San Luis National Wildlife Refuge

It’s springtime at the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge in Merced County. Katherine and I visited recently in the hopes of seeing some tanagers.

This Refuge, like the Merced National Wildlife Refuge (which we visited earlier this year: see this post), has both auto tours and walking trails. We were happy to be able to bring Sam and Sasha who would be allowed on the walking trails if they were kept on leash.

Katherine and I began our visit with the Tule Elk auto tour. We were hoping to see some babies but the only ones we saw were lying in the grass. This small elk, found only in California, was believed to be extinct in 1873. Two were discovered on cattle baron Henry Miller’s ranch in 1974 and he ordered them to be protected. However, by 1895, there were only 28 tule elk left.

Various efforts to increase the population had some success. Herds were established at various locations throughout the state in the 1970s. As of 2019, the population was estimated to be 5700. (For more detailed information, see the article at Wikipedia.)

During the tour, Katherine (who loves a good interpretive sign) discovered that the elk shed their antlers every year! So, in the photo below, you can see an impressive set of antlers that will fall off at the end of breeding season. (For more detailed and super interesting information about it, read this article at Bay Nature.)

Tule Elk with a Brown-headed Cowbird perched on its back. Cowbirds eat insects stirred up by the movement of the elk through the grasses

One of the next things we saw was a Loggerhead Shrike (a bird I only knew by playing the fun board and digital game, Wingspan 😂). As Katherine and I watched from the car, the youngster begged for food from the parent below, who flew up to feed it — in the typical “shove it down their beak” fashion of birds.

Loggerhead Shrike begging
Loggerhead Shrike feeding a begger

Juvenile Mallards are always fun to see.

Juvenile Mallards

With many birds, a shorter tail is indicative of a juvenile. However, the adult Western Meadowlark also has a short tail. While we thought at first this was a juvenile, now I’m not so sure. The juveniles are paler in color and this one’s throat and overall color is pretty vibrant.

Western Meadowlark vocalizing
Western Meadowlark spreading its wings

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a bird fly from a hole in a tree. I spent several minutes waiting to see if the bird returned. Finally, this House Wren returned, though it would not do me the favor of flying into the hole for a photo. House Wren’s build a cup nest in an existing cavity.

House Wren perched outside a tree cavity

Katherine’s sharp eye spotted a pair of juvenile Great Horned Owls perched together.

Great Horned Owls

We could hear Marsh Wrens singing among the Tule. However, they were hard to spot. Once I pointed out a small bird to Katherine. Before I could find it again in my viewfinder, Katherine had seen, through her binoculars, a parent feed the juvenile Marsh Wren.

Marsh Wrens make large (about 7″ tall and 5″ wide), intricately woven nests in the reeds. A hole in the top allows access.

Running across the auto tour road was an in-a-hurry Ring-necked Pheasant.

Ring-necked Pheasant

As I mentioned in the beginning of this post, Katherine was hoping to see tanagers. She may have gotten a glimpse of one that flew quickly by. We aren’t sure and my photo of it is not clear enough to identify. However, we saw other beautifully colored birds, including a Black-headed Grosbeak and a Bullock’s Oriole.

Black-headed Grosbeak foraging in the grasses
Bullock’s Oriole looking for insects in the trees

During the auto tour, we were surprised by how unafraid some of the small mammals seemed to be. Squirrels were slow to move out of the way of the car, often running alongside the road before veering off into a nearby hole. Four Desert Cottontails were loitering about, two of them actually in the road. I know the Prius is quiet, but the two rabbits in the road seemed unconcerned. We stopped to wait for them to move. While I was taking a photo of one of the rabbits off to the side, I saw a Long-tailed Weasel. It was more skittish; it fled when it heard the sound of my camera shutter. (The rabbits didn’t mind the sound!)

Desert Cottontail
Long-tailed Weasel

Katherine and I spent about six hours (!) at the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge. (Yes, we brought a lunch!) Frankly, we had gone in with low expectations, but we happily surprised at how much we saw. We will return during the winter for a different experience.

If you decide to visit, don’t do what we did. Read the “Visit Us” page on the Refuge website. Read the whole page. At the bottom, it says that if you type in the address provided, most GPS systems will say, “You have arrived at your destination” about a mile short of the entrance [italics are mine].

Katherine and I had not read to the bottom of that page and were pretty confused when the GPS said we had arrived. We backtracked to some buildings we had passed (which looked and were closed — and related to hunting in the refuge) before we Googled the refuge and read more.

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[…] designated auto tours. Katherine and I did that at San Luis National Wildlife Refuge (as detailed here) and at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge (as detailed here). Both of these were great birding […]

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