A red-tailed hawk swoops low, and 1,000 startled snow geese lift with a cacophony of honks and chatter. They ascend in disarray, filling the sky. Breathtaking chaos. Then they gradually assemble, circle, and return to their vernal pond.
Winter is the season to visit Colusa National Wildlife Refuge. On the Pacific Flyway, 66 miles north of Sacramento, 200,000 ducks and 50,000 geese pass through or claim the refuge for their winter home. The 4,686 acre refuge has a 1-mile hiking trail with two viewing platforms and a 3-mile driving loop, ideal for birding and photography.
We see dozens of species during our early January visit, but snow geese are the stars. Thousands rest in the ponds and along the shoreline. Brilliant white, they reveal black wingtips when taking flight. They leave their breeding grounds in Canada, Northern Alaska, and Siberia and start arriving in the Sacramento Valley in November. Their populations peek in January and February.
Duck populations peek in December and January. We see mallard, teal, wigeon, bufflehead, northern shoveler, pintail, and many other species. Egrets and herons wade in the shallows. Hawks rest in high branches, seemingly trying to decide what to have for lunch from the abundant buffet. Northern harrier glide low over uplands in search of mice and ground squirrels. Turkey vultures circle overhead as cliff swallows dart in the waning sunlight. Twenty night herons settle in to roost in the bushes along a slough while two deer stare at us as we slowly drive by.
If you are traveling through the Sacramento Valley, take a brief detour to the Colusa Refuge. It is 1 of 6 units of the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex. Rice fields throughout the valley are flooded by winter storms. Driving through the valley, we saw trumpeter swans swimming in the fields, sandhill cranes grazing, and bald eagles roosting in the trees.
Directions: Exit I-5 at Williams (#578) and take Hwy 20 east for 6.7 miles. Watch for the refuge sign and enter on O’Hair Road.