The Remarkable Wildlife of California’s National Wildlife Refuges

This week NWF is celebrating National Wildlife Refuge Week. Wildlife refuges are some of the most important protected areas for wildlife in the country. In California, there’s no shortage of spectacular wildlife habitat and an abundance of diverse wildlife watching, from marine life on the coast to bird watching in the desert.

“If you travel much in the wilder sections of our country, sooner or later you are likely to meet the sign of the flying goose — the emblem of the national wildlife refuges… Wherever you meet this sign, respect it. It means that the land behind the sign has been dedicated by the American people to preserving, for themselves and their children as much of our native wildlife as can be retained along with our modern civilization.” – Rachel Carson (Photo USFWS)
Although millions of visitors flock to the more famous protected places like Yosemite National Park with the hopes of seeing animals, the state’s lesser known wildlife refuges offer some of the best opportunities for wildlife watching. As the California Director for the National Wildlife Federation, I travel all around the Golden State for my work, visiting some of these amazing wildlife refuges. Below are some of the spectacular refuges I’ve visited and photos of the remarkable wildlife you might encounter there:

Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge


Last year, I had the privilege of accompanying a team of scientists working on condor recovery at Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge, led by Joseph Brandt of USFWS (follow their Facebook page The Condor Cave). Established in 1974 to protect the endangered California condor, the 2,471-acre refuge located in Ventura County plays a vital role in the California Condor Recovery Program, and provides key nesting and roosting habitat for the birds. I helped released Condor #628 from its crate, returning a bird home after it had had treated it for lead poisoning.

A condor in flight is impressive, and all of us—even the biologists who work daily with the birds—stood silent and awestruck as this ancient giant effortlessly glided over the hills, the wind playing its long wings like a musical instrument. Native Americans attributed the thunder to their flight, and they can travel more than 200 miles in a single day and soar 15,000 feet above the earth.

Merced National Wildlife Refuge

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Sunset over the Merced National Wildlife Refuge in California’s Central Valley (photo by Cindy Jacobo)
Located in the middle of California’s Great Central Valley, the Merced National Wildlife Refuge is an important stop in avian migration as part of the Pacific Flyway. In winter a symphony of bird music resounds over the landscape. The refuge hosts the largest wintering population of lesser sandhill cranes and Ross’ geese along the Pacific Flyway, provides important breeding habitat for an array of birds, and also offers a year-round home to coyotes, ground squirrels, cottontail rabbits, beaver and long-tailed weasels.

My friend Cindy Jacobo visits the refuge every chance she gets, and is always amazed at how much wildlife she encounters. “This time of year you’ll find our beloved lesser Sandhill Cranes that have migrated from Alaska for the winter. Among other wildlife you’ll see a few coyotes, Canada geese, mallards, black-necked stilts, northern pintails, peregrine falcons, great horned owls, barn owls and a good possibility of a pelican sighting!” Cindy acts as an ambassador for the site by sharing her remarkable photos frequently on social media. “Like many others I lead a somewhat stressful life. Our local refuge is my sanctuary where I go to relax and just breathe.” Her favorite sighting on the refuge? “When I spotted a bald eagle. I’d heard they were there but very shy.”

Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge

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OR7, the first wolf to enter California in 90 years in 2011, crossed the Oregon-California border using the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge (photo USFWS).
OR-7 made headlines in 2011 when he became the first wolf in California in ninety years, wandering a circuitous route of thousands of miles from his home in Oregon. Perhaps fittingly, when he finally made those fateful steps into California, he chose to enter on the border of the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge, established by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908 as the nation’s first waterfowl refuge. At peak, waterfowl populations can reach almost 2 million birds across its 50,000 acres. Although OR-7 chose another place to raise his family in southern Oregon (he is now the proud father of a second litter of pups), wolves continue to repopulate California. They will likely become permanent residents of the refuge in the future.

San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge

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The San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge houses the largest population in the world of the endangered riparian brush rabbit (Photo USFWS/Brian Hansen).
From my home in outside Yosemite, I often travel to the San Francisco Bay area for work. Instead of staying on the major freeways, I usually drive across the Central Valley via the scenic California State Route 132, a two-lane road that meanders through the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge. While I often view great blue herons or snowy egrets along the riverbanks, I learned about a lesser seen inhabitant of the refuge while attending the annual Wildlife Society Western Region Conference–the endangered riparian brush rabbit. Through a partnership with the Endangered Species Recovery Program at California State University, Stanislaus, the Refuge has released captive bred rabbits to reintroduce the animal to its native homeland.

Don Edwards San Francisco Bay

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Snowy Egret hunts while perched on a fence at Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge. ( Photo Gregg Aronson/USFWS)
In 1974, the southern end of the San Francisco Bay become the site for the nation’s first urban national wildlife preserve, the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Surrounded by cities with a total population of almost 8 million people, the site enjoys 700,000 visitors a year. Home to more than a half a million shorebirds, including the endangered California clapper rail, you’ll also find a diverse array of wildlife at the refuge, from the tiny salt marsh harvest mouse (also endangered) to the largest mammal frequenting its borders, the harbor seal.  The refuge is also the site of the South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project, the largest tidal restoration project on the west coast.

Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge Complex

A bobcat kitten peeks out from a tree at the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge Complex (photo Sonny Bono NWR )
At the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge, you can find a diverse array of wildlife. Located on the southeast shore of the Salton Sea, which is one of the world’s largest inland seas and also one of the lowest at 227 feet below sea level, the refuge is just 40 miles from the Mexican border. Conditions in this desert land can be extreme–summer temperatures regularly exceed 100F.

Yet the site is the largest stop in California for birds on the Pacific Flyway, houses more than 70% of the state’s burrowing owl population, and an array of mammals like the coyote, desert pocket mouse, and Merriam’s kangaroo rat live within its boundaries.  Another fun fact about this unusual place is that Sonny Bono learned to water ski at the Salton Sea and in 1998 the Refuge was renamed for the Congressman as a result of his efforts to help protect it.

Pixley National Wildlife Refuge

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Sandhill cranes at Pixley National Wildlife Refuge (Photo Beth Pratt)
In the winter months, I’ll always try to make a stop on my drive to or from Los Angeles at Pixley National Wildlife Refuge, located about 45 miles north of Bakersfield, to view the sandhill cranes. From the observation deck, you can watch these graceful birds fly in and out of the refuge, sometimes with the tule fog creeping through the fields creating a ghostly backdrop.

These cranes have journeyed from as far as Alaska, and the refuge has housed over 6,400 of these weary travelers at times. Located on the shores of historic Tulare Lake–once the largest lake west of the Great Lakes– Pixley also provides habitat for the many threatened and endangered species such as the San Joaquin kit fox, vernal pool fairy shrimp and Tipton kangaroo rat.

Lake Merritt

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A river otter hangs out on a dock in 2013, the first to be seen in at Oakland’s Lake Merritt in decades. (Photo by Randy Gorringe)
Lake Merritt is a 155-acre tidal lagoon in downtown Oakland that has the distinction of being the first wildlife refuge in the country. In 1869, the then mayor of Oakland designated the lake as a refuge for migrating birds, followed by the state of California naming it a state game refuge in 1870. But like the larger San Francisco Bay to which it is connected, the Lake suffered from pollution as the population in the Golden State grew, and just a decade ago the lake’s stagnant water and littered shores made it an eyesore.

The community rallied and voters in Oakland agreed to fund restoration efforts in 2002. Nature responded with a noticeable increase of wildlife, and in 2013, a river otter paid the ultimate compliment by hanging out on a shoreline dock. He’s the first to be seen in the area in decades.

Farallon National Wildlife Refuge

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A humpback whale breaches in the waters off the Farallon National Wildlife Refuge (Photo by Isidore Szczepaniak).
Often referred to as California’s Galapagos, the Farallon Islands hosts the largest seabird nesting colony in the contiguous United States, along with the largest colony of western gulls in the world.  An abundance of marine life swim in its waters including humpback whales, Risso’s dolphins, and elephant seals. The Farallons also rank as one of the best places in the world to study great white sharks, who frequent the waters in search of a pinniped meal  Even if you can’t visit, you can check out views of the refuge at the live Farallones Cam.

Unlike the other refuges listed in this blog, I have never visited the Farallon National Wildlife Refuge,  located about 30 miles west of the Golden Gate Bridge, as the site is closed to public access. My friend and scientist, Izzy Szczepaniak with Golden Gate Cetacean Research, has made frequent journeys to the area for his research, and wrote his master’s thesis was on “Abundance, Distribution, and Natural History of Harbor Porpoise in the Gulf of the Farallones.” I have lived vicariously through him as he often shares both photos and tales of the Farallons.

Happy National Wildlife Refuge Week!