It was like a lottery-winning moment for birders. I looked up through the windshield, and there it was: brown and striped, gliding toward a tangle of reeds a few feet from our car — an American bittern.
Bitterns are common at Gray Lodge Wildlife Area, but they're elusive and rarely seen. Even an ornithologist friend has seen only two or three.
Gray Lodge is one of more than half a dozen wildlife refuges in the Sacramento Valley, a habitat-rich basin that comprises the northern end of the Central Valley from Redding south to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The sheer number of migratory birds makes the Sacramento Valley one of the best places to see them from September to March.
It has "one of the greatest concentrations of waterfowl in North America," says Mike Wolder, supervisory wildlife biologist for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in Northern California.
More than 3 million ducks and more than 1 million geese stop in the Sacramento Valley each fall, Wolder says. They travel to and from their breeding grounds along the Pacific Flyway, which stretches from Russia to South America and is one of four major migratory routes for birds in North America.
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About 45% of the Pacific Flyway's waterfowl winter in the Sacramento Valley, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service, making it the most important wintering home for ducks, geese and swans on the route. Although waterfowl are plentiful, songbirds, shorebirds, raptors and sandhill cranes are among the other avian species that use the pathway.
After a day exploring the wildlife refuges, take advantage of Sacramento's vibrant restaurant scene. Sacramento still has its cow-town reputation — but that's only among those who haven't visited recently. Sophisticated eateries, most locally owned, have been opening regularly despite the recession, and two boutique hotels have opened since 2008.
Between 2007 and August 2010, 52 restaurants opened downtown, according to the Downtown Sacramento Partnership. Hundreds of family farms surround the city, fueling its farm-to-table movement, with restaurants showcasing locally sourced produce and meats.
About an hour before dusk one day last winter, my husband, Tom, and I headed to the nearby 16,700-acre Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area. The refuge is within a flood-control channel that attracts more than 200 species of birds. It is good timing: About a week later, heavy winter rains led to a several-week closure.
The songs of red-winged blackbirds sounded like violins and flutes tuning up over the crunch of gravel beneath our tires, and ducks flapped furiously over the ponds. We saw a car stop ahead with a family peering through binoculars, so we stopped too. Dozens of large, white birds with black beaks came into focus: tundra swans, trumpeting and swimming serenely.
Yolo offers both guided and solo tours, but Stone Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in Elk Grove is accessible only by docent-led tour. On a frosty January morning, my friend Ellen accompanied me.
Five of us trudged past ponds and a flooded field. "You can tell it's hunting season," our volunteer docent, Ray Mendonsa, told us. "As soon as we get close, the ducks take off."
Mendonsa's trained eye found a Western meadowlark, its belly and throat golden yellow, and an American kestrel, a small coppery red hawk that hovers like a bat. He pointed out grass matted in one direction and told us coyotes were lying here stalking birds.
As we walked, Mendonsa stopped like a deer sensing danger. "Listen." The stillness gave way to a distant warble. Seven sandhill cranes soared over the trees. We heard more. "Here they come," he said, pointing up. Several dozen cranes with their bugle-like call flew over. "Isn't that beautiful?"
Besides Stone Lakes, Woodbridge Ecological Reserve and Cosumnes River Preserve are two of the best places to see sandhill cranes in the Sacramento Valley. At the 353-acre Woodbridge refuge, group tours allow access to a part of the preserve that otherwise is closed to the public. Visitors take refuge in a blind that offers a 360-degree protected view and a better chance of seeing the much-anticipated fly-in.
People flock to the Woodbridge refuge (also known as the Isenberg Sandhill Crane Reserve) to see the cranes descend en masse at dusk, sometimes as many as 1,000 at once. You often can hear sandhill cranes before seeing them. The birds' tracheas are coiled like French horns, giving them a distinctive call. They land like helicopters, whirling in circles before kicking out their stick-like legs like landing gear.
At the 10,819-acre Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex, we took the six-mile auto tour, stopping to identify several species of ducks: gadwalls, mallards, cinnamon teals, northern pintails, ring-necked and buffleheads. As bright as a pair of brand-new black-and-white sneakers, the buffleheads dipped under the water and popped up like targets at a carnival game.
Tom and I drove north in late January to Gray Lodge, the sky a saturated blue. In the eucalyptus-ringed parking lot, cottony clouds shrouded the Sutter Buttes. The world's smallest mountain range rises more than 2,100 feet south of the nearly 9,200-acre preserve, providing a dramatic backdrop.
Gray Lodge, established in 1931, attracts 65,000 annual visitors. Among its more than 230 bird species, it's known for wintering waterfowl, especially snow geese. On a peak viewing day, there can be more than 1 million waterfowl here.
On the self-guided driving tour, we parked to get a closer look at hundreds of snow geese splashing in a pond.
"Wow, they're beautiful birds," Tom said.
Suddenly, they took flight, swirling, squawking, a live snow globe that had been shaken up. A nearly cloudless sky churned white with geese.