Merced County Times Newspaper
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A look inside the Merced National Wildlife Refuge

WHAT’S THAT’S COLUMN

One of the benefits of living in Merced County is our access to wildlife refuges and wetlands that are located on the Pacific Flyway – which is the major north-south flyway for migratory birds in the Americas, extending from Alaska to Patagonia. Every year, migratory birds travel some or all of this distance both in spring and in fall, following food sources, heading to breeding grounds, or traveling to sites where they can wait-out the winter.

Any given bird species travels roughly the same route every year, at almost the same time.

Ornithologists and birdwatchers can often predict to the day when a particular species will show up in the area.

The first wildlife refuge that we want to write about is the Merced National Wildlife Refuge located on Sandy Mush Road about 20 miles from Merced.

The Merced National Wildlife Refuge encompasses 10,258 acres of wetlands and is part of the larger San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Complex. It consists of native grasslands, vernal pools, and  riparian areas. It was established in 1951 under the Lea Act and Migratory Bird Conservation Act to attract wintering waterfowl from neighboring farmland where their foraging activities were causing crop damage. The refuge hosts the largest wintering populations of lesser sandhill cranes and Ross’ geese along the Pacific Flyway. Each autumn as many as 20,000 cranes and 60,000 arctic-nesting geese terminate their annual migrations from Alaska and Canada to make the refuge their winter home. Wildlife is showcased from an auto tour route and four nature trails, which are open daily throughout the year for visitors.

The National Wildlife Refuge System is a series of lands and waters owned and managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Wildlife conservation is at the heart of the refuge system. Refuge units are actively managed to provide critical habitat for wildlife. Past changes to the northern San Joaquin Valley – loss of habitats and species, alterations to natural hydrology, and the introduction of exotic plants and animals – necessitates intensive natural resources management activities by the refuge.

National wildlife refuges offer us a chance to unplug from the stresses of daily life and reconnect with our natural surroundings. The refuge offers visitors a five mile auto tour route and four nature trails to observe and photograph wildlife. There is always something to see at the refuge, but certain times are better than others and the cast of nature’s characters changes with the seasons. No matter when you visit, bring your binoculars, camera – and your curiosity!  There is no fee to visit the auto tour route and nature trails.

Nature’s Calendar (Merced Wildlife Refuge)

November

  • Over 15,000 Sandhill cranes are in the Grasslands by Thanksgiving
  • Ross’ and white-fronted geese begin to arrive

December

  • Snow geese begin to arrive at Merced NWR
  • Swans may arrive in small numbers by month’s end
  • Watch for eagles, falcons, and Ferruginous Hawks
  • Black-tailed deer can be spotted at the San Luis NWR throughout the year, most often at the West Bear Creek Unit

January

  • Numbers peak for geese, cranes, and ducks
  • Wetlands fully flooded
  • Foggy weather prevails
  • Bald Eagles often observed hunting on refuges
  • Waterfowl hunting season ends

February

  • Tule elk bulls shed antlers
  • Great-horned owls hatching
  • Hawks exhibiting aerial courtship displays
  • Large numbers of wintering waterfowl and cranes visible

March

  • Waterfowl begin migrating north
  • Vernal pool wildflowers begin blooming
  • Hawks and herons nesting
  • Tule elk bulls sprouting new antlers covered in velvet
  • Shorebird numbers building

April

  • Songbirds are migrating
  • Wildflowers are abundant around vernal pools
  • Tule elk cows begin giving birth to calves
  • Seasonal wetlands are drained to allow waterbird food plants to grow
  • Peak number of shorebirds

May

  • Shorebirds are migrating in breeding plumage
  • Songbirds are very vocal defending nesting territories
  • Wildflowers still spectacular

June

  • Tule elk antlers fully grown with velvet falling off
  • Shorebirds migrate north
  • Seasonal wetlands are dry
  • Songbird and raptor fledglings are visible

July

  • Tule elk breeding rut begins
  • Seasonal wetlands are irrigated to encourage waterbird food plants to thrive
  • Fall shorebird migration begins

August

  • Swainson Hawks have fledged and will form “kettles” over grasslands
  • Irrigated pastures attract ibis and long-billed curlews
  • Tule elk rut and bugling peaks

September

  • Tule elk rut continues
  • Sandhill cranes begin returning mid-month
  • Songbirds and cinnamon teal migrate south
  • Valley oaks drop their acorns

October

  • Aleutian cackling geese arrive at San Joaquin River NWR
  • Waterfowl hunting season opens
  • Tule elk still in harems and bachelor herds
  • Crane Day at Merced NWR

Merced National Wildlife Refuge Main Entrance

(209) 826-3508

7430 West Sandy Mush Road

Merced, CA 95341

This is the main refuge entrance and the location to access the auto tour route and the Meadowlark, Kestrel, and Bittern Marsh trails. The auto tour route and trails are open daily year-round from 1/2-hour before sunrise to 1/2-hour after sunset.

Refuge hours for auto tour route and nature trail access: Auto tour route and nature trails are open daily. 1/2-hour before sunrise to 1/2-hour after sunset.

Jim Cunningham and Flip Hassett are both retired, but they remain active in Merced County as community advocates, local history buffs and photographers.

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