Natural voices

Naturalist Lori Dieter talks about Gray Lodge and the Snow Goose Festival

MIGRATORY CREATURES Above, ducks fly against the backdrop of the Sutter Buttes at Gray Lodge.

MIGRATORY CREATURES Above, ducks fly against the backdrop of the Sutter Buttes at Gray Lodge.

Photo By Tom Angel

Gray Lodge Refuge
Open daily, sunrise to sunset
Special group tours available
Info: Lori Dieter, (530) 846-7505

The first thing you notice out at Gray Lodge is the uncanny stillness. And it is not from want of sound. Each year around this time hundreds of thousands of birds flock to this area west of Gridley, situated in what is known geologically as the Butte Sink. And often hundreds of thousands of individual voices fill the still winter air. Perhaps what most suggests silence is the seeming absence of humanity and all its toys.

That is not to say there are no people out here. Or motor vehicles occasionally completing the migration along the gravel circuit around the huge pond supporting endless seeming icebergs of stark white snow geese. Perhaps this stillness blooms from the realization that one is witnessing something much larger than humanity. And probably much older, too.

The second thing you are apt to notice is naturalist and ranger Lori Dieter. She leads many of the guided tours out at Gray Lodge Wildlife Area and currently conducts the snow geese tours every Saturday and Sunday. A lightly freckled brunette with shoulder length hair, keen eyes and an easy laugh, Dieter has been involved at Gray Lodge for about 10 years, first as a volunteer and then, for the last three years, in her present capacity as a staff educator. She demonstrates a ready knowledge of the environs and their inhabitants and exudes sheer pleasure in explaining the whys and wherefores of Gray Lodge to curious tourists.

Given her clear affection for her job, one can’t help wondering if she always wanted to be a ranger.

“Not always,” Dieter admits. “Back when I was originally going to college [at Chico State], I did want to work with natural resources. But I was very confused about what I wanted to do. At that time I wanted to work with fish studies—fish counts and things like that. Unfortunately, that program was through the recreation department, and my parents told me they wouldn’t pay for that! So I ended up getting a business degree instead.”

After college, she was putting that degree to work managing a country club.

“I was managing over at Butte Creek Country Club,” she says. “Eventually, I just wandered back [to college]. You know how it is, [you get] that nagging feeling in the back of your head when you’re going in a different direction [than you should]. But I finally got to a point in my life where I had enough money to pay for my own re-education.”

A native Chicoan, Dieter admits a lifelong love of local flora and fauna.

Ranger Lori Dieter leads a group of Luther Elementary School children, from Live Oak, on a tour.

Photo By Tom Angel

“When I was a little girl,” she says, “we used to do little nature walks through the park—my mom used to go with me—and even through the university and whatnot.”

Now, Dieter has plenty of opportunities to take children through Gray Lodge.

“Today we actually had a group come in from Emma Wilson Elementary in Chico,” she says. “One tour may be nothing but exposure to a wetland, looking at ants and fish and things like that. Where another tour may be more oriented toward land usage and what animals use a different part of land and how humans impact that. Every tour is different.”

One human “impact” naturalist Dieter does not oppose is hunting. Some years the resident deer at Gray Lodge become overpopulated. The state then issues special permits for the purpose of thinning out the herds.

“I really do feel that hunting is a wonderful management tool,” Dieter states. “In nature, things are going to die. It’s just the way it is. And they are dying daily. It just happens. Whether insects or full-grown mammals. In the winter time, especially, animals are prone to overcrowding and disease. And without hunting—among other management tools, that’s just one tool in the box—you’re just going to lose the animals in a different way. So, in my view, at least you’re utilizing the meat.”

Right now, the snow geese are wintering at Gray Lodge. They are not only the refuge’s current main attraction, but also the focus of an annual festival.

Operating out of the Masonic Family Center, at 1110 West East Ave. in Chico, the Snow Goose Festival offers many opportunities for the general public to observe birds—from predators to waterfowl—through many trips to area wildlife refuges, including Gray Lodge. This year, the event happens to coincide with the centennial celebration of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Refuge System.

When asked if she will be directly involved with the festival this year, Dieter responds, “In the past, I have been on the committee for the Snow Goose Festival, and my predecessor, Debbie Peterson, also.” However, the event left her with little free time on her hands. “There was not enough of me to go around!” she admits and laughs. “I had to take a step back. But we’re still going to be at the Snow Goose Festival; we’ll have a booth there, and we’re going to have tours out here at Gray Lodge.”

A booth? For handing out fliers and pamphlets and things?

Thousands of snow geese arrive at Gray Lodge each winter.

Photo By Tom Angel

“You bet!” she says. “It’ll be right in the main entry [at the Masonic Family Center].”

What is it that makes the snow geese such an attraction this time of year?

“Because they are such big birds,” Dieter readily replies, “and there are so many of them. And, more than anything, because they are so vocal. Everybody loves to hear the snow geese.”

Dieter goes on to explain what it is about the snow geese’s cries that is so interesting.

“Each of the geese have different sounds,” she states, “different voices.”

As individuals or as a species?

“Both. You can pick out the different voices that are in the species, but definitely there is one distinct call that a snow goose will make that a Canada goose or white-fronted goose won’t make,” Dieter says. “It’s pretty much just a one-beat call, like a yell almost. A one-beat yell.”

Which perhaps accounts for that peculiar sense of stillness one experiences at the refuge—those timeless, nonhuman voices echoing across the expanse of Gray Lodge.

The Snow Goose Tours at Gray Lodge continue Saturdays and Sundays at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m., respectively, through Feb. 1 and 2. For more information: Lori Dieter, (530) 846-7505.

The fourth annual Snow Goose Festival occurs in Chico Friday, Jan. 24, through Sunday, Jan. 26, with most events occurring at or departing from the Chico Masonic Family Center, at 1110 West East Ave. In addition to trips out to Gray Lodge, also scheduled this year are excursions to the Sutter Buttes, an owl prowl through Bidwell Park, the annual “Audubon” Banquet on Saturday night, and many more events. For cost and more information: (530) 345-1865 or (800) 852-8570, ext. 313; e-mail:; Web sites: and