotted dozens of night herons perched in the bushes along the 3-mile driving tour and a great horned owl from the hiking trail.

Winter rains will soon be filling the marshes of the wildlife complex and the Valley’s rice fields.  The birds will keep coming and stay into February.  It’s a good time to enjoy this amazing wildlife spectacle.


Walkabout California – connecting with the natural world through travel, outdoor adventure, and hiking inn-to-inn.  Savor the journey and the destination. Click here for California inn-to-inn hiking guides.


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