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Sprawling San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Complex is 700 plus square miles of haven on Pacific Flyway
An Aleutian Cackling Goose photo courtesy MIDDLE PHOTO: A US Fish & Wildlife photo taken by Gary R. Zahm of Aleutian Cackling Geese at the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge.

Winter is the time to enjoy Aleutian Cackling Geese at SJ River portion. 

Ten miles south of Manteca as the sandhill crane flies is the northern most tip of the 7,500-acre San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge.

It’s nestled against the southern banks of the Stanislaus River across from Caswell Memorial State Park and rural homes off Division Road that starts where South Manteca Road — the continuation of South Main Street — ends.

To access a public viewing platform from October to March, you need to drive to the western end of Beckwith Road out of Modesto.

For a year-round viewing experience that includes the Pelican Hiking Trail, you need to head south out of Manteca on Airport Road, cross the river, turn left at Jimmy’s Place onto Kasson Road that becomes River Road once you cross into Stanislaus County.

Once you cross Highway 132 and pass through the hamlet of Grayson, you turn east on Dairy Road to reach the Pelican Trail Parking Lot.

Why go now?

Actually, there are plenty of birds at the wildlife refuge year-round with many that come and go with the change of the seasons.

The biggest reason to head out now until early March are Aleutian cackling geese.

The winter grounds for almost all of the world’s Aleutian cackling geese is at the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge.

There are now more than 200,000 Aleutian cackling geese today.

Almost 45 years ago, there were only 800 of the birds left.

Each fall, they migrate from their breeding grounds in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands to the area just to the southeast of the confluence of the San Joaquin and Stanislaus rivers at the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge and neighboring private lands.

The geese arrive in October and November. They begin to return to their breeding grounds in March.

The San Joaquin River NWR website notes by 1975 their wintering habitat in the San Joaquin Valley was shrinking, and introduced arctic foxes in their Alaskan breeding grounds were eating their eggs and young.

The geese were placed under the protection of the Endangered Species Act.

In 1976, most of the remaining 800 geese were found wintering on lands west of Modesto and south of Manteca.

The website goes on to indicate the lands were established as the San Joaquin River NWR to protect wintering feeding and resting areas for the geese. At the same time, the arctic foxes were removed from the geese nesting islands in Alaska.

These successful efforts resulted in the Aleutian cackling goose being removed from the endangered species list in 2001 and achieving a population of over 200,000 birds today.

The Aleutian cackling geese along with the endangered riparian rabbit are the marquee species, if you will, of the San Joaquin River NWR although there are plenty of other birds and animal species.

The San Joaquin River NWR is one of four major components of the San Joaquin National Wildlife Refuge Complex in Stanislaus and Merced counties.

The complex is along the Pacific Flyway that serves as a major migrating route for birds.

It consists of the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge, Merced National Wildlife Refuge, San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge, and the Grasslands Wildlife Management Area.

The complex consists of more than 700 square miles of wetlands, grasslands, and riparian habitats, as well as over 1,400 square miles of conservation easements on private lands.

The following is what can expect to encounter as the refuges make their way through the calendar:


*Wetlands fully flooded

Sandhill cranes are abundant

*Ross’ geese arrive

*Tiger salamanders begin trek to vernal pools to breed

*Large numbers of ducks present


*Snow geese begin to arrive at San Joaquin River NWR

*Swans may arrive in small numbers

*Watch for eagles, falcons, and ferruginous hawks


*Numbers peak for geese and ducks

*Bald eagles often observed perched and hunting where migratory birds are concentrated at feeding and nesting areas

*Winter sees greatest diversity of raptors


*Great horned owls hatching

*Hawks exhibiting aerial courtship displays

*Large numbers of wintering waterfowl and cranes visible


*Waterfowl begin migrating north

*Hawks and herons begin nesting

*Shorebird numbers building

*Snakes encountered basking in the sun

*Beckwith wildlife observation area at San Joaquin River NWR closes for the season as geese and cranes migrate north


*Wildflowers in bloom

*Seasonal wetlands are drained to allow waterbird food plants to grow

*Peak number of shorebirds

*Summer neotroprical songbirds begin arriving


*Peak nesting time for hawks and herons, and early nest fledging begins

*Shorebirds are migrating in breeding plumage

*Songbirds are very vocal defending nesting territories

*Tiger salamanders return to burrows as vernal pools dry


*Shorebirds migrate north

*Seasonal wetlands are dry

*Songbird, heron, and raptor fledglings are visible


*Seasonal wetlands are irrigated to encourage waterbird food plants to thrive

*Fall shorebird migration begins

*Coyote pups out exploring their territories


*Swainson’s hawks have fledged and will form “kettles” over grasslands

*Irrigated pastures attract ibis and long-billed curlews

*Some early northern pintails arrive


*Sandhill cranes begin returning mid-month

*Aleutian cackling geese begin returning end of the month

*Greater white-fronted geese begin arriving

*Songbirds migrate south

*Monarch butterfly fall migration peaks

*Black-tailed deer rut begins


*Aleutian cackling goose numbers increasing at San Joaquin River NWR

*Beckwith wildlife observation area at San Joaquin River NWR opens for the season

*Greatest bird diversity occurs during fall and spring migrations

*Juvenile snakes emerge


For information on the overall complex, go to fws/gov/refuge/san-luis and for the San Joaquin River component go to fts/gov/refuge/san-joaquin-river