Blackbirds flit between reeds jutting out of the marshy waters. A bald eagle perches in a tree, far above clusters of bobbing ducks. In a mesmerizing display, hundreds of snowy white geese take flight in an undulating swarm that mottles the gray sky.
This is the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, one of a number of spots in California for birds traveling along the Pacific Flyway, a migratory path that stretches from Alaska to the tip of South America. Millions of migratory birds, representing more than 100 species, visit or pass through the Golden State each year.
“If you’re interested in migratory birds for any reason, California is the place to be,” John Eadie, who teaches conservation biology at the University of California, Davis, told me.
The Pacific Flyway is one of four major North American avian migration routes, and California has been a major destination on the Flyway for thousands of years.
Some experts estimate that at the start of the 20th century, 60 million birds were migrating to California’s wetlands each winter. The Central Valley was a hot spot. When the eminent ornithologist Frank Chapman visited Los Banos in 1903, he wrote, “I have never seen birds more abundant.”
But that was before California drained more than 90 percent of its wetlands for agriculture and development, eliminating much of the habitat that the birds relied on. For example, a longtime destination for birds was Tulare Lake, once the largest body of fresh water west of the Mississippi. By the middle of the 20th century, the lake was all but gone, transformed into an empire of farms (at least until an exceptionally rainy winter comes along.)
The Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, which is just off Interstate 5 about 80 miles northwest of Sacramento, was created in the 1930s by flooding dry land to re-establish habitat for birds that would otherwise eat crops. The refuge typically provides a home for 250 species of birds each year, with as many as 500,000 migratory ducks and 250,000 geese visiting between November and January.
Nat Seavy, director of migration science for the National Audubon Society’s Migratory Bird Initiative, told me that preserving places in California for birds to pass the winter is a complicated balancing act that must take into account water supplies, agriculture, other animals’ habitats and the needs of people.
“The stewardship of birds kind of depends on everybody’s story along that flyway,” he said.
Seavy pointed to the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area in Davis, a 16,600-acre haven for birds that was created in the late 1990s to serve two purposes: restoring wetland bird habitat and providing a flood plain for the Sacramento River. I visited the preserve recently, and saw ducks with emerald collars preening themselves and tiny long-legged shorebirds scuttling across the driving path.
Rebecca Ryland, a longtime Davis resident, had set up an easel and watercolors that morning to paint the glistening wetlands. She told me that she had already seen two enormous flocks of geese swooping overhead, drawing visitors’ heads skyward.
“It’s amazing,” said Ryland, who comes to the park daily. “Sometimes I just sort of say: ‘Take it easy. You have a long trip.’”
A (not-at-all-comprehensive) list of places to see birds in California this winter:
Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, about 80 miles northwest of Sacramento. This is a hot spot for waterfowl, and viewing is best between October and March.
Gray Lodge Wildlife Area, about 40 miles south of Chico.
The Salton Sea, about 50 miles southeast of Palm Springs, is one of the most important Pacific Flyway stops. By January, the wings of more than 400 species of migrating birds form living clouds across crystal clear skies.
Suisun Marsh, about 50 miles northeast of San Francisco, accounts for more than 10 percent of California’s remaining natural wetlands, and provides habitat to more than 220 bird species.
If you read one story, make it this
A $1.7 million public toilet has come to symbolize red tape in San Francisco.
Today we’re asking about love: not whom you love but what you love about your corner of California.
Email us a love letter to your California city, neighborhood or region — or to the Golden State as a whole — and we may share it in an upcoming newsletter. You can reach the team at CAtoday@nytimes.com.
And before you go, some good news
Love hit Kelsey Kiyota and Elliott Lin like a high-speed car.
The pair had been friends for six years when, in 2018, at a mutual friend’s party in San Francisco, they discovered their shared love for the “Fast and Furious” movie franchise. Sparks flew (and engines revved, and wheels turned).
“This could be my shot,” Lin recalled thinking after the interaction. “This could be the one.”
Lin was so struck by the connection that he asked Kiyota out after the party. A few months later, the two had their first date — over Korean barbecue in San Francisco — and bonded over more shared loves: food and restaurants.
From there, the two fell in love over many meals, long hikes near Lake Tahoe and a trip to Kiyota’s family home in Colorado. Lin popped the question in January 2023, and the two began planning a wedding in Hawaii, where Kiyota has a family connection. The couple tied the knot there in a ceremony with friends and relatives this month.
Thanks for reading. I’ll be back tomorrow. — Soumya
P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword.
Maia Coleman and Briana Scalia contributed to California Today. You can reach the team at CAtoday@nytimes.com.