Episode 28: Time for Wildlife Refuges to Soar

Winter is approaching, and that will soon translate into the arrival of millions of birds to the rice fields and wildlife refuges in the Sacramento Valley.

Suzy Crabtree
Suzy Crabtree

For many, including Suzy Crabtree, it’s a magical time. Suzy has visited Gray Lodge Wildlife Area in Butte County thousands of times over the years, to photograph the amazing array of ducks, geese, shorebirds, raptors and other animals there.

“There’s so many things to see there,” she remarked. “We find it to be a place of refuge and solace. The drive down through the rice fields and the orchards is just the beginning of bringing us peace.”

In addition to viewing Bald Eagles and other stunning birds, Suzy is among those who has seen a rare white deer at the refuge, as she’s had four sightings over the years.

Tim Hermansen is wildlife area manager at Gray Lodge. He has worked to help the Sacramento Valley ecosystem since 2008, including working with rice farmers to maintain and enhance waterbird habitat in their fields, which are vital to hundreds of wildlife species and millions of birds

Tim Hermansen
Tim Hermansen

Gray Lodge Wildlife Area has a long history as a wildlife sanctuary. Initial land was purchased in the 1930s. The area and scope has expanded over the years, including nearly 9,300 acres covered today. It’s home to upwards of one million waterfowl at its winter peak.

A highlight for visitors is a three-mile long auto loop, which includes more than $1 million in improvements carried out by Ducks Unlimited and the Wildlife Conservation Board.

Hermansen said the improvements include widening the road and flattening the shoulders, with wider turnouts so visitors don’t need to feel rushed. Also, they added islands and enhanced the topography in the ponds to make it more suitable to birds and draw them closer to viewers.

“You can drive around and there are pullouts for people to stop and observe the wildlife that is out there,” Hermansen said. “It gives you a chance from your vehicle to be up close and personal with the birds and not scare them away. They’re not as scared of a vehicle as someone walking. In some cases, they will stay within 10 to 20 yards from your vehicle.”

Luke Matthews
Luke Matthews

The entire Pacific Flyway has struggled due to prevailing drought in the west. Fortunately, rice growers have worked with conservation groups and other stakeholders to do what they can to provide enough shallow-flooded fall and winter habitat.  

“We continue to be concerned with issues like disease and starvation as more birds arrive and they may not have the habitat that they need,” remarked Luke Matthews, Wildlife Programs Manager with the California Rice Commission.

As steps are taken to protect the millions of birds that will visit the Sacramento Valley, their presence here is a joyous sight for many. Gray Lodge Wildlife Area is one of the best places to enjoy this annual gift.

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Episode Transcript

Suzy Crabtree: I have been to Gray Lodge probably thousands of times over the years. We find it to be a place of refuge and solace. Just the drive down through the rice fields and the orchards is just the beginning of bringing us peace.

Jim Morris: Suzy Crabtree is among those who appreciate wildlife refuges in the Sacramento Valley. Gray Lodge Wildlife Area near Gridley is indeed a special place. Ducks, geese, raptors and eagles are just the beginning of your wildlife viewing.

Suzy Crabtree: There’s so many things to see there. There’s deer, there’s muskrat, there’s mink, there’s fox. We’ve seen bobcat there. Probably the most magical time I’ve had at Gray Lodge has been when we have come across the white deer, a leucistic deer. We usually see her in the evening and we’ve seen her probably about four times. It’s pretty magical to see her.

Jim Morris: This magic – an affordable, memorable outing, great for families, is only part of the benefits that come from wildlife refuges, and we’re entering the time with the absolute best viewing. Welcome to Ingrained, the California Rice Podcast. I’m your host, Jim Morris, proud to have worked with California farmers and ranchers for more than 30 years to help tell their stories. I’ve lived in the Sacramento Valley my entire life, and my appreciation for our ecosystem continues to grow. I’ve learned the awe-inspiring sights that come from living along the Pacific Flyway. We’ll find out more about fantastic ways to see wildlife right from your vehicle, but first, an update on how birds are faring during this drought. Luke Matthews, Wildlife Program’s Manager with the California Rice Commission, what are you seeing and hearing from the field about the wildlife migration?

Luke Matthews: There’s definitely a lot of birds here already. We’re not at the peak of the migration on the Pacific Flyway yet, but we’re nearing that. Numbers are continuing to build, but there’s definitely experiencing some issues with drought conditions across the west.

Jim Morris: That is a factor. So by the time the birds are arriving here, they haven’t really had their full rest and refuel capability. What have you seen elsewhere in the west that really impacts their health as they head to the Sacramento Valley?

Luke Matthews: Drought conditions throughout Oregon, Washington, Utah, a lot of these areas where birds normally rest have been pretty significant. And so, we’re assuming that when they get there, they’re struggling and needing habitats. So when they arrive here, it’s even a greater need.

Jim Morris: So the value is great in the Sacramento Valley every year, but particularly in a year like this. And there is a program with the Rice Commission and the State Department of Water Resources that is helping. Can you tell us a little more about that effort?

Luke Matthews: So we have a program that looks to create more flooding on the landscape with a shallow amount of water, both on rice fields and wetlands. For total, the program has about 50 to 60,000 acres across both components. And it’s really just a strategic effort to increase flooding on the landscape because, in a normal year we would have on the order of 300,000 acres of flooded rice and this year, even with the program, we expect to only have probably 100,000 acres of flooded rice. Concerns are that we will not have enough habitat. And as we reach the peak migration, that will just get worse, less habitat, but more birds. So there is our effort and other efforts down in the San Joaquin Valley, for example, to increase flooding for the migration, for the duration of this winter. But we are just worried about disease and starvation and other things like that as birds arrive and may not have the habitat they need.

Jim Morris: Time to learn more about one of the jewels of the Sacramento Valley, Gray Lodge. I’m visiting with Tim Hermansen, Wildlife Area Manager. Tim, let’s start with your background and your experience with our valley ecosystem.

Tim Hermansen: So I got the start in the Sacramento Valley ecosystem in 2008, when I became the wildlife biologist for the Colusa Natural Resources Conservation Service office, working with private land owners in the Sacramento Valley to enhance habitats on their private ground. That included habitats in the areas such as the Butte Sink, but also private rice growers throughout the valley. In 2011 and 2012, I was working with the California Rice Commission to pilot some of the initial waterbird enhancement programs throughout the Sacramento Valley to enhance that waterbird habitat across the private landscape. In 2013, I became the area manager for the Upper Butte Basin Wildlife Area, located just north of Gray Lodge along Butte Creek. And then about a year ago, I became the area manager for Gray Lodge.

Jim Morris: Gray Lodge was established many decades ago. Can you give me a little bit of background on the history, how much land we’re talking about and other important details?

Tim Hermansen: The initial purchase was in about 1931. It actually used revenues generated from pari-mutuel horse betting through the Lee Act. The design was to provide sanctuary habitat for migratory birds to draw them off of the surrounding private rice grounds and reduce depredation issues. For a few decades it was just a sanctuary where people could come out and enjoy seeing the birds. In the 1950s, they through one of the expansions, started to allow hunting. And since the initial purchase in the 1930s, we’re now up to about almost 9300 acres. It’s about 9260 acres where we have both sanctuary habitat for wintering waterfowl to rest and still do that depredation. But we also provide public hunting across about two-thirds of the wildlife area.

Jim Morris: Your job is to balance all that, to make sure that we can enjoy this ecosystem for many years to come, I imagine?

Tim Hermansen: We try to balance that. A lot of our revenue comes from hunting, license sales and things of that sort. We want to continue to provide opportunities for the hunters to come out, enjoy the area that their licenses are going to fund. But we also want to make sure that the people that just want to come out and enjoy seeing the wildlife have an opportunity also. So we have a large auto tour loop public trail system. That’s open 365 days a year that people can come out and go for a hike, go for a drive, see all sorts of wildlife in our sanctuary area and still enjoy that. And it provides that sanctuary for the wintering waterfowl.

Jim Morris: What can people expect when they come out? It is an amazing array of wildlife, but what are some of the things that people would see this time of the year?

Tim Hermansen: We can have up to a million waterfowl on the wildlife area. A lot of snow geese, a lot of white fronted geese, pintail, mallards, but we also get other birds in the area. Last winter for example, we had six bald eagles using our closed zone all winter long. There’re other raptors. In the springtime, you’ll start seeing some of the Neotropical migrants, the songbirds moving through. And then year round, we have deer, quail, turkeys can be found out here, all sorts of local wildlife that don’t migrate away. But this time of year the primary attraction is the waterfowl.

Jim Morris: I was distracted coming in on this foggy day because right across the road from your office, there was a deer just sitting there waiting for its photo to be taken. So it is really fun to see and a great way for people to experience this is the auto loop, which is about three miles. And tell me about what that offers and also the improvements that have been done on it.

Tim Hermansen: It’s about a three mile auto tour loop where you can drive around. We have pullouts for people to stop and observe the wildlife that are out there. It gives you a chance from your vehicle to have an opportunity to get up close and personal with the birds and not scare them away. They’re not as scared of a vehicle as they are of someone walking. So, for three miles you can drive around and from your vehicle and with your binoculars or spotting scopes or cameras see the wildlife from, in some cases, they’ll stay within 10 or 20 yards of your vehicle.

Tim Hermansen: Over the last two years, we’ve partnered with Ducks Unlimited and the Wildlife Conservation Board to do improvements to our auto tour loop that widen the road and flatten the shoulders out a bit, for safety. Before, you could easily drive off into the canals or ditches and they improved all of that. And it also made those turnouts wider so you don’t have to feel rushed if someone’s coming up behind you. Out in the ponds, we added islands and enhanced the topography to make it more suitable for the birds and draw them in closer to you in your car. So that project just finished up this summer. It was a huge success, huge project, over a million dollars worth of funding went into it. And I just can’t thank our partners enough for that.

Jim Morris: A few suggestions when you’re driving through, please drive slowly out of respect for everyone. And of course the birds that are there. Also, my wife always suggests go a second time if you can through a loop because you often see different wildlife that you can appreciate. This has been a tough go for our world, with the pandemic and other stressors. And I am jealous of your work environment. So what is it like to work out here regularly?

Tim Hermansen: When you drive in you see deer right off the side of the road. From our office we can look up from the computer if we’re stuck in the office for the day. And oftentimes seeing those deer, seeing the waterfowl flying by, ducks and geese. In the springtime, you have California Quail right outside making their calls and having a good time. So it’s great. You get to see the wildlife from your office. And then when you aren’t in the office, you’re still working. So you get to drive around, if we’re checking water or doing a survey, or just seeing how the wildlife area is doing and you’re out there in the wild, you have the great view of the Sutter Buttes in the background and you’re still doing the job and getting paid for it. So can’t beat that.

Jim Morris: You mentioned it right up top. There’s a coordinated effort to help the Pacific Flyway Migration and our entire Sacramento Valley ecosystem. What have you seen in terms of cooperation among rice growers, conservation groups, state, and federal government, water districts, and other stakeholders in this area?

Tim Hermansen: There’s a huge partnership in this area between all of those groups you just mentioned. Through this last year in the drought, we were having coordination calls between the state agencies, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, US Fish and Wildlife Service. We had other partners like USGS, Ducks Unlimited, California Waterfowl Association, and the California Rice Commission was involved with those calls, trying to help coordinate where we might strategically place the limited water supplies on the landscape during this critical drought year. It was a very large effort. We met regularly to try to coordinate. And, it seems like when you look around the valley, that those coordination efforts paid off because the birds are spaced out. We’re not having any disease issues yet. Thankfully. Let’s hope it stays that way. We have the partnership with the rice growers to pump water and have it on their fields, through programs that California Rice Commission or DWR have worked on. We’ve been able to meet many of the needs of the waterfowl that came down from the north lands this year.

Jim Morris: So good to hear about this great partnership. And a lot of the refuges are right around the rice fields. A quick comment, if you would, about how important the rice fields are, those surrogate wetlands. They’ve largely replaced the original wetlands that California had. How important are the rice fields to maintain this ecosystem?

Tim Hermansen: Like you mentioned, most of the natural historic wetlands in the basins around here, they did large reclamation projects to turn it into agricultural ground. So, we have small postage stamps of state and some privately owned wetland habitats, moist soil management wetland habitats, but we also have hundreds of thousands of acres of rice. After the harvest is complete, those rice fields, if they are flooded or even if they’re not, if they’re properly managed, they can provide great food resources for waterfowl. Both the waste grain that doesn’t get picked up by the combines, but also invertebrates that are in the soil that the birds will eat. It’s important, not just for ducks and geese, but also waterbirds, shorebirds, the little sandpipers and killdeer, black-neck stilts. All of those really rely on those fields in the wintertime for those supplemental food sources that our wildlife areas just can’t provide.

Tim Hermansen: We don’t have enough space. Rice fields also provide some good habitat for resident nesting and breeding wildlife in the spring and summer months. A lot of birds will use the checks for nesting habitat. More barren checks are used by some of the shorebirds, like the stilts and avocets to nest on. If they’re allowed to get more weedy cover, mallards, and some of the other local ducks will nest on them. And then they can use the flooded rice fields to raise their young in and have a bit of a supplemental habitat, in addition to the wildlife areas. The fields that are closer to the wildlife areas, the state areas and the federal refuges they’re generally used more, but they’re important throughout the valley.

Jim Morris: The other day, I was at Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, and it was great as always, but across I-5 in a rice field were tens of thousands of snow geese so I understand exactly what you said in that last comment. Probably unfair of me to ask, but do you have a favorite sighting that you ever had here or a favorite bird or mammal that you’ve seen at Gray Lodge?

Tim Hermansen: A sighting that stands out to me. I had a friend, he was actually a mentor from when I worked in the Midwest. He came out to visit. It’s been close to a decade ago before I worked for the department, but I took him out here and he wanted to see Gray Lodge. And as we’re driving the tour loop, he had never seen a Eurasian Wigeon before, and I would drive the tour loop regularly just to see what’s out here before going hunting. And I told him usually right around this corner, there’s a Eurasian Wigeon. So we came around the corner and sure enough, there he was. I got proven right on that account and my friend from the Midwest got to see his first Eurasian Wigeon which was pretty neat. And it still stands out in my mind as a neat sighting.

Tim Hermansen: That’s something to keep note of. If you come out for our auto tour loop or our public trails, or if you come out to go hunting, we do get those odd visitors from other flyways from time to time. The Eurasian Wigeon, blue-winged teal – some of the birds you normally wouldn’t see in the Pacific Flyway, we will get through here. And you have an opportunity to perhaps see the bird for the first time in your life.

Jim Morris: Take your time, enjoy it. And then when you see a lot of birds, look carefully, because there may be an unusual visitor in the mix. Hopefully after what you heard today, you will soon plan a trip to a wildlife refuge near you. Before we wrap up, a few final suggestions from Suzy Crabtree on how you can get it the most out of your Grey Lodge experience.

Suzy Crabtree: If you are going to Gray Lodge the one thing that I would suggest is to take the walking hiking trail first, and then take the auto loop. And when you are going to take the hiking trail, always make sure that when you’re walking to take a moment to stop and look back from where you’ve just been. It’s a good way to find things that you may have passed that you didn’t see. Owls are really great at hiding and blending in with their surroundings. If you go and park at Lot 14, and you head out on the dirt trail, not on the asphalt trail and just that first trail that you go along right across from the canal, there is a pair of great horned owls that you, if you’re really good at looking, they’re very hard to find, but you can find them. And they’re right before you make the first right hand turn on that trail.

Suzy Crabtree: Bald eagles are really a thrill to see at Gray Lodge. You can see the adults as well as the juveniles. And it’s really interesting to watch the adults training the juveniles on how to hunt. And it’s really fun to watch them teach the juveniles and the next upcoming ones that are coming onto the lodge.

Jim Morris: We will continue to chronicle the Pacific Flyway Migration and drought impacts in the coming weeks. You can go to podcast.calrice.org to find out more information. Thank you to Suzy Crabtree, Luke Matthews, and Tim Hermansen for their time and expertise. Be sure to subscribe for future episodes. We appreciate your comments and reviews. Thanks for listening.