The Merced National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1951 to divert migrating waterfowl from decimating crops on local farms, contains more than 10,000 acres of wetlands, vernal pools, riparian habitat and pastures.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Refuge System, it contains the largest population of migrating geese along the Pacific Flyway.
Every year, 60,000 geese stop at the refuge, where they spend the winter eating corn and winter wheat before returning in spring to the Arctic Circle. Some migrating waterfowl rest at the site and then continue south to Mexico.
It is a fascinating place, an international airport and hostel for birds, and every kid in Merced should experience it.
Managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, with help from local farmers, the sanctuary is part of the 45,000 acre San Luis Wildlife Refuge Complex, which also includes San Luis Wildlife Refuge, San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge and Grasslands Wildlife Management Area.
In addition to the 45,000 acres of public lands, the complex also contains 90,000 acres of conservation easements on private land.
At the Merced site, farmers help manage 300 acres of corn and winter wheat, and 500 acres of pasture for cattle, who eat down the higher grasses, leaving behind a pasture suitable for grazing geese.
Waterfowl are not the only wildlife that benefit from the agreement between local farmers and the Wildlife Refuge System.
Last week, I went there for the burrowing owls. I have never seen one in the wild. Though they are active during the day, they are hard to spot. With their mottled brown coloring, they blend into the landscape.
If one considers the cacophony of thousands of waterfowl all feeding together at once, it is easy to understand that the refuge, while peaceful, cannot be described as quiet. Though I was the only human there that afternoon, I did not feel lonely.
My time was limited, so I decided to take the five-mile driving loop around the main part of the refuge, stopping along the way to look for burrowing owls, but I soon became distracted.
I spent some time observing coots, with their velvet-black heads and gray bodies, and pudgy dowitchers, hundreds upon hundreds of them, floating and eating. I pulled over to watch teal ducks and two white pelicans on an island.
I also noticed a hawk perched on a low-hanging branch of a bare cottonwood and stopped about 15 feet from his tree. He peered at me out of his left eye, then turned his head and appraised me with the right. We studied each other for a while. Nearby, water bubbled from a pipe. I kept expecting him to fly off, but I was the one who finally left. He sat and watched me go.
Two other hawks sat high in tree, watching Angus cattle graze below them. An egret crossed the road in front of me, taking its time. I saw avocets and Canada geese.
But there were no burrowing owls in evidence. I will have to go back and be more strategic in my search. I'll wait for a warmer day and set up surveillance. I can't think of anything else I'd rather do.
Our valley was once home to 5 million acres of wetlands. Today, 6 percent, or 300,000 acres, remain.
The Merced Refuge is a testament to what can be gained from liaisons between agriculture and government, but it is also a cautionary tale about what we will lose if we're not vigilant. To me, it's also a snapshot of what has already perished.
It is reassuring to know that there exists only a few miles from my home a world far away in spirit from freeways and florescent lights.
I think about the migratory birds and try to envision their journey, what they have seen and gone through on the arduous trek. I imagine what the refuge must be like in early spring, deep into the night, when the place thrums with the sound of insects and great horned owls are on the move under a bright moon.
The refuge opens a half hour before sunrise and a half hour after sunset, every day. The best time to go, of course, is now.
Brigitte Bowers is a lecturer in the Merritt Writing Program at UC Merced.