IT’S FOR THE BIRDS

And lots of other SJ Val­ley crit­ters too

The Oakdale Leader - - LIVING - By DEN­NIS WY­ATT

Less than a half an hour south of Man­teca you will find one of the 209’s best key se­crets — the San Joaquin River Na­tional Wildlife Refuge.

It con­sists of 7,000 acres of wet­lands, ri­par­ian wood­lands, as well as grass­lands at the con­flu­ence of the San Joaquin and Stanis­laus rivers. The refuge also stretches to where the Tuolumne River joins the San Joaquin. It is one of the two key rea­sons why the Aleu­tian cack­ling geese has made a roar­ing come­back to more than 100,000 birds since the 1970s when their num­bers slipped be­low 1,000. The win­ter­ing habi­tat you’ll find here helped the Aleu­tian cack­ling geese be­come delisted as an en­dan­gered species. Part of the re­vival also in­volved re­mov­ing preda­tors from their nestling grounds in the Aleu­tian Is­lands of Alaska.

It goes with­out say­ing if you want to sa­vor the sights and sounds of Aleu­tian cack­ling geese and other mi­grat­ing wa­ter­fowl along the Pa­cific Fly­way the best time is from mid-Oc­to­ber to early March. But thanks to a mas­sive ri­par­ian wood­lands restora­tion project, the refuge is teem­ing with life year round.

At one time ri­par­ian forests lined vir­tu­ally every val­ley river. To­day, more than 95 per­cent of them have dis­ap­peared. The largest re­main­ing stand un­aided by man is across the river from the refuge at Caswell State Park along the Stanis­laus River. (You can reach the state park by tak­ing the Austin Road exit in Man­teca off High­way 99 and driv­ing south to the end of the road to the park’s en­trance.)

The refuge thanks to the restora­tion ef­fort gives you more of a true glimpse of what ri­par­ian wood­lands looked like over a cen­tury ago in Cal­i­for­nia.

More than 500,000 na­tive trees and shrubs were planted on 2,200 in the river’s flood­plain makes it the state’s largest ri­par­ian wood­lands . The list in­cludes a mix­ture of oaks, cot­ton­woods, wil­lows, wild roses, black­ber­ries, and more.

This is where two other en­gen­dered species have been mak­ing a come­back. One is the ri­par­ian rab­bit. Once preva­lent through­out the val­ley, their num­bers in the early 1990s had dwin­dled to less than three dozen lo­cated along the Stanis­laus River in and around Caswell State Park. A part­ner­ship with Cal­i­for­nia State Univer­sity, Stanis­laus and its En­dan­gered Species Re­cov­ery Pro­gram has im­proved the ri­par­ian rab­bit’s fu­ture. They cap­tured and bred the ri­par­ian rab­bits and in­tro­duced them to the re­stored ri­par­ian wood­lands. To­day, the San Joaquin River Wildlife Refuge boasts of the world’s largest ri­par­ian rab­bit pop­u­la­tion.

The re­stored wood­lands are where you will find the last Bell’s vireo pop­u­la­tion. Other song­birds run the gamut from war­blers and ori­oles to gros­beaks and fly­catch­ers.

Most of the refuge is off lim­its to peo­ple as it was cre­ated for wildlife. There is 4.3 mile loop dubbed the Pel­i­can Na­ture Trail that you can ac­cess. Also from Oc­to­ber to March the Beck­with Road view­ing plat­form is open from dawn to dusk to take in the flocks of Aleu­tian cack­ling geese and other wa­ter­fowl.

There are no fees to hike the Pel­i­can Na­ture Trail. There is also park­ing that you can ac­cess off Dairy Road. You can bring dogs but they must be in leash.

It goes with­out say­ing you need to bring water, sun screen, and bug spray. This re­ally is a throw­back ex­pe­ri­ence to what the val­ley once was like — lots of in­sects, lots of sun, and teem­ing wildlife although what you’ll see is only a frac­tion of what it was in the late 19th cen­tury when Tule elk and the Cal­i­for­nia griz­zly bear roamed the val­ley with an al­pha­bet two times over of other cre­atives.

If you’re look­ing for a chal­lenge, this isn’t it. The trail is flat and mel­low. You will al­ways come across wildlife whether its garden va­ri­ety rab­bits, lizards, or quail plus a reper­toire of other small mam­mals and birds that will vary with the sea­son. There are also bath­rooms at the trail­head.

Be ready for soli­tude. You can hike the four mile loop and of­ten not come across an­other hu­man crea­ture. Binoc­u­lars and spot­ting scopes are a plus to carry with you.

Wildlife pho­tog­ra­phers can be seen at times point­ing their long lenses at the wildlife and landscape. They tend to hit the area in the early morn­ing or early even­ing when pho­to­graphic op­por­tu­ni­ties are at their prime with the wildlife be­ing the most ac­tive and the light­ing more in­ter­est­ing. If you’re look­ing for more of a na­ture ex­pe­ri­ence and not just soli­tude and a lit­tle ex­er­cise, fol­low the lead of the cam­era hounds and hit the trail in early morn­ing or early even­ing

The trail does bring you near the south­ern bank of the Tuolumne River.

The refuge is man­aged by the San Luis Na­tional Wildlife Refuge unit.

Photos cour­tesy San Joaquin River Na­tional Wildlife Refuge

TOP PHOTO: A group “bird­ing” along the Pel­i­can Na­ture Trail. MID­DLE PHOTO: Aleu­tian crack­ling geese win­ter­ing at the refuge. BOT­TOM LEFT PHOTO: A goose at the refuge near Ver­nalis. BOT­TOM RIGHT PHOTO: An en­dan­gered ri­par­ian rab­bit.

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