It cannot be said that the waterfowl at Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex in California are more photogenic than waterfowl anywhere else. It can be fairly said, however, that its waterfowl are among the most photographable.
Thats because three refuge employees have combined their vocation (wildlife conservation) with their avocation (wildlife photography). Separately and together, theyve spent more than two decades creating optimum venues and opportunities for photographers, from professionals to pointandshooters.
The crown jewels of the program are four photo blinds, which serious photographers can reserve for an entire day. But it also includes several less timeintensive features that draw serious and casual photographers alikeautoroute viewing lanes, strategically located observation decks, loafing islands where birds linger. Photography tours into areas usually closed to the public are conducted regularly, too.
Outdoor recreation planner Denise Dachner says the effort began with former project leader Gary Kramer, now an outdoor writer and photographer, who set out to upgrade all the public recreation activities at the complex, including photography. It is being carried on by refuge managers Steve Emmons and Mike Peters, also avid photographers. When you have staff with strong interests, Dachner says, programs are enhanced through their passions.
Each blind, turnout and deck is in the right aspect, project leader Dan Frisk says, because staff knows the birds flight patterns and how light behaves. The program is managed through the eyes of photography and wildlife experts.
At Sacramento Refuge, the largest of the complexs five refuges at 10,819 acres, viewing lanes have been carved out along the sixmile auto tour so photographers can pull off the road and shoot out the window, using the car as a blind.
A pair of snow geese prepare for landing at Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge.
Credit: Steve Emmons/USFWS
Loafing islands were created to encourage birds to rest. Two parkandstretch areas and a multilevel viewing platform have been added.
The 4,567acre Colusa Refuge has a shorter auto route and a singlelevel deckwhich is nevertheless one of the best viewing sites in our entire complex, Frisk says. That was proved this winter when a rare falcated duck appeared in early December and stayed until early February, bringing 14,000 people to a refuge that usually counts winter visitors in the low thousands.
At Sacramento River Refuges Llano Seco Unit, a short, meandering trail has two multilevel viewing platforms, offering valleytofoothill vistas and an array of photo possibilities.
The photo blinds are used less oftenone day a week or so to avoid disturbing the birds. Emmons, who came to Sacramento Refuge 15 years ago, upgraded the two original blinds there. Peters, who arrived three years later, secured private funding for a photo blind at Colusa, and Emmons then expanded on Peters designs to replace the Sacramento blinds and build a new one at Delevan Refuge. Two of the blinds are wheelchair accessible, and all four are so popular that a lottery system was established. Each year, Emmons and Peters put in their bids for reservations with those of about 40 visitors.
But Emmons says it doesnt always take a deck or a blind to make a big difference( Were constantly looking. Well say, What if we put a log here or a snag there? Sometimes well just weedeat a little opening to give a nice clean shot.
And Peters says he no longer considers the blinds the main thing. They require getting up early, hauling equipment and sometimes putting on hip bootsmore effort than most people can expend. Hundreds more people take pictures from the viewing deck, he says. Its not that important that they get great pictures. Its more important that they get out and experience the outdoors that way.
He and Emmons are working to extend prime photo opportunities beyond the waterfowl season. The program keeps growing year by year, Emmons says. Between the two of us, we keep pushing.
Alison Howard is a Virginiabased freelance writer and editor.