For the birds

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service opens new refuge near Ham City

Erin Wade and son Jude Wade-Hull were among the first visitors to the Capay Unit of the Sacramento River National Wildlife Refuge. The site opened to the public last week after several years’ worth of restoration.

Erin Wade and son Jude Wade-Hull were among the first visitors to the Capay Unit of the Sacramento River National Wildlife Refuge. The site opened to the public last week after several years’ worth of restoration.

Photo By matt daugherty

Refuge trip:
The Capay Unit is free to visitors seven days a week, from two hours before sunrise to an hour and a half after sunset. It is located on County Road 23 west of Highway 45, a few miles south of Hamilton City. To celebrate the site’s opening, FWS is organizing a guided bird walk at 8 a.m. May 22. To sign up, call 934-2801.

To Glenn County residents, the name of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s newly opened refuge is slightly off the mark. That’s because the Capay Unit is actually located closer to the small farming community of Hamilton City than to its northerly neighbor, Capay. Still, it’s not the name of this open space but what’s found there that’s most notable.

“It’s a great riparian zone,” said Lora Haller, an FWS park ranger, “a great spot for migratory birds.”

Part of the Sacramento River National Wildlife Refuge Complex, the 660-acre property a couple of miles south of Hamilton City is one of 27 federally owned properties located between Red Bluff and Princeton. (For locals, the site is located just south of private property commonly referred to as “the pig hole.”) It includes more than a mile of the Sacramento River, giving visitors access to a region teeming with wildlife—more now than in decades.

The Nature Conservancy spent three years restoring 570 acres of the site, transforming the former agricultural land, mostly orchards, into native grasslands and oak savanna. Several new plantings of native trees and plants add to the existing 90 acres of dense riparian forest.

Other help came from the National Wild Turkey Federation, which provided funding for informational kiosks and three parking areas. That’s significant considering that only seven other units are accessible by car (the majority require boat travel). FWS has owned the site since 1999 and opened it to the public last week to little fanfare.

Avid birder Scott Huber knew the FWS owned property in that area but hadn’t heard about the opening. Being familiar with other nearby refuges, he’s eager to check it out. And the timing couldn’t be better.

“April is the magic month,” said Huber, who is education chairman of the Altacal Audubon Society.

Huber explained how this is the time of year when the tropical migrants from Central and South America—yellow-breasted chat and lazuli bunting, to name a couple—start making their way to the region to set up territories for nesting and breeding. And feeding.

“Those oak and cottonwood trees are chockfull of caterpillars and insects,” Huber said.

During a visit on Sunday (March 27), on a walk along a gravel road leading from a parking lot near the river, the blooming greenery was alive with black butterflies with iridescent blue markings—pipevine swallowtails, according to Haller. This northeast portion of the refuge is thick with cottonwood and other trees, berry vines, wild grapevines and other native plants.

Southward, the trail heads toward a steep bank with an unobstructed view of the mighty river, swift this time of year. There, the loamy landscape leads down to the water’s edge, where this reporter and her companions were the only people enjoying the scenery. In fact, not a soul was seen at the property, though it’s likely a few hunters were somewhere nearby, since Saturday marked the opening day of the wild-turkey season.

Mallard ducks swam near a sliver of a gravel bar in the middle of the waterway. The return trip provided a glimpse of a couple of osprey and a gopher snake sunning itself on the trail. The property is a great area for nature photographers. Fishing is allowed, and dogs on leash are permitted, too.

Huber noted that the area will be prime habitat for the threatened yellow-billed cuckoo, a migratory species he previously spotted while leading a field trip at the Rio Vista Unit near Corning. The secretive bird lives in dense riparian forests and is located by its distinct clucking call. During a phone interview Tuesday, Huber paused to play the bird’s call on his iPhone.

“I’m a total bird nerd,” he admitted.