2024 Calendar Photo Contest is On!!
Upcoming Volunteer Works Days at Sac NWR!! February 11 and 18
We are having 2 volunteer work days at SNWR in February....Saturday February 11 and Saturday February 18. We will be planting trees and other vegetation around parts of the Refuge, especially along the walking tour. More details to come, but as with the other work days, this will be about helping the Refuge staff get some things done as well as having fun. No special skills or tools required, and it won't be 110 degrees out either! It is also a good chance to meet with Refuge staff.
Anyone interested in participating in one or both of the dates, let us know by messaging on FB, or emailing at:
The Refuge is happy to have as many people attend as possible, so no limits on who can come help.
I hope to see many of you out there!
2023 Sacramento NWR Calendars are Sold Out!! Thank You All!
Our calendars are all sold out, thank you very much. We will be back with another calendar next year!
Sacramento NWR Webcam is Live!!!
Link to the webcam:
The webcam is being hosted by Explore.Org, the largest network of wildlife cameras in the world. This has been a major effort involving the Friends, Refuge Management and Staff, Altacal Audubon, and Explore.org. The Friends would also like to thank the Barceloux-Tibessart Foundation for their generous grant to help with this and other projects.
The camera is truly state-of the art, with full panning capabilities, 45x optical zoom, infrared for night video, and excellent audio.
We cannot get projects like this done without your help.
Please donate to the Friends of Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge so we can continue to make the Refuges even better.
Donations can be made via Paypal or check:
To donate via Paypal:
Checks can be mailed to:
Friends of Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge
621 S. Plumas St.
Willows, CA 95988
Replacement 'Dead Tree' Installation
While the photo contest submission period is going on I wanted to talk a bit more about one of the two big projects that have recently been completed at the Refuge. The second will be important but not visible while at the refuge, but this one is highly visible....
I'm talking about the replacement for the beloved 'dead tree' along the north straightaway that came down in a storm. This project was accomplished by the fantastic staff at the Refuge. We should all be thanking the workers there as well as Refuge management for getting this done. The Friends was very involved the entire time, but at the end of the day it was the Refuge that got the job done.
It was not an easy thing to accomplish for a couple of reasons. First, it is not common for a wildlife refuge to 'rebuild' habitat. They usually prefer to just let nature run its course. The Friends was involved in a lot of discussions about the importance of that tree for raptors...and for wildlife observers. Kudos to them for taking this to heart.
The second problem was how to get this done...any projects like this are difficult and involve a lot more planning to execute than you may think. They had to wait until the Refuge was completely dry (well maybe not so difficult this year) and the project had to be fit in before they start flooding up that area (water will start flowing into some ponds as early as this week). Lastly they had to pick a suitable tree, figure out how to get it in place, then dig, put the tree in and cement it..in the process the Refuge Manager decided to get assistance from a local pro photographer to better situate the tree for lighting conditions.
The end result is what you can now see on the Refuge. The tree is different, a bit further back off the road, but hopefully will be a popular stopping point for raptors hunting those back ponds...The birds will tell.
All I can tell you is that the one time I was back there working on our other big project for the Refuge, that in the distance I saw that an adult eagle had stopped to perch on the new tree...probably checking it out for its upcoming duck/coot hunting season at the Refuge.
Attached are some photos from the installation of the tree. When you get the chance please thank Refuge staff for doing this for us. They went above and beyond on this project.
Oh, and don't forget to become a Friend of Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge by making a donation. Funds raised all go towards projects that make the Refuges even better than they are now.
Friends of Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge at a Glance
The nonprofit partner of the Sacramento National Wildlife Complex.
Our mission is to work in partnership with the Sacramento National Wildlife Complex and the public to maintain and expand wildlife observation, education and all forms of recreational opportunities to a broader audience in this jewel of the Central Valley of Northern California.
It's Time to Talk Grebes!!!
Thanks to James Smith for the Writeup and Photos
Summer With The Grebes
by James Smith
The year 2020 started out bad, and then got worse. But during the pandemic slow down, when my work was cut back, I started spending more time driving over to the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge at Willows. As luck would have it, this turned out to be a special year at the refuge. A group of Clark’s and Western Grebes decided to build their nests right next to the auto tour road, unlike in past years when they built them way in the back. So having them so close was a special treat, where I could take my camera and temporarily escape the insanity for a couple days each week, to experience the entire breeding season out my vehicle window.
Clark’s and Western Grebes are really interesting birds, and both nest on the pond at SNWR during the summer. They are similar, with the Western having black around the eye, while the Clark’s has white, and differing slightly in their call, so I’ll be referring to them collectively as the grebes. The most famous thing you may have heard about these grebes is their mating ritual which includes the “rushing” ceremony, where they run across the water side by side. This occurs in the spring, at the end of May and into the first part of June. Here’s a tip: just before they take off rushing, the grebes will be facing off with their heads down on the water. After the rushing ceremony comes the weed ceremony, where they slip off to a quiet corner of the pond, stretch their necks way up, snuggle close, and smack each other in the face with a wad of soggy weeds.
The first thing to notice when observing these large grebes is that they don’t particularly like to fly. During the past three years of observing them I have yet to see one flying. Instead, they prefer to swim if threatened, and they can swim very fast. Their legs are attached further back on their bodies with big lobed feet. They use their feet like an outboard motor to skim across the water at high speed, sometimes holding their wings out as stabilizers. They can also swim fairly fast underwater as well, and can attack from below like a pointy torpedo. And lastly, they can run on water without flapping their wings. There are two times when they do this, during the mating “rushing” ceremony, and sometimes when they charge another bird that gets too close to the nest. When charging another bird, there are two postures a grebe may use: the standard torpedo swimming posture, or what I call the “jousting” posture. The jousting posture is when the grebe starts running across the water at the opponent with its head held low to the water. I haven’t seen that mentioned anywhere before; but I saw the grebes do it on several occasions, and it looks really cool when photographed. After initially charging at the offender, they will then drop into the faster swimming posture. In most cases, the offender would immediately zoom away when charged; but occasionally, a challenging grebe will stand its ground and fight.
The nesting season extends from May to October. Both partners help in constructing a floating nest platform. As soon as it is large enough to stand on, the first egg will be laid. The eggs are initially white, and then later turn brown, being stained by the rotting vegetation in the nest. Most grebes lay three eggs, usually a day or two apart, and they usually hatch in about 24 days. Most of the nesting pairs will start early and build their own nest; but some will start later and take over an abandoned nest, or try to steal a nest from another pair. Once the chicks are hatched, they climb onto the back of a parent and ride around, and that’s when all the cute photographs are taken, and a line of vehicles will show up at the refuge.
This summer, I was fortunate enough to be at the refuge on three days when an egg was hatching. A newly hatched chick has a wet-headed purplish-pink appearance. So if you see a purplish chick at the back of a parent, you know that it just crawled out of its egg. It will then climb up onto the parent’s back and stay hidden under the wing for awhile drying off, before popping up its now fluffy light gray head to be fed. The hatching sequence takes about 20 to 30 minutes. One particularly cool thing about grebe chicks is the spot on their forehead. According to the biologists, this bare pink spot on the forehead will get darker red when the chick is hungry or stressed, and will fade when the chick has been fed. So it is nature’s own “low-battery” indicator!
The young chicks will stay hidden under the parent’s wing a lot of the time, so you may have to look carefully to detect when a grebe has a young chick. Look at the way the wings are folded over the back. If the wings are folded tight, then no chick; but if some of the feathers are fluffed up a little, then they probably have a chick underneath. If you watch and wait, eventually the chick will pop its head up, especially when a parent has a yummy fish or bug to feed them. Grebe parents will also trade off chick carrying duty. Since they don’t have hands to pass them over, they simply rear up and shake or flap their wings to make the chick slide off their back into the water, like a big water slide. The parent that shook them off may then point at them or swim away, while the other parent fluffs up its wings and holds out its foot to invite them up.
Another interesting behavior I got to witness was pair bonding. Grebes will, of course, do the wild thing prior to laying the eggs; but what I didn’t know, and what the biologist at SWNR later told me, is that grebes will also sometimes engage in pair bonding later during the nesting cycle. Pair bonding is when they make cooing goo-goo eyes at each other and then the male hops up and stands on the female’s back for a few seconds before jumping off forward over her head. What was really unexpected, is that I saw a pair do this when the female had two chicks on her back, and the third egg was in the process of hatching underneath her. It seemed like an odd time to be getting frisky!
Everything is not all unicorns and rainbows for grebes living in a refuge, however. They have to live with a number of predators, such as coyotes, foxes, raccoons, river otters, feral cats and dogs, eagles, great horned owls, and hawks. The night is long when you are a grebe sitting on a nest near the edge of the pond. There is also a risk with just leaving the nest for a short time, as gulls, terns, or coots will go after unguarded eggs. Sometimes a grebe will lose its partner, say to a great horned owl, and after a couple days of calling for it, will have to abandon the nest to feed itself. This happened on at least one nest this summer. There were also a couple of nests close to the edge of the pond that were raided early in summer, and the grebes had to lay new eggs and try again. After hatching, the young chicks will also be the target of hungry predators; but are better protected riding on a parent’s back than being left alone in a nest.
The grebes are afraid of otters. If one approaches, they will jump off the nest. I got to witness an otter incident one day in late July, while I was sitting in my car watching the nest. The grebe mother had all three chicks on her back, and was in the water near the nest. Suddenly, all the grebes in the area went on high alert. The female immediately began swimming west, away from the nest, while the male stayed floating nearby. A few seconds later an otter did a porpoise breath a couple meters to the right of the nest and disappeared. About thirty seconds later, it popped up right in front of me at the east edge of the pond for a split second, and then a few seconds later it popped its head up again down the shore to the left of me. The female, in the meantime, swam all the way out to the middle of the pond, just a speck in the distance. Then it was quiet for about fifteen minutes, before the male suddenly gave a loud call. The female then started swimming back from the middle of the pond. When she returned, they both resumed swimming and feeding the chicks near the nest as before, as if nothing had happened.
I was sorry to see September bring an end to the summer, and I know I was lucky to be able to visit when others could not. Hopefully, the grebes will nest close to the road again next year and everyone will be able to enjoy the grebe experience at SNWR.
Why and How Do Millions of Birds Migrate?
Written by Amanda Geahry, Visitor Services Assistant at the Sacramento NWRC
Every year millions of waterfowl migrate hundreds, if not thousands of miles to the Central Valley in California. One hotspot for these birds is the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex (Complex). From October-January, there can easily be over a million birds spending their winter at the Complex. Come February, many will begin to make their way back north to Canada, Alaska and even Russia for the breeding season. But why migrate? Wouldn’t it be easier to simply stay in one place all year round? Let’s dive into the migration of waterfowl (ducks, geese and swans) and learn about why and how they fly south every winter.
Many people think migration happens because of weather. Waterfowl are fairly tolerant of cold weather. They have the ability to thermoregulate, keeping their internal body temperature warm. And while it does get cold and snowy up north in Canada, Alaska and Russia, the reason birds migrate south is for food. Most waterfowl eat plant material. When snow starts to cover the ground up north, food becomes limited or disappears altogether. The winters in the Central Valley are significantly less harsh and there is plenty of food to go around not only at the Complex, but the neighboring agriculture fields. Thus, many migratory waterfowl will call the Complex home for the winter months. Come spring, most waterfowl on the Complex are gone. They head back north to their breeding grounds starting at the end of January. While Canada, Alaska and Russia are not ideal during the winter for these birds, the short summers up north promote huge insect and vegetation blooms that provide ample quantities of food. The Central Valley, on the other hand, is incredibly hot during the summer. This is not ideal for incubating eggs and food is scarce in the dry, scalding heat. The vast amount of food up north during spring and summer is especially important. Not only do adult birds need plenty of food for egg production, but their young ducklings, goslings and cygnets need ample amounts of food to not only grow, but pack on the fat for their first journey south.
Visitors often ask, ‘How do waterfowl know when it’s time to migrate south?’ There are a few ways they know it’s time to leave. There’s a gland in the brain called the pineal gland. This small organ is responsible for sensing light. When the days start getting shorter in the northern hemisphere (Canada, Alaska and Russia) it signals to migrating waterfowl that it’s time to leave. Another factor, and probably the driving force, is lack of food. Once the weather starts getting colder, or snow starts falling, food will become less available. This is another indication that it’s time to migrate south.
But what about a first year snow goose? If a snow goose is hatched in the summer, it has never migrated before. They don’t receive any directions, they can’t use the navigation on a phone that many of us rely on, yet somehow they find their way to the Complex. There are many answers to this question. The first is family units. Waterfowl, especially geese, travel in family groups. When it is time to head south for the winter, first year geese and swans will follow their family. But, things can happen along the way and young birds can become separated from the larger group. Don’t fret, they can still find their way. Waterfowl have the ability to follow landmarks such as mountains and coastlines to guide their way
during the day. I’m sure many of you have heard geese flying over your home at night. Flapping creates a lot of heat and the refreshing night air helps keep them cool. If they’re flying at night, they can actually use the stars to help guide them! In addition, they can use the axes of polarized light to determine the position of the sun and perform sun compass orientation; it’s like having a compass in their head! Migrating waterfowl will use flyways as their route to and from wintering grounds. A flyway is like a highway in the sky. There are 4 flyways in the United States: Pacific, Mississippi, Central and Atlantic. The Pacific is on the west coast of the United States and so waterfowl use the Pacific flyway to migrate to and from their wintering grounds here at the Complex. While they are making the arduous journey south, many of these waterfowl will stop and rest at other refuges like the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex in California/Oregon.
The Complex spends months in preparation to provide plenty of food, water, shelter and space for the thousands of migrating waterfowl that will call the Complex home for the winter months. The migration of waterfowl is extraordinary. To be able to make such a long, treacherous journey is astounding and the Complex staff are proud to support these huge numbers of waterfowl every year.
The Birds Are Here!
Hundreds of thousands of migratory birds have already made the journey to the central valley of California. The ponds at the refuges are mostly full now and the geese, ducks and other birds are packing the refuges. With the changing weather more raptors are being seen, and bald eagles are making their way down for the winter.
The Refuges Need Our Help
We hope you all have been enjoying the photos, videos and other content being shared both here and on the Friends FB group and new FB page.
As many of you are aware, The Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex consists of almost 35,000 acres of wildlife habitat. The central valley of CA is on one of the largest migratory paths for wildlife in the country. Literally millions of migrating birds and other animals come to the Central Valley to stay the winter. About 90% of their habitat has been destroyed over the decades from man’s activities. These refuges represent an important resource in preserving wildlife and benefiting a local economy that relies on agriculture, recreation and tourism.
The Refuge mangers do not have the funding to execute a lot of the projects that would greatly benefit the refuge complex.
The Friends of Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge complex was started earlier this year as the non-profit partner of the Refuges. The Friends is a 501(c)(3) tax exempt organization.
We realize it has been a difficult year, but the refuge needs are critical and we hope you will become a Friend. Since our sole mission is to benefit the refuges, your donations will go directly to their benefit.
We have established the following donation levels:
Snow Goose $250
Bald Eagle $1000
The Friends can accept donations via Paypal or personal check. See the Paypal link below:
Checks can be mailed directly to:
Friends of Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge
621 S. Plumas St.
Willows, CA 95988
For information on Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex:
Thank you so much! Feel free to forward this link to friends of yours who are interested in helping the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex.
Who We Are and What We Do
The Friends of Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge was formed in 2020 by a small group of dedicated people who love these refuges and understand how critical they are not just to the wildlife and habitat, but to the local and regional communities, schools, and businesses that benefit.
Our objective is very simple...to work with the refuge staff, regional individuals, schools and businesses to make the refuges even better and more accessible than they are today to people of all ages and walks of life.
As you can imagine the refuges cannot do everything that they need to do. The Friends of SNWR will work with our network of individuals and businesses to generate additional resources that will be allocated to specific projects approved by our board that otherwise could not be executed.
We are just beginning this journey. Please join us in helping to make the refuges even better than they are now.
The Friends of SNWR can also be followed on our Facebook group and Instagram account.
What is the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex?
The National Wildlife Refuge System is part of the US Fish and Wildlife service under the Department of the Interior. The US National Wildlife Refuge System is the world’s largest network of national lands and water, conserved and managed for fish, wildlife, and their habitats for the American people.
Here are the 'Big Six' Uses of the Refuge System:
1. Wildlife Observation
5. Environmental Education
But Always Wildlife First!
Facts about the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex
The Sacramento NWR Complex comprises almost 35,000 acres in the Central Valley of Northern California.
The complex is comprised of not one, but five separate refuges:
Sacramento NWR--established 1937, comprising almost 11,000 acres.
Delevan NWR--established 1962, 5877 acres.
Colusa NWR--established 1945, 5077 acres.
Sutter NWR--established 1945, 2951 acres.
Sacramento River NWR--established 1989, 10,353 acres comprised of various land parcels along the Sacramento River.
Summer at the Refuges...
From Amanda Geahry, one of the SNWR staff.
Have you ever been to the Complex during the summer? Many people who visit the Complex during the fall/winter migration season don’t think to visit during the hot summer months, but there is an abundance of wildlife to view from the comfort of your air-conditioned car! Despite the lack of large groups of waterfowl and raptors you see during fall migration, the Complex has a variety of wildlife to offer March – August, including waterfowl, raptors, mammals, and everything in between! In the spring the refuge expands the auto tour to include pond 2 which has its own unique wildlife.
If you have ventured to the Sacramento Refuge this summer I’m sure you have seen the nesting grebes along Pool 2. Clark’s and Western grebes will build nests in colonies and this year they have been nesting close to the Pool 2 road! River otters have been spotted this summer, and there have been frequent visits by bald eagles, just not the same quantities we see during the fall and winter. The resident Great Horned Owls have been out and about during the day on occasion as well.
Below is a list of just a few of the species you can see during the summer. Everything listed comes from my own species lists from Sacramento and Colusa Refuges between April and August; the lowest number of species I observed was 34! I have only been to the Sacramento and Colusa Refuges about half a dozen times between April and August this year but as you can see, THERE IS ALWAYS SOMETHING INTERESTING TO BE FOUND!
If you are someone who likes to get out and stretch your legs with a nice walk, the Sacramento Refuge has the 2-mile Wetlands Walk trail that is perfect for you! Many songbirds can be seen on this trail and it is a great way to stretch your legs before or after the auto tour. Lastly, during the summer, bicycles are permitted on parts of the auto tour (May 15- August 15). Everyone is riding bikes this year, and riding is a unique way to experience the Sacramento refuge.
The “wildlife checklist” is a wonderful way to see what is around during this time of year. Check that out here: https://www.fws.gov/uploadedFiles/Region_8/NWRS/Zone_1/Sacramento_Complex/Sacramento/Uploaded_Files/Maps_and_Brochures/Visitor_Services/Refuge_VS_Brochures/WildlifeList%20SNWRC%20for%20web%20smaller.pdf
Aside from the beautiful scenery and wildlife, I have personally found the Refuges to be a sanctuary and resource for relaxation during the COVID-19 pandemic.
What are you waiting for? Grab your binoculars, favorite ID book, and camera for some wonderful wildlife viewing at the Complex!
Potential wildlife to see between March and August (not a complete list!):
Red winged blackbird
Yellow headed blackbird
Great horned owl
Great tailed grackle
White faced ibis
American White Pelican
Ring necked pheasant
Friends of Sacramento NWR Receives 501C3 Approval Letter from IRS
August 3, 2020
That didn't take long! We received approval from the IRS today on our application for tax exempt status. Donations to the Friends are now tax deductible.
Friends of SNWR Receives Entity Number from California Secretary of State
June 23, 2020
Our articles of incorporation were approved by the state. We have an official entity number, a requirement for all other regulatory filings.
Friends of Sacramento NWR Receives EIN from IRS
June 23, 2020
With an entity number and EIN the Friends of Sacramento NWR can (and will) open a bank account and will be filing for tax exempt status with the IRS and FTB shortly.
Friends of Sacramento NWR files initial statement of information with CA secretary of state
June 23, 2020
One of many regulatory filings to operate as a tax exempt not for profit in CA.
Local Non-Profit Makes a Splash with Summer Fundraiser
June 9, 2019
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Friends of Sacramento NWR complete all federal and state regulatory filings
July 8, 2020
All documents have been filed to obtain federal and state tax exempt status. Now we wait!
Franchise Tax Board of California approves state tax exempt status for Friends of Sacramento National WIldlife Refuge
December 11, 2020
The Franchise Tax Board of California has approved tax exempt status for the Friends of Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge. We applied both with the IRS and FTB back in June. IRS approval came within a month. Glad to have the FTB put to bed now as well.
501(c)(3) Status Granted 7/22/20
The Friends of Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge received its determination letter from the IRS on July 22, 2020. Our EIN is: 85-1559025
We would be happy to furnish a copy of this letter upon request.
501(c)(3) Designation From IRS
Our EIN, received from the IRS on July 22, 2020 is: 85-1559025
We are happy to share a copy of the determination letter as requested.