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Enjoy San Joaquin Valley Living

For The Birds

Jan 25, 2018 05:00AM ● By Enjoy Magazine

Birding Kern National Wildlife Refuge

February 2018
Story by Michael O'Brien

A place where migrating birds are so numerous that they blot out the sun, where a carpet of white snow geese cover natural wetlands, and a cacophony of avian chatter fills the air as geese, shorebirds, ducks and songbirds claim territory and fight for food, is birding nirvana.

Fall bird migrations of the not-so-distant past brought these scenes to most of the 800,000 acres of the San Joaquin Valley. However, years of hunting, urban development and agricultural encroachment have reduced migratory habitat to about 2 percent of its original size. To ensure that some of our lost wildland habitat remained and was reclaimed, Congress carved out a system of 560 National Wildlife Refuges. 

Located on the southern margin of what was once the largest freshwater wetland complex in the western United States, the Kern National Wildlife Refuge Complex sits as a lush island in a sea of farmland. By the time fall waterfowl and water bird migrants begin arriving, refuge managers are flooding 6,500 acres of marshes with Central Valley Improvement Act water, creating seasonal wetlands and riparian habitat.

Autumn migrants using the Pacific Flyway begin showing up at the refuge in September. Thousands of waterfowl use this habitat. Northern Pintail, Green-winged Teal, Northern Shoveler, Gadwall, Greater White-Fronted Geese and Snow Geese are just some of the species that make this area their winter home. American Wigeon, Mallard and Ruddy Duck are common nesters. While the number of migrating birds fluctuates as some birds continue their migration south, waterfowl numbers may peak to 80,000 in December and January as they forage in the moist soil and seasonal marsh areas.

 Kern National Wildlife Refuge features many opportunities to watch birds and other wildlife. A covered kiosk adjacent to the parking lot overlooks a small marsh and outlines the habitat, flora and fauna visitors can expect to experience. Those wishing to explore further may visit the refuge headquarters to pick up a bird list booklet, check out the latest rare bird sightings and secure a map of two auto tour routes.

Two auto routes are nicely laid out for maximum habitat viewing. Auto Route #1 is a 6.5-mile-long gravel road which circles marsh, sink and riparian scrub and moist soil environments. Auto Route #2 is a 4.3-mile path around the northeastern corner of the refuge. Plan a few hours of stop-and-watch driving, as stopping along the route is permitted. Binoculars, spotting scopes and field guides greatly enhance viewing opportunities and understanding. Three parking lots on Auto Route #1 are strategically situated for auto exiting and watching wildlife, and are the only spots on the routes that allow visitors to exit their cars. Keep in mind that the best bird blind on an auto tour is your car.  •

If you go: From Highway 99, take exit #56A Garces Highway at Delano. Travel west 19 miles to the refuge entrance.  • (800) 344-WILD