By Peter OttesenApril 01, 2009
Record Staff Writer

SAN LUIS NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE COMPLEX – The richness of the natural diversity found in the Grassland Ecological Area, a 180,000-acre wetland and upland region of Merced County, is spectacular these days and attracting outdoors enthusiasts who revel in its treasures.

Imagine a vast carpet of gold fields – brilliant yellow wildflowers – spanning thousands of acres, contrasted by flocks of Arctic nesting geese and a plethora of shorebirds and stealthful amphibians, all sharing the 2,200-acre Arena Plains unit of the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Complex.

“Nature’s paint brush is amazing,” said Joanne Katanic of Lodi who, along with Audubon Society member Jan Katayama, took part in a refuge-sponsored tour on Saturday. “Here you get to marvel at the beauty of nature and walk among it.”

As we stood next to a vernal pool, Katanic’s eyes seemed mesmerized on the gold fields when she spotted a small bird and immediately raised her binoculars for a closer look.

“It’s a horned lark,” she said, passing her binoculars to me. “We don’t usually see them all the time.”
During the free, three-hour tour, members of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service explained the unusual eco-system at Arena Plains, identified species of animals and plants, and touted the incredible diversity of wildlife that is found on a plain created centuries ago by wind-blown sand from the Merced River.

“This is the better half of Half Dome,” mused Rich Albers, the assistant refuge manager. “The eolian process produced sand dunes and soils that are so attractive to wildlife.”

Albers believes most people wouldn’t know that these kind of natural treasures even exist in the San Joaquin Valley, especially if they didn’t get off Interstate 5 or Highway 99.

“It’s amazing how little known the Grasslands is,” he said. “People have to drive the smaller roads between Merced and Los Banos to discover the large complex of wetlands.”

Albers said the USFWS leads many field outings for organized group, especially between September and April.
“That’s when the most eye-catching stuff occurs, when it isn’t as dry as in summer,” he said.

Albers said the USFWS provides organized outings to see sandhill cranes, waterfowl, shorebirds and wildflowers. The trick is to hit it right, when birds or flowers reach their peak.

If you want to go now, a visit to Merced NWR will find 70 percent of the wetlands still flooded with good numbers of Ross’s geese and ducks present. Avocets and black-necked stilts are just starting to nest on the mud flats and all the hawks and owls are sitting on nests. You’ll also encounter species you might not normally see such as phalaropes, which are migrating through from South America.

“There are just a lot of animals moving around,” Albers said. “There are neotropical migrants like western tanangers and black-headed grosbeaks, which are spectacular.”

Visitors may opt to see wildlife, either by hiking or driving.

Merced NWR offers a 5-mile auto tour route, complete with kiosks and interpretive panels. San Luis NWR has two vehicle routes – a 10-mile waterfowl tour and a 5-mile tule elk tour, as well as walking trails. The West Bear Creek unit has a 3-mile auto tour that passes very close to wetlands for up-close sightings of ducks, shorebirds and songbirds. The Arena Plains unit is open only on special tours.

Federal areas within the Grassland Ecological Area are open daily, without charge, from sunrise to sunset. To arrange for a group field outing contact recreational outdoor planner Jack Sparks, (209) 826-3508. A Web site with maps, directions and list of public events is found at: fws.gov/sanluis/sanluis.

The Grasslands is the largest, historic, contiguous marsh that remains in the valley, and a resource waiting to be discovered, just 90 minutes from Stockton.

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Contact outdoors columnist Peter Ottesen at (209) 546-8269 or pottesen@recordnet.com.

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