We have been here just one month now and the learning curve is nearly vertical. We are spending October through December volunteering at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex. As the name implies, it is in the center of the Sacramento River Valley and consists of five individual refuges, some of which have subunits of their own. Only a limited number of them are open to the public and many of those are only accessible by boat from the river.
This entire valley lies on a major fly-way for migratory waterfowl coming from the arctic regions of Alaska, Canada, and Russia either to spend the winter months or to rest up before continuing their way further south. The literally hundreds of thousands of birds can totally consume a farmer’s crops in a matter of hours. The Sacramento NWR was created in 1937 to provide wetlands where the birds can rest and fatten up without disturbing the farmer’s crops. The Civilian Conservation Corps built dikes, canals, and dams to create the wetlands that provide a sanctuary for the birds.
We have spent the entire first month training for our work here. It is probably the most diverse assignment of any we have done before. Our primary responsibilities are in “visitor services.” A large requirement for that is to learn to identify 15+ species of ducks, geese, and swans plus a plethora of other birds that inhabit the wetlands. In the visitor center, we answer questions and provide visitors with information about the various units and their avian inhabitants; we assist with school children, other educational groups, and the public with indoor and outdoor presentations relating to the birds and the work on the refuge; we tour the various units to monitor for problems, but mostly to assist visitors to get the most out of their visits by answering questions and helping them to see and identify the birds. When time and opportunity arise, we will occasionally assist the biologists and naturalists with studies, population counts, and other projects.
Another important part of the refuge program is outreach beyond its borders. Each year they have a very popular booth at the state fair in the summer. Another outreach in which we were able to participate is the “Return of the Salmon Festival” at the nearby Coleman National Fish Hatchery. It was a gala fair with numerous wildlife, conservation, and hunting organization booths promoting their causes. There was also the showing of every aspect of capturing returning salmon, collecting eggs and milt (sperm), fertilizing the eggs, raising the young, and ultimately releasing the salmon so they can go off to sea to mature.