At the confluence of the Sacramento, Cosumnes and Mokelumne rivers and gateway to more than 1,000 miles of waterways, the California Delta welcomes millions of migratory birds each fall and winter. A major player on the Pacific Flyway, winged visitors make their way to flooded rice fields, nature preserves, parks and refuges. Breathtaking fly-ins of ducks, sandhill cranes, Canada geese, snow geese and tundra swans are the showstoppers, but wildlife viewing is a year-round attraction. Throughout the region, a wide array of feathered friends, mammals and fish are full-time residents. Parks, neighborhoods and rivers are habitat for red-tailed hawks, Swainson’s hawks, falcons, river otters, owls, Mexican free-tailed bats and even the occasional wayward sea lion! Whether you walk, paddle or observe from your car, it’s easy to get up close and personal with nature in and around the California Delta. Keep your binoculars, spotting scopes and cameras close. Here are just a few of the best in the region.
Cosumnes River Preserve
A one-mile universally accessible trail and three-mile roundtrip levee trail and boardwalk provide up-close views of sandhill cranes, shorebirds, riparian forests and wetlands. Bring your own boat for guided kayak and canoeing trips on the last free-flowing river from the Sierra Nevada to the Central Valley. Visitor Center includes interpretive displays and covered deck great for picnicking. All ages will love the weekly “Ducks in Scopes”, where preserve docents provide free scopes and binoculars and expert wildlife identification. Scopes are also set for children. Check the website for dates and times.
Stone Lakes National Wildlife Refuge
Located in the heart of the California Delta and Central Valley, the refuge is home to more than 200 wildlife and fish species. Seasonal Pacific Flyway migrations of Greater Sandhill Cranes, shorebirds and wading birds rest and feed on mudflats, wetlands and lakes. The recently restored Blue Heron Trails is located at the Hood-Franklin Road headquarters. Open from sunrise to sunset, free of charge, the accessible paved trail includes a mile of loops around managed wetlands hosting various migrants such as hawks, shorebirds and interpretive panels. Best viewing is during the migratory season October-May. School groups are welcome. Check online for dates and details about docent-led tours.
Woodbridge Ecological Reserve
The wildlife international airport – squadrons of Greater Sandhill Cranes descend during nightly fly-ins September - March. More than 30 other species of birds including ducks, geese, hawks, owls, swans, avocets, coots and stilts join the evening revelry. Managed by the California Department of Fish & Wildlife, parking and viewing mound are located on Woodbridge Road. The north site of the reserve, which includes the crane viewing shelter, can only be visited on a docent-led tour. Be sure to check online for dates and times as tours fill quickly. Visitors 16 and over will need a Lands Pass.
Galt Winter Bird Festival
Festival headquarters is the starting point for free educational presentations, wildlife shows, hands-on activities and art displays. Fees vary for group tours to Cosumnes River Preserve, Heritage Oak Winery, Staten Island and Bufferlands. Keynote speakers are world-renown birders and authors. Wonderfully kid-friendly!
Walk on the Wildside This one-day festival features hands-on activities, live animal shows, entertainment and guided tours of Stone Lakes National Wildlife Refuge and the 2,150-acre Bufferlands a unique opportunity to see a rare heron and egret rookery—one of only four in Sacramento County. Special twilight tours are offered during the summer and fall.
Lodi Sandhill Crane Festival
For more than 20 years, this three-day festival has celebrated the return of the greater sandhill cranes to the Central Valley. Listed as endangered, the cranes are one the largest migrating North American cranes. Sometimes called B52s, their wingspan can reach almost seven feet wide and it can be up to four feet tall. Leaping with wings extended, their mating dance is marvelous! Guest speakers, art show, entertainment, guided tours and dozens of exhibitors!
Central Valley Birding Symposium
Considered one of the foremost birding events in the West, it’s an absolute must for diehard birders. Hosted by the Central Valley Birding Club in Stockton, this four-day gathering features renowned speakers, numerous field trips throughout the Delta and region.
Free to the public, the vendor hall features artists, wildlife and nature exhibitors, optics companies and more. Near capacity most years, you’ll want to register early for best tour options.
Follow binocular signs to California Watchable Wildlife viewing sites and festivals online at www.CaliforniaWatchableWildlife.org