They circled overhead in a gathering white cloud swirling with energy, then dropped from the sky like large snowflakes, coming to rest on a nearby pond.
These geese, mostly Ross's geese and snow geese, were joined by several varieties of ducks and other waterfowl that winter in the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex, a series of five refuges dotting the valley of the Sacramento River. These resting spots are part of the Pacific Flyway, which stretches 4,000 miles from the Arctic to Mexico and 1,000 miles east to the Rocky Mountains.
Jennifer Patten, coordinator and co-founder of the annual Chico-based Snow Goose Festival of the Pacific Flyway, described the flyway as a "historic highway in the sky" through which migrating waterfowl have passed for millions of years. Attracted by the mild climate, they often stop and spend the winter here, making this time of year optimal for viewing.
The spectacle — a sort of avian air ballet set to music by Mother Nature — is jaw-dropping.
Accompanied by Wildlife Refuge Manager Mike Peters, himself an avid photographer, my longtime partner, Gloria Cortes, and I took an auto tour last month of the Colusa refuge, about 60 miles north of Sacramento.
The three-mile tour is a bit like driving through an aviary but with some land-based wildlife in the mix. Peters pointed out several blacktail deer grazing near the road; they seemed more curious than fearful.
Nearby, a family of pheasants dashed across the dirt road. On tree branches above us rested red-tailed hawks and a stunning great horned owl that clearly considered itself the master of all it surveyed. (That's probably because the bald eagles were a couple of miles away.)
As we turned a corner, more than 100 night herons — a midsize, mostly gray bird with a black cap and back — rested on the branches of half a dozen trees. I had never seen them in these numbers.
Soon after, we came upon fields of sandhill cranes, one of the grace notes of this ballet, and a stunning moment in a trip filled with them.
Take wing at Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex
The Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex is made up of five refuges — Sacramento, Delevan, Colusa, Sutter and Sacramento River — and three Wildlife Management Areas (Willow Creek-Lurline, Butte Sink and North Central Valley).
The refuges — the first was established in 1937 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — encompass more than 35,000 acres. During the winter migration, they are home to more than 300 species of birds.
In the spring, water is drained from the refuge complex, leaving 10% to 15% for resident birds. (The water helps local rice growers.) The refuge is then reflooded in the fall in anticipation of the annual migrating travelers. The drought has forced a 25% decrease in water available for use, but the refuges have managed to minimize the impact on birds and bird-watchers.
Some of the refuges have special observation platforms from which photographers and bird-watchers can set their sights. Visitors can also follow limited but well-marked hiking trails along the edges of some ponds and embark on self-guided auto tours that wander away from ponds and offer other vistas.
The brief auto tours are the most popular among the 80,000 annual visitors, of whom three-quarters go the auto route, said Wildlife Refuge Manager Steve Emmons.
Waterfowl welcome at Chico's Snow Goose Festival of the Pacific Flyway
Sixteen years ago, a small group of Chico residents — mostly bird enthusiasts who were intrigued by the flight of geese — decided to create a festival to celebrate the arrival of the white waterfowl.
The Snow Goose Festival of the Pacific Flyway has grown from a weekend event with a dozen or so field trips and four workshops to a five-day affair with about five dozen trips and nearly a dozen workshops. The festival, held in January, now boasts more than 2,000 participants from across the United States, and the 400-seat banquet sells out early.
The 2016 festival, Jan. 27-31, will focus on waterfowl photography. Info: (530) 345-1865, snowgoosefestival.org.
THE BEST WAY TO SACRAMENTO NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE COMPLEX
Be sure to stop at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center north of Sacramento off Interstate 5 between Maxwell and Willows. Watch for an official sign indicating where to leave the freeway.
When to go
Some days, on the edges of the refuges, hunting is permitted on a limited basis. The birds seem to know this and during those days they mostly disappear from the open ponds and sky. It is worth checking with the refuges to determine which days are hunting days, then plan to visit the refuges on the non-hunting days.