Pixley National Wildlife Refuge: a wintertime treasure

Ivanhoe Sol

By Pedro Hernandez
Ivanhoe Sol

While many people look towards the mountains for accessing beautiful nature, the San Joaquin Valley Floor is home to many amazing sights of nature and in particular, birds. Not only is Tulare County home to over 100 types of birds, it is part of the Pacific Flyway – one of the most important bird migration paths in the world.

According to Audubon California, an environmental nonprofit organization that specializes in protection of birds, “Each year at least a billion birds migrate along the Pacific Flyway, but these birds are only a fraction of those that used the flyway a century ago. Habitat loss, water shortages, diminishing food sources, and climate change all threaten the birds of the Pacific Flyway.”

Birds are important because they provide many services to the region. For instance “flycatcher” type species eat insects while other birds eat plants and other birds pollinate flowers or spread seeds which are spread through their excrement. As a result, they are important architects of the natural ecosystem with their ability to alter the landscape with their presence.

Before European colonization and the land conversion that occurred once modern farming the San Joaquin Valley looked completely different. The Valley floor was covered in various trees and consisted of wetlands, or inland areas that were naturally flooded by river overflows. This resulted in a landscape that once supported Tulare Lake, the largest freshwater lake in the western United States and an ecosystem that supported birds from all over the Americas.

Since the late 1800s Tulare County’s lakes were drained and rivers were rerouted to support farming. This essentially eliminated the natural ecosystem and has meant that National Refuges must now provide only a fraction of critical habitat for vulnerable wildlife in Tulare County.

Most important wetlands have been disconnected from their original water sources. The refuge is a managed wetland, meaning that the habitat that has been created is artificially sustained by groundwater pumping. This makes the refuge 100% reliant on groundwater just like Ivanhoe.

Meghan Hertel, Director of Land and Water Conservation, with Audubon California says,“Just like people, birds need clean water to drink, grow food and refuel.” However, she continued “over the last 200 years we’ve basically lost all of our natural wetlands except for a few pockets, and Pixley is one of them. This means that places like Pixley are of outsized importance for the overall wildlife population they support.”

The many birds that travel along the Pacific Flyway represent only a fraction of previous populations. For example, Hertel stated up to 40 million waterfowl once traveled the Pacific Flyway, populations now hover around 5-7 million birds. She says, “while we still get many birds, their populations have declined because there just is not enough habitat in the Valley or throughout their migration path.”

When important habitat does not receive enough water supplies, habitat begins to recede while also allowing disease to spread easily. Many birds currently at the Pixley refuge have been found along the Klamath refuge in Northern California which recently experienced an outbreak of botulism which killed over 40,000 birds in the last months.

However, this refuge still provides important services to the area. According to the U.S. Fish And Wildlife Service, the Pixley Refuge still “provides nesting, foraging, and cover for a variety of species including threatened Tipton kangaroo rat, blunt-nosed leopard lizard, and the endangered San Joaquin kit fox. During the winter months, it is the best place in the Southern San Joaquin Valley to view Sandhill Cranes.”

Hertel says Ivanhoe residents should be proud of their environmental community and encourages residents to visit if able, “There are people that travel all over the world to come to the San Joaquin Valley to witness this amazing migration. This is one of the best displays of bird migration on the entire west coast.”

Visitation Considerations

While the refuge about an hour away, this presents a relatively close recreation and educational opportunity where community members can safely practice social distancing. To prepare Ivanhoe Residents for a trip, we offer these considerations:

When is the best time to go?: The refuge is open from sunrise to sunset. While birds and other wildlife either very early morning or evening time. The thousands of birds at the refuge are very active in the morning and especially in the hour before sunset, where thousands of birds find their way back to the refuge to rest overnight.

Watch out for the Roads: Road 88, which leads to the Refuge is one of the worst maintained roads in Tulare County. It is unfortunate that nature lovers and local residents must navigate this path. Advocates are currently pushing the County to repair the roads. We advise Ivanhoe residents to drive below the speed limit to reduce damage to personal vehicles.

Accessibility Considerations: While the path itself is not paved with cement, the ground is firmly packed and allows for safe travel by foot and by modified wheelchair assuming an individual has some degree of ability to walk. The observation deck also ramps for ease of access.

Are binoculars necessary? : No they are not, but they are useful. Most birds can be seen without binoculars. There is an installed telescope along the observation deck that is free to use however we strongly encourage residents to bring disinfectant wipes to minimize the chance of spreading COVID. A camera with zoom features can also assist with far away birds.

Is there a charge for entry? – There is no charge.

Finally, please remember to bring food and water but do NOT feed the animals!

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