Photo Adventure – Merced National Wildlife Reserve

Posted by on Jan 22, 2012

Randy and I have been off on several photo adventures lately and I thought it would be nice to start a regular series of posts about one-day and overnight photo adventures that are close to the San Francisco Bay Area. My post about New Idria Mine and Ghost Town was a good start to that series.

Our second 2012 photo adventure was a trip to Merced National Wildlife Reserve (MNWR). The reserve is between Los Banos and Merced on Sandy Mush Road. I had seen the sign for Sandy Mush Road in the past, while driving up Hwy 59 to go to Yosemite, and had always wondered what was down the road. I mean, Sandy Mush, sounds interesting doesn’t it? If you go plan on staying overnight either in Los Banos or Merced and visit the reserve in the afternoon (including sunset) and early morning. Both towns are approximately 30 to 45 minutes away and have plenty of motels and restaurants. Take water and snacks to the reserve, there are no facilities there to buy food or drink.

Welcome to the Merced National Wildlife Refuge

Welcome to the Merced National Wildlife Refuge

The reserve includes 10,262 acres of wetlands, native grasslands, vernal pools and riparian areas. An interesting fact is that it was established to attract wintering waterfowl from adjacent farmland where they were causing crop damage. The MNWR hosts the largest wintering populations of Sandhill cranes and snow geese in the Pacific Flyway (insert link about the Pacific Flyway) with over 20,000 cranes and 60,000 geese arriving at the reserve each autumn. November through February is the optimum time to visit the reserve to see these birds.

A Northern Shoveler shows off his beautiful colors.

A Northern Shoveler shows off his beautiful colors.

We found the reserve easily and started around the 2-3 mile one-way loop spotting lots of ducks and coots along the way. The car in front of us pointed out a California Bittern right on the side of the road. There were hawks perched on trees and fence posts and as we came around the back side of the loop we saw the snow geese, hundreds and maybe thousands of them! They were sleeping in the water looking like a huge white puffy blanket covering everything. There is a parking area and viewpoint there and we stopped and took some pictures of the geese.

Thousands of Snow Geese Sleep in the Ponds

Thousands of Snow Geese Sleep in the Ponds

Since we had never been to the reserve we weren’t sure what to expect but had heard that the geese took off en masse in the late afternoon. We decided we had time to go around the loop again and took off looking for Sandhill cranes. They were there but deep in the reserve where there was a road marked as no admittance. So we kept going around to the main entrance and the viewing platform there. There is a restroom there also, the only one in the reserve. This is very important to know.

Sandhill Cranes are awkward yet graceful when flying.

Sandhill Cranes are awkward yet graceful when flying.

While we were at the main parking area someone called out that the geese were taking off! Unfortunately we did not have time to get back around to the other viewing area and our pictures are taken from kind of far off. I really wanted to get some close-up video of the geese taking off from the water. But it was still exciting to see as the geese formed huge formations in the sky as they flew over to a cow pasture and settled in for some foraging.  As it grew darker we decided to go around the loop one more time and drove around stopping at the far viewing platform where there is also a short trail around some of the ponds. There were a couple of hawks there that we tried to photograph but it was getting dark and this was difficult as you cannot get too close to them; they are very skittish.

My final shots were of the full moon rising over the fields one of which I used to create the shot I wished I could have gotten naturally, of the geese flying in formation across the surface of the moon.

Geese Fly Over the Moon (Photoshop)

Geese Fly Over the Moon (Photoshop)

Click here to see more images from Merced National Wildlife Reserve.

 

LINKS:
Merced National Wildlife Reserve
The Pacific Flyway