Episode 14: Refuge

Like clockwork every fall and winter, Sacramento Valley rice country welcomes millions of visitors. They’re here for several months, to rest and refuel, before continuing on their epic annual journey.

The millions of visitors are ducks, geese, shorebirds and many other birds that make the annual trek along the Pacific Flyway. Some come from as far north as Alaska and the Arctic and travel as far south as Chile and Argentina.

A fantastic way to view our seasonal visitors are wildlife refuges, and there are several outstanding options in the Sacramento Valley.

Clockwise from top left: Curt McCasland, Paul Souza, & Sue Graue

“The National Wildlife Refuge System in our country is the greatest network of protected lands anywhere in the world, if you care about wildlife, fisheries and habitat conservation,” remarked Paul Souza, Regional Director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, California Great Basin. “In California, Nevada and the Upper Klamath Basin of Oregon, we care deeply about migratory birds. This is the heart of the Pacific Flyway. Coming through in the fall, we have a tremendous number of birds. Millions and millions of birds rely on the refuge complex.”

 “Be prepared to be amazed,” said Curt McCasland, Refuge Manager with the Sacramento National Refuge Wildlife Complex. “In the Sacramento Valley, from November through January, this is an incredible place, where millions of birds stack into this area, visiting the national wildlife refuges, state wildlife areas, but also the ricelands in between those. Everything from clouds of geese to the sheer noisiness of these areas. It’s absolutely amazing!” 

Photographer Sue Graue has made countless trips to local wildlife refuges, providing an awesome array of photos and building great memories. Especially during a year as challenging as 2020, she encourages people to take in the vibrant beauty at local refuges.

“It takes you away from the mundane parts of your daily challenges,” she said. “There are no challenges here. You can surrender to the moment.”

Here are some suggestions from Sue about making the most of your trip to the Colusa National Wildlife Refuge:

Sacramento Valley rice fields provide vital wildlife habitat to nearly 230 wildlife species. After harvest, a shallow amount of water is added to the fields to break down rice straw. This coincides with the Pacific Flyway migration, providing key habitat to millions of birds. Rice fields provide more than 60 percent of the fall and winter diet for the several million ducks and geese visiting the Central Valley every fall and winter.

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Episode Transcript

Sue Graue: Well, I feel like it’s my home, actually.

Jim Morris: Wildlife photographer, Sue Graue has been a faithful visitor to the Colusa National Wildlife Refuge for years. After thousands of birds and too many photos to count, it still holds a special place in her heart.

Sue Graue: I’ve been coming out to the Colusa Refuge since the early 2000s. And I like to say before there were restrooms. So it was really primitive out here. There wasn’t a viewing platform. This is fairly recent. It was like a big secret, even people that lived in Colusa for years, I would bring them out here. They said they didn’t know about it. They’d never come out here. And it was very wild. Now, it’s a little more spruced up. A lot more people come here, but for me, it’s been a mainstay in my life for ever since I started coming and discovering. The things that I saw inspired me to just keep coming again.

Jim Morris: For Sue, myself and many others, wildlife refuges in the Sacramento Valley are paradise. Welcome to Ingrained, the California Rice Podcast. I’m your host, Jim Morris. Proud to have worked with farmers and ranchers to help tell their stories in California for 30 years. Today’s subject – places a pure joy. Wildlife refuges in the Sacramento Valley. If you haven’t been in a fall or winter field trip to places like the Colusa National Wildlife Refuge, can be awesome. Here’s more from photographer, Sue Graue.

Sue Graue: You can expect to see large flocks, thousands of the white-fronted geese and the snow geese. They don’t occupy the same water spots. Generally, they’re more competitive, but you’ll see large flocks of them. You’ll see them taking off say at sunrise. They go out to the rice fields and other wheat fields and out into the farmlands and eat the seeds and the remaining grains that are there from a summer harvest. And then you get to watch them fly back. And they’re very busy, coming and going. You’ll get to witness huge clouds of them taking off, say at sunset and the sound of their wings. And you may be able to hear some right now where we’re hearing a lot of them chattering. It’s just a world of wonder.

Jim Morris: How do the refuges especially help in a year like this?

Sue Graue: What I find happens for me, I find myself taking a deep breath and I realize I had been breathing shallowly. And it’s from relaxing because this really takes you away. There’s no cars whizzing by most of the time. It’s a slow pace. You can stop. You can spend the entire day out here if you want, listening to the sounds and watching it change with the birds of the light. It takes you away from the mundane parts of your daily challenges. There are no challenges here.

Jim Morris: I’m visiting with Curt McCasland, Refuge Manager with the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex. And Curt, for those who haven’t been to a wildlife refuge in our area, how would you describe what they’ll see?

Curt McCasland: From my standpoint, I would say that maybe this is a little bit arrogant or maybe this is a little bit over the top, but I’d say be prepared to be amazed. In the Sacramento Valley, from November through January, this is an incredible place where millions of birds stack into this area, visiting the national wildlife refuges, the state wildlife areas, but also the ricelands in between those. Everything from just flocks of clouds of geese to the noise that just the den and the sheer, just noisiness of these areas, it absolutely amazing.

Curt McCasland: Opportunities to see things in the morning or in the afternoon with amazing light where you get the reflections of the birds, anything from Sandhill Cranes, to pelicans, to white geese, to white-fronted geese, to Pintail mallards. It’s an amazing place to see an abundance of wildlife and being able to get very close to them and being able to experience something that probably is something that has been going on for thousands and thousands of years.

Jim Morris: And you really don’t have to go far. You just come into the refuge and all of a sudden… I mean, what do you see at the observation deck if people would go no further than just right here?

Curt McCasland: Looking out in front of us right now, I think you have about 3,000 puddle ducks. Some are getting close. Some are really close to the observation deck. Over time, they will get even closer. And I’ll say this, is that when we talk about this as I do want to step back and actually talk a little bit about my staff as well. Because what you’re seeing here is something that’s truly amazing, but it’s also by the plan. With Colusa, one of the things that we have is an amazing collaborative team. Our past manager here is a very good photographer, a very good sculptor. Our biologist is a very good artist in her own right.

Curt McCasland: And we have a field crew here that are absolutely amazing. Have spent most of their time working with waterfowl, with hunting or just spending time out in wetlands and understanding those natures. But working together with one another, they’ve created something. So what they have done is they’ve created an environment that is very conducive to birds, but also allows the public to get up very close and being able to photograph and going through. So when you look out and you see all of these logs or these islands that are out there, understand that these were created with a concept of how do we bring these birds in, how do we set up this environment so that we can draw those birds in and get really good photographs. But everything, including how we set up the observation deck. It is now what? 9:40. And with that light coming through, if you look at how we’re set up, it’s basically set up for the best light conditions for photography.

Jim Morris: Brilliant, yet there’s a lot of great things that happen when you have passionate people and you have teamwork. So the auto loop is three miles long. One of the things that fascinates me is when I make that journey, it’s the right time of the year. And I take that first left turn, I’m almost assuredly I’m going to see Buffelheads. And then if I stay with it and I don’t get too impatient, towards the end, you might see one or two black-crowned night herons. Can you comment about the auto loop and what the opportunity is there.

Curt McCasland: I too, basically, have my favorite spots on this auto tour? And, sometimes, it depends on the time of the day. In the morning, there are certain things that I really cherish and in the afternoons, there’s different things that I’m looking for. Going back to that collaborative nature and that collaborative effort between the manager, the biologist and the field crew, everything has been thought out in terms of the viewing lanes, providing where you can maximize the number of birds that you can see, framed with the right amount of light, depending on the time of day. But also in terms of the landscape around, in other words, having Snow Mountain peak have tied in there.

Curt  McCasland: This year was a bit of a challenge with that in that when we were starting to mow our lanes and create those lanes, it’s hard to remember where Snow Mountain is when you’re covered in smoke. But they’ve been doing it so long as you go out on the auditory, you’ll see that they did a pretty good job of guessing where it was, even though they couldn’t see the mountain when they were cutting the snow. But in terms of what you’re going to see, for me, there’s certain things about it that I really do cherish. There’s an area on here that we call a Scotty’s Mallard hole. And that’s basically on the northern part of the auto tour. It’s basically a bunch of willows where he does a lot of management underneath it. It really draws in the mallards and it’s a great place, especially early in the morning or late in the afternoon when the light is right, where you can really get those Mallard Drakes in just great lighting.

Curt McCasland: You’re going to see some really great opportunities on the east side of the auto tour, especially early in the morning. As that sun is coming up, there is nothing like the sun hitting that chocolate head of a Drake Pintail. And when you can see about 70 to 100 to 1,000, that all happening at the same time, there’s just these great memorable moments that basically stay in my mind, don’t even need a picture because I can still remember the first time I saw it on this auto tour. And I still remember every time I still get a chance to see it. The afternoons, I really like being on the west side, with the sun coming up behind me, and being able to looking for the surprises for the mammals that are out here. Be it the deer, be it raccoons, be it something else.

Curt McCasland: Really enjoying the light in the afternoon, trying to catch some of those things. When I’m out here and all of a sudden, I see a group of birds getting up and running and flying, I do know that someone has been out of their vehicle. And because so many of our visitors come here to actually photograph birds, that’s why we ask people to stay in cars so that everyone gets the same opportunities for those photographs. And making sure that, if folks stay in their car, we do have that opportunity. So as I’m talking about light and everything right now, if you just check out these red- winged blackbirds, I mean, it’s a blackbird. For the most part everybody sees them, but again, in these lights, when it comes through some of these birds just flying through the way that that red is just shining off the wing is just absolutely amazing.

Jim Morris: I agree. And a couple of notes on the auto tour, having done it a few times, slow, don’t be in a hurry, go a second time if you want to, don’t back up on the wildlife, they’re going to leave, be respectful, we’re in their territory. One time, I had to drive slightly to the other side of the road, because there was a turtle in the roadway. So just be observant. It’s a wonderful opportunity, but we do want to preserve this tremendous wildlife that we see here. The Pacific flyway migration, this involves millions of birds traveling from as far north as Alaska, the Arctic to as far south as Chile and Argentina. And they do spend a large amount of their time resting and refueling here in the Sacramento Valley. And the complex that you work for, what are some of the other areas that people can see wildlife?

Curt McCasland: We have the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, which is in Willows, about 25 miles north of here. The Steve Thompson North Central Valley Wildlife Management Area near Chico. We do have hunting opportunities at Sutter and Delevan National Wildlife Refuges as well for public use from there, especially during hunting season is basically just kind of on the edge of the refuge looking in. And only the opportunity is, although at Sutter there are some opportunities once hunt season is over where we do have some hiking trails in that area.

Jim Morris: For those that are pinching pennies these days, great news as well. Colusa the auto loop and the visitation area is free. There’s a small fee at Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge at Willows. There’s a kiosk. That’s the same thing for Gray Lodge as well. Well worth the money. And if you’re working with your kids and wanting them to see something for their nature reports, well, you’ve got it right here in the Sacramento Valley. Curt, you’ve worked at other areas of the United States, other wildlife areas. Can you tell me a little bit about that and maybe compare and contrast what you saw there and what you see here in the Sacramento Valley?

Curt McCasland: I’ve had a pretty varied career. I’ve spent most of it working on very large protected areas that are federally designated wilderness, so where we don’t do a lot of active management. So these refuges differ from that in that we intensively manage these wetlands to produce as much food and as much cover as possible to provide overwintering habitat for the birds coming into the Sacramento Valley. There are some similarities though. I’ve spent a lot of my career working with partnerships on to conserve natural resources, but also to ensure that other people’s missions are being met as well. At Cabeza Prieta on the Arizona border, couldn’t be more different than this place. 860,000 acres and no running water, but we had a very successful partnership with the Department of Defense, other federal and state agencies.

Curt McCasland: And in trying to recover Sonoran Pronghorn, being able to work with partners to actually affect conservation and also affect the ability of the Department of Defense to effectively complete their training missions. I moved to Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in Southeast Georgia. And a very similar water, but a varied 460,000 acres of wilderness, heavy public use, a very fire-prone ecosystem, surrounded by our neighbors who grew timber for paper production and for other forest resources. Again, managing a swamp that is surrounded by timber production areas that do not want fire, trying to create that and foster that relationship and that partnership to allow for fire to continue to occur as a natural component of the swamp, but making sure that we’re protecting our landowners with something that was going through.

Curt McCasland: And we’ve been very successful with those partnerships, and I’m very proud of those partnerships. But, when I had the opportunity to come here, one of the things that I was really looking forward to was being a part of something that was absolutely amazing in terms of the partnerships that actually exist in the Sacramento Valley. Where people are able to leverage the resources together and create something bigger that supports both agriculture, but also the wildlife conservation.

Jim Morris: I was at Sacramento National this morning, and I highly recommended it, it’s a six mile auto loop. And what you can see there is phenomenal, I saw dozens of pelicans, thousands upon thousands of geese, a lot of shorebirds, tremendous amount of ducks and, not too far from now, we will have eagles there. And there’ll be hunting. I mean, it’s just unbelievable what you see. You mentioned Llano Seco, a great spot for Sandhill Cranes, which are a beloved bird. So much to see and appreciate here in the Sacramento Valley. And we are around rice fields. Colusa County is America’s number one rice producing area. So, can you comment a little bit about the relationship between rice growing and the wildlife refuges and, of course, the ultimate goal of preserving this natural world?

Curt McCasland: The wildlife areas, be they national wildlife refuges or state wildlife areas, or even the private conservation lands that are in the Sacramento Valley. But they’re fairly small in nature or in size. And one of the things that we do have surrounded them is a sea of rice and that sea of flooded rice to decompose the rice straw is an incredibly important resource for these birds. So, we’ve lost 95 percent of our wetlands in the Central Valley of California. For us to basically try and reproduce those lost wetlands from an agency standpoint, be it the federal government, the state, or even the private, the amount of effort and time and resources it would take to try to reinstate those huge acreage losses is not possible.

Curt McCasland: But with rice farmers being able to flood their land in the fall to decompose rice straw, that provides waste grain for the birds, but also is an incredibly important resource in terms of creating invertebrate food basis for these migrating waterbirds, both waterfowl and shorebirds. Again, so one of the things that makes the Sacramento Valley so special is that you have these small conserved lands in a sea of rice, where we are able to mimic something that has been going on in the Central Valley, or at least in the Sacramento Valley, for almost eternal and that partnership is incredibly valuable.

Jim Morris: Curt, 2020 has not been the best year for many people. How do the wildlife refuges help maybe restore people and their positivity, etc. I know it really rejuvenates me when I see all this.

Curt McCasland: We’ve been seeing people come out very consistently. Our numbers are up from previous years. In part, we believe, because there’s not a lot of things to do. I think this is a great opportunity for us, for people to, if the movie theaters are not open, if restaurants are not. And there’s not a lot of opportunities to do other things, this would be a great time to reconnect with nature and being able to see all of these amazing things. I think the other part about it is it’s a great partnership. And so when you’re coming out here you get to see this amazing resource, but realizing it’s a collective of basically private public partnerships that exist across the Sacramento Valley that really produce this.

Curt McCasland: So, to me it’s a great opportunity. Longer term from this is even as we come through recovery in all of this, one of my hopes is that we can actually create this as a destination spot where we can create like a birding trail. Where people can come in and they can come to Colusa, maybe start here in Colusa and work their way up to Sac, potentially over to Llano Seco, and then maybe down to Gray Lodge or upper Butte Basin. But be able to spend time in the Sacramento Valley and see all of this. And then not only just seeing these federal and state wildlife areas, but taking that time to stop and actually see all of the birds that are actually in those flooded rice fields, which is incredibly important.

Curt McCasland: And the last thing I would say is that what folks really need to do is come out here in the evening from November to January and actually come out just at sunset, pick Gray Lodge or pick Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge. And just spend some time, watch the sun go down, watch all of these birds get up, listen to the noise associated with those birds going up. And then understand that all of those birds are actually going out into that landscape full of rice, flooded ricelands. And that’s where they’ll be spending their evening, basically gaining the resources that they need to make it through the winter, but also set themselves up for being able to make it up back to their breeding grounds and successfully breed.

Jim Morris: I’m speaking with Paul Souza, Regional Director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, California Great Basin. And Paul, we have such a tremendous amount of wildlife here in the Sacramento Valley, especially during the fall and winter. What kind of experience is it to visit the wildlife refuges in our region?

Paul Souza: Well, the National Wildlife Refuge System in our country is the greatest network of protected lands anywhere in the world, if you care about wildlife and fisheries and habitat conservation. In California and Nevada and the Upper Klamath Basin in Oregon, we care deeply about migratory birds. This is the heart of the Pacific flyway. As you mentioned, coming through in the fall, we have a tremendous number of birds, millions and millions of birds rely on the refuge complex. We also take pride in providing tremendous habitat for threatened and endangered species, for helping to create habitat for spawning fisheries as well. So, refuges in this region are tremendously important for a host of wildlife fisheries and habitats.

Jim Morris: How important are rice fields working in conjunction with the refuges?

Paul Souza: Oh, it’s hand in glove. In the Sacramento Valley, we have a truly special relationship and a special relationship, quite frankly, in other parts of the region as well. The Sacramento Valley is special because it’s relatively water rich and you have active farmland in the Sacramento Valley right next to our refuges. All said and done, we have about half a million acres in cultivation for rice right now in the Sacramento Valley. We have got about 50,000 acres of lands of refuges and also easements that together work in tandem to provide extraordinarily important wetlands for migratory birds and a host of other species. So, it’s extremely important. It’s a classic case of how agriculture and conservation are one and the same.

Jim Morris: Paul, can you tell me a little bit about the conservation efforts that are in the Sacramento Valley and working together with agriculture, hopefully to maintain and enhance what we have.

Paul Souza: We truly have a special relationship in the Sacramento Valley. It’s by California standards, relatively water rich. The farmers and ranchers in the Sacramento Valley want to get things done. So they’re always asking us for ideas, for finding ways to help improve conservation and also support agriculture. Thriving agriculture equals thriving conservation. And I believe the future is bright for conservation in the Sacramento Valley. We’ve had discussions with the state of California about voluntary agreements that potentially could bring more water and conservation and funding for restoration. We talk about revitalizing floodplains in the Sacramento Valley a lot, and I think we have a tremendous opportunity to reclaim floodplains in a way that’s consistent with thriving agriculture.

Paul Souza: And also that provides tremendous wetlands habitat for birds and also provide spawning habitat for salmon and other fisheries that we care so much about. So I definitely believe the future is bright in the Sacramento Valley.

Jim Morris: The wildlife refuges in America, when did they get their start? Can you give me a little history on that?

Paul Souza: Yes. It’s a point of pride for me. I spent a lot of my formative years in the Fish and Wildlife Service in the Everglades. And Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge just next to the Everglades Headwaters was the first refuge ever created by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903. And it created the beginning of something truly special when that’s the most important wildlife lands on the planet. We have over 500 national wildlife refuges now in our great country and they provide habitat for a tremendous amount of fisheries and birds and species of all kinds. So, in our region in particular, we have a focus on waterfowl and migratory birds. We also have the pride in the Klamath Refuge Complex, Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge, which is a key bottleneck in the Pacific flyway for migratory birds, was created in 1908 by President Roosevelt as well.

Paul Souza: And this is the first refuge ever created for the benefit of migratory waterfowl. And moving southward to Modoc, to the Sacramento Valley, we have the Sacramento Complex that was created in the 1930s. Moving then to the Delta and south of Delta, we have the San Luis Complex. We have the Kern Complex and then Salton Sea into the desert. Also, our coastal refuges really important for birds. So we have a special relationship to migratory birds in this region. And the refuge system with agricultural lands provide the foundation for a strong Pacific flyway.

Jim Morris: This year has been a little rough all the way around. How can refuges help people?

Paul Souza: Well, let me first say, this has been a year for the ages, that’s for sure with COVID-19. You couple that with the fires that we’ve had, four million acres in California alone have burned this year so far and fire season is still very much here and now. And the smoke associated with the fires have also caused tremendous hardship on people, social unrest, acrimonious election season. This year has been challenging on many fronts. You always try to find the bright spots. And, for me, one of the real bright spots has been our public lands and our refuge system in particular. We have seen a significant increase in visitation, and it’s a clear indication to me that people want to get outside. They want to see the beauty of nature.

Paul Souza: The vast majority of people that visit our refuges do so to wildlife view and to just be outside. About five to 10 percent of our visitation is for our traditional hunting and fishing, which is still tremendously important and an engine of conservation. But what we found is there has been an increase in visitation and our sincere hope is that it’s going to have a spillover effect. And that people that may have discovered our refuges for the first time will become lifelong supporters of our wildlife refuge complex. So important as we think about creating the next generation of conservation leaders and expanding upon the wonderful work that we’ve done to protect wildlife and their habitats in this great country.

Jim Morris: Hopefully our world will calm soon, but until then, peace and serenity are just a short drive away. Thank you to our interview subjects, Sue Graue, Curt McCasland and Paul Souza for their passion and expertise. You can find out more on the subject at Podcast.Calrice.Org, including photography tips from Sue Graue for your Colusa visit. Another excellent resource is the new Facebook page, Friends of the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex. The photography is amazing, and I imagine it will whet your appetite to make a trip to a wildlife refuge soon. Be sure to subscribe. We also appreciate your comments and thanks for listening.