Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature — the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.
Rachel Carson, “Silent Spring”
Dawn came after night and spring came after winter for those who survived the Paradise, Calif., wildfire that killed 85 and destroyed 13,000 homes. Healing — finding comfort and a sense of peace — has taken longer.
As Paradise residents still displaced by that November 2018 fire, my husband, Kirk, and I have found healing in nature, most notably the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, which has been a refuge in all senses of the word.
Since the fire, we’ve tried to visit weekly, an easy 45-minute drive from the Chico apartment where we now live. It’s a welcome break from reality and has consistently reduced our stress. Here, we can indulge our love of wildlife and savor a sense of renewal. Mercifully, other than the horrific air quality created by multiple other fires, the refuge, in Willows, Calif., about 70 miles north of Sacramento , was out of the fires’ path and remained unscathed.
The best part of our day awaits us as we eagerly head out on the refuge’s six-mile auto loop. We usually arrive before sunrise so are often the first visitors of the day, which means we have the refuge almost to ourselves. Kirk and I have a “Driving Miss Daisy” arrangement. I sit in the back with the camera at the ready and roll down the windows to improve photo ops and to enjoy the crisp morning air (we wear extra layers) and a heightened awareness of the sounds and sights.
The ponds and fields have their own soundtrack. The sweet melody of the meadowlark, the splash of an otter catching fish in a nearby pond, the crowing of a ring-necked pheasant, all music to my ears. My senses heighten as I watch and listen for the next wildlife sighting. My body and mind relax as I tune in and tune out the worries of the day.
Spotting a barn owl sunning in the morning’s first light, watching an American bittern imitate a swaying reed to blend in and avoid detection, or just observing a jackrabbit groom itself in the shade brings me closer to the natural world. Snapping a photo or two (or let’s be honest, a couple of hundred) to capture what I love and take it home with me, well, that’s just gravy.
Confession here: I’m not really a birder, but the more I learn about birds, the more interested I become.
Each species has its own fascination. For instance, the peregrine falcon, nature’s heat-seeking missile, can dive from 3,000 feet and can reach speeds of more than 200 mph, grabbing or striking its prey with its feet hard enough to stun it or kill it. The sweet-looking little loggerhead shrike, gray with a black mask that looks like Zorro’s, impales insects, lizards and rodents on thorns and barbed wire for a meal to be eaten later.
Nature is a tough business and not for the weak of heart.
For every season
Each season offers new viewing opportunities. Spring brings the shorebirds: sandpipers, avocet, black-necked stilts, killdeer and more. Canadian geese take up residence in the spring and strut through the fields with new families in tow. The rapid-fire chatter of the hidden marsh wrens fills the air and rewards the patient visitor who slows down and scans the reeds for a closer look.
In summer orioles, swallows and flycatchers take the stage alongside nesting herons, egrets, grebes and ducks. In fall, look for the arrival of pintail ducks and greater white-fronted, snow and Ross’ geese. (The annual Snow Goose Festival of the Pacific Flyway, Jan 22-26 in Chico, gives you a chance to learn more through tour and workshops.)
Duck and goose numbers peak in winter when 3 million ducks and more than 1 million geese migrate here by way of the Pacific Flyway, a north-south route for migratory birds that extends from Alaska to Patagonia. They travel all or part of this distance in spring and fall, following food sources or heading to wintering sites or breeding grounds.
These travelers prefer a direct route with lots of rest stops along the way. But in the last century, California has lost more than 90% of its natural wetlands, leaving millions of waterfowl with limited winter habitat. The wetlands that attracted these creatures and others have been slowly replaced by farmland, and rivers that once created wetlands started to be controlled by levees and irrigation.
As a result, waterfowl resorted to farmers’ fields, damaging rice and wheat crops. Farmers, hunters and the federal government agreed something needed to be done to resolve this issue in the Sacramento Valley, and in 1937 the federal government purchased 10,775 acres of land and the Sacramento NWR was born. As a National Wildlife Refuge, this habitat is now protected from development and other influences and draws 90,000 visitors a year, including wildlife watchers, hunters and photographers like us.
Not all are seeking shelter from life’s storms, but they may come away changed, as we have.
“Everybody needs beauty,” John Muir wrote, “places to play in and pray in where nature may heal and cheer and give strength to the body and soul alike.”
As I look around, I wonder whether anyone could ask for more.
IF YOU GO
Entering the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge costs $6 per car. Holders of a federal Duck Stamp ($25) or an America the Beautiful Interagency Annual, Senior, Access or Volunteer Pass (or the past equivalent Golden Age Pass) enter free. The refuge also offers a $12 annual pass for frequent visitors like us.
Visitors must stay in their cars on the six-mile auto loop so they don’t disturb resting wildlife. Although wildlife is wary of humans, they’ve become accustomed to vehicles. By staying in your vehicle you are less likely to put the animals on alert and will have better viewing opportunities. (Think of it as a mobile blind: It’s a hiding spot that allows you to go undetected.)
Keep out of areas posted as off-limits to cars and people. An additional 1 ½ -mile road is open mid-March through early September.
Don’t drive more than 5 mph in the refuge. Slow down. You won’t see much if you race through. Animals are masters of camouflage so spotting them is a game of “Where’s Waldo?” Put down the cell phone, turn off the radio and keep your eyes peeled.
Be patient when you encounter another vehicle that’s observing wildlife. If there is room to pass a vehicle on the loop, do so slowly so you don’t leave them in a cloud of dust.
Take the loop more than once. Bring drinks and lunch or snacks. Get out of the car at an approved “stop and stretch” or viewing deck location and have a bite.
Go early in the morning (right after sunrise) or later in the day (an hour or two before sunset). Dusk and dawn typically offer the best lighting for photographs. That’s also when we’ve found birds and other wildlife are most active.
Bring binoculars. Some wildlife prefers to stay safely away from humans, so field glasses will help. The visitor center will lend binoculars based on availability.
Bring your camera. We use a Canon with a 100-400mm telephoto lens that allows us to get close-ups from a distance, but we’ve had many opportunities to photograph willing wildlife at close range. (These photos were taken from the comfort of our vehicle.) Watch for bald eagles and other raptors, black-tailed deer, raccoons, jackrabbits and cottontails, Western pond turtles, muskrats, great horned owls, American bitterns and more.
Bring a field guide to help you identify the birds. We use the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of Western North America. Some visitors use a journal to record their finds, but we jot down the date and location of the sighting next to the bird’s picture in the field guide. There are also numerous bird identification websites that you may find helpful. We’ve had success with allaboutbirds.org by the Cornell Lab and audubon.org
Stop at the Refuge Visitor Center (752 County Road 99W, Willows, Calif.) It’s the first building you’ll see when you arrive in the visitor parking lot. Talk to the resident experts. Explore the Discovery Room for its wildlife displays and get an up-close look at the creatures of the refuge. Watch the “Unfinished Symphony” film or shop in the bookstore for field guides, nature books, postcards, T-shirts and more.
The visitor center is open 9 a.m.-4 p.m. daily from November to February and weekdays only the rest of the year. Interpretive kiosks, picnic tables, benches and restrooms are outside the visitor center and are available year-round.
Take a walk. Visitors can walk approved trails that start near the visitor center. Walking shoes, water, sunscreen, mosquito repellent and a hat are recommended.
If you’re planning a longer visit, consider checking out the annual Snow Goose Festival of the Pacific Flyway. The Jan. 22-26 festival offers numerous guided tours, workshops and activities that spotlight the waterfowl spectacle each January. Additional information on the festival, maps and recommended lodging is available at snowgoosefestival.org.