Each year more than a billion birds follow the Pacific Flyway, one of the four primary migratory routes in the Western Hemisphere which, according to the National Audubon Society, connects such far-flung habitats as the Arctic tundra and the wetlands of South America.
And many of those birds decide to take a break in Butte County, where the 9,100-acre Gray Lodge Wildlife Area outside Gridley is one of their favorite stops. From three kinds of tiny hummingbirds, whose weight is measured in grams, to greater sandhill cranes that can stand 5-feet tall and weigh 14 pounds, more than 200 species of birds populate this habitat that’s surrounded by rice fields and backed by the Sutter Buttes—considered the world’s smallest mountain range.
Prime time at the wildlife area is late October through early February. That’s when you can see dramatic displays of more than a million waterfowl as flocks of snow geese and swans feed in the rice fields and return to the wildlife area’s wetlands. The viewing is especially good as the season progresses and the birds range farther for food. Then around dusk, they come back en masse during a phenomenon dubbed “night-flight.”
There are all sorts of ways to experience Gray Lodge. A 3-mile auto loop travels through the viewing area, and wildlife observation “hides” allow you to observe through windows in simple structures near the seasonal ponds. Weekend 90-minute guided walks take place October through January. Or go out on your own as you follow the .85-mile Wetland Discovery Trail, which leads to a viewing platform. Pamphlets at the trailhead offer interpretive information that corresponds to 14 stops along the route.
And during Butte County’s popular Snow Goose Festival of the Pacific Flyway, Gray Lodge is a popular destination for field trips.