Driving Interstate 5 in California between Los Angeles and Redding can be routine, even boring. You wouldn’t guess that the roar of traffic, the smell of fuel, and the constant jockeying of cars mask an important habitat that parallels part of the interstate along the ancient route of the Pacific Flyway.
The Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex is just east of Interstate 5 in California’s Sacramento Valley. The complex contains five refuges and three wildlife management areas, all of which were created between the late 1930s and the 1980s to provide a wintering habitat for waterfowl and other migratory birds and to reduce agricultural crop damage by waterfowl.
The first refuge, Sacramento, was created in 1937 to turn dry, alkaline lands into marshes using the Civilian Conservation Corps, which worked from 1937 to 1942 building levees, water control structures and delivery ditches to create and sustain wetlands. The other refuges that were developed in succeeding years are named Colusa, Sutter, Delevan and Sacramento River.
Colusa was created in 1945. You can explore it with a three-mile self-guided auto tour, a one-mile walking trail, wildlife viewing deck and photography blind. As in areas in other refuges, hunting is available as long as you follow state and federal regulations and refuge rules. Dogs on leashes are also allowed on the trails.
Sutter, created in 1945, has six miles of seasonal hiking trails as well as seasonal hunting of waterfowl and pheasant. There is a large heron/egret rookery. Threatened species such as the giant garter snake and yellow-billed cuckoo can be found here.
Delevan, created in 1962, has viewing and photography from the bordering roads and a photography blind that can be reserved. A large numbers of ducks and geese can be seen between September and April.
The Sacramento River National Wildlife Refuge was created in 1989 to protect and restore the Sacramento River’s riparian habitat. Levy building and agricultural use of the land had reduced the valley oaks, cottonwoods, willows and sycamore that had made up the large riparian foliage. This river refuge consists of 30 units along an 80-mile stretch of the Sacramento River from Red Bluff to Princeton. Most units are open to the public and frequently are accessible only by boat. Hunting for goose, duck, moorhen, pheasant, turkey, quail, black-tailed deer and feral pigs as well as sport fishing is permitted in some areas of this refuge. Naturally, you would need to familiarize yourself with the specific rules for each of these activities.
It’s relatively easy to find these refuges because there are several highway signs in the distinctive tan and brown associated with national recreation areas along that section of the highway. Out of the five refuges the one nearest to the highway is Sacramento River refuge. This refuge was designed with a two-mile wetlands trail starting directly out of the Visitor Center parking area as well as a clearly marked auto tour. A quick walk on the wetlands trail of Sacramento NWR shows the area’s diversity. I saw small lush areas lined with reeds amid mature trees, which contrasted with large areas of calm water dotted with mini-islands of barren earth or covered in low shrubs, wildflowers and mustard plants. The myriad of bird sounds ranged from the squawking of ducks to chirps and gurgles of swallows.
The auto tour provides the best look at the changes that have been implemented over the years. The six-mile dirt road circles an area of the refuge featuring wetlands, grasslands and riparian habitat. You are encouraged to stop in frequent pullouts but stay in your car except at marked blinds or the raised platform so that you don’t disturb the wildlife. The use of the blinds (with adjustable seat heights) is promoted as a place to observe and photograph ducks, raptors and wading birds. You can even bring chest waders for access during the wetter spring season. More than 300 species of birds and mammals use the refuges.
Management of the refuges takes a variety of methods. The marshes are seasonally drained to encourage plant growth with re-flooding in the fall since there is no longer the historical flooding from the river. Permanent ponds may be drained every three to five years to recycle nutrients; the watergrass habitats are irrigated, and grasslands are periodically burned—all this encourages the growth of food and habitat necessary for the resident and migrant populations.
The complex actively seeks to engage the public in a variety of activities. There are programs for children, adults, birders, artists, photographers and hikers. Limited biking is available on the trails.
A stop in such a varied natural environment can’t help but sensitize anyone to the need for these types of refuges and the restoration of the riparian landscape. Ninety percent of California’s wetlands have disappeared but birds are still using the routes of the Pacific Flyway. The more than 35,000 acres of wetlands and uplands contained in this complex are but a start. A stop for a walk, a driving tour, or just to break the drive with a picnic lunch will open your eyes to the need for this type of wildlife refuge. You might even enjoy the contrast between the quietness and peacefulness of this site with the rush you can view, but are unable to hear, from nearby Interstate 5.
Mary Taylor is a writer who lives in Long Beach, California.