Wildlife safaris and photography in and around San Joaquin County

Grab your camera for wildlife safaris in and around San Joaquin County

In recent years, I have come to appreciate the excellent photography of a handful of locals, most notably Chuck Higgs, a former Record advertising manager and recently retired from management of another daily newspaper group. On Facebook, I have sent more “outstanding photo!” comments to Chuck for his nature photography than anyone else. Since he travels to lovely local and nearby destinations, his suggestions make for fine travel exploration. And, whether you plan to take telephoto pictures, or just watch wildlife and enjoy spectacular scenery, these destinations should make your list (all photos courtesy Chuck Higgs).

Over lunch recently, Chuck explained, “Timing is everything with these areas. For the ducks, geese and other water fowl, November through March is ideal. Once the water starts to dry up, the birds leave. Some area like the Yolo Bypass keep some areas flooded and those attract the birds.

Photography equipment depends on your purpose. A good DSLR camera and a long lens is ideal for shots like these. Cell phones can be used but I don’t think the pictures will be to your liking. If you are birdwatching, a scope or binoculars are a must. Check with the destination agency; often there is a club or someone that is familiar with the birds and can point them out to you”.

Three snow geese prepare to land at Merced National Wildlife Preserve
(all photos courtesy, Chuck Higgs).

Chuck also recommends taking water, snacks and appropriate clothing. His favorite destinations include:

Lodi Lake: Chuck notes, “Something is always happening there year round. Best to take the trail east of the lake; follow it all the way along the river to Pig’s Lake. I have found herons, egrets, turtles, river otters and ducks there. Along the trail I have spotted hummingbirds, deer and a raccoon. I once spotted a fox but only for a few seconds”.

Looking beyond the county, Higgs recommends the South San Joaquin Valley, the California coast and Sacramento Valley:

Merced National Wildlife Reserve: Notes Higgs, “Down Hwy 99 to Merced and then head west. Best time to visit the preserve is November through March to find 30,000 to 40,000 Snow and Ross’ Geese spending their time there. If you are patient enough you can see or photograph thousands of these geese taking to the air at one time”.

San Luis Preserve: Chuck adds, “The preserve offers an auto tour through the park; November through March is the ideal time to see the various water birds that spend the winter at the preserve. San Luis also has a fenced area that is the home to a herd of majestic Tule Elk”.

A bull Tule elk poses at San Luis National Wildlife Preserve.

Colusa National Wildlife Preserve: Says Higgs, “It’s about 1.5 hours north of Sacramento on Interstate 5, offering an auto tour – the best part of Colusa is a viewing deck that sits on one of the ponds. It’s a great place to watch ducks and geese but also provides a great opportunity for photographer to capture Snow and Ross’ geese and White-fronted geese landing nearby. Again, being patient, you’ll witness thousands of geese taking off all at once. Usually a loud noise or a hawk flying over will cause them to fly.

Just north on I-5, also find Sacramento National Wildlife Preserve; the preserve offers a small museum and gift store. An auto tour through the park, November through March, is again the ideal times to see many of the birds”.

A Northern Shoveler take to flight from Sacramento National Wildlife Preserve.
Three white-fronted geese lift off from Colusa National Wildlife Refuge.

Moss Landing. Higgs exudes, “This is a great place to watch and photograph otters. Moss Landing is about 20 miles north of Monterey. It’s easier to see and photograph the wildlife since Moss Landing is more of a working area than a tourist destination. Taking the road off Hwy 1 and going around the beach you’ll be able to see a raft of male sea otters sleeping in the middle of the bay and watch pelicans dive for food. You can usually see otters diving for and then eating their catch; with luck you can find a mother sea otter and her pup. Most of the sea otters in this area are males (most of the females stay farther south, near Big Sur). You can also catch a whale watching tour out of Moss Landing. Another interesting ride is the Elkhorn Slough boat that takes you up the slough. Both whale watching and the Elkhorn Slough boat have people on board that are knowledgeable about local wildlife”.

A mother sea otter feeds her pup at Moss Landing.

Higgs recently visited the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area, adding, “Just west of the I-80 bypass bridge, take the Chiles Road exit. Go under the freeway and up on the levee and then down to a series of roads. There is a lot of water there and find egrets, herons, seagulls and ducks. They keep several areas flooded so a lot of water birds stay around. I’ve also noticed that they offer bat tours”.

Bodega Bay: Higgs notes “it’s a great place if you want to go to the ocean. I’ve only found birds and sea lions in that area. It’s beautiful scenery”. If time, explore the town and nearby Bodega for locations in the iconic Hitchcock film, “The Birds”.

Take Chuck’s advice; grab your camera, binoculars and get traveling!

For more information: Bodega Bay, marinescience.ucdavis.edu: Colusa National Wildlife Preserve, fws.gov/refuge/colusa; Lodi Lake, lodi.gov/348/Lodi-Lake; Moss Landing, dfg.ca.gov/lands/wa/region4/mosslanding.html; Merced National Wildlife Reserve, fws.gov/refuge/merced; Sacramento National Wildlife Preserve, fws.gov/refuge/sacramento; San Luis Preserve, fws.gov/refuge/san_luis; Yolo Bypass, dfg.ca.gov/lands/wa/region3/yolo.

Contact Tim at tviall@msn.com or follow at recordnet.com/travelblog. Happy travels in the west!

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