Less than an hour from Modesto, south along Highway 165 – Lander Avenue in Turlock – are several interlocked protected areas under the broad description of the Grasslands Ecological Area.
On a recent visit we were treated to the rather rare sight of a large flock of sandhill cranes. Majestic large gray birds, they sat upright along the bank of a slough, looking much like a gathering of monks doing meditation. Suddenly they were all airborne, an uncommon spectacle indeed, according to our host, Ric Ortega, general manager of the Grasslands Water District.
You must hasten to see these cranes because, as Ortega was quick to point out, these visits are quite limited and the cranes will soon depart for northern breeding grounds when the ground begins to dry and the birds sense that conditions are warming in British Columbia and Washington.
We saw other fascinating sights as well. A large hawk suddenly flew upward in front of us, carrying a large snake and struggling to gain altitude with its heavy load.
The marshes and sloughs were well populated with the little ever-present coots. Mallards flew overhead, egrets were in abundance. The wetlands were alive with birds and wildlife.
While all of the area comes under the general heading of “grasslands” there are several distinct agencies involved. The northernmost site is actually a California state park. Great Valley Grasslands State Park features several hiking trails, including a 6-mile loop that lies partially along the San Joaquin River.
Next comes the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge, with a modern visitor center and many trails and roads open to the public. Some 10,000 school-age children visit the center each year to learn more about this critical ecological area.
There is a large herd of tule elk confined behind a high wire fence. A good dirt road is open all the way around the elk habitat, and on our drive we saw dozens of these magnificent animals. There is even a high observation platform, complete with built-in telescope, for viewing the herds.
The Los Banos Wildlife Area is just north of the city and has access roads that give visitors close views of the surrounding areas and wildlife. Here you will find the Grassland Environmental Education Center, which provides outreach to some 10,000 students annually with a hands-on learning experience in this critical ecological area.
The entire area gives us just a glimpse of what this valley looked like 200 years ago. At that time, California had about 5 million acres of wetlands. Today less than 10 percent of that area remains in its natural state. The rest has been lost to development, farming and flood control measures.
Water, as always, is critical to the survival of the area. The federal government provides the water to maintain the grasslands from the Central Valley Project, sending it south from the Shasta watershed. But, as in every other aspect of California water conditions, the 2014 Grassland supply is in jeopardy.
Ortega said the habitat’s state is reminiscent of 2013, when deliveries were cut. He said that refuges ideally would have enough water to maintain the wetlands through spring and provide irrigation for wildlife food and local breeding birds. Unfortunately, this year that is out of the question.
Make an effort to make the short drive and spend at least part of a day in this intriguing area. It’s less than an hour from home. This area is vital to the wildlife and ecology of our area, and it promises a fascinating view of nature, up close and real. And be sure to bring your binoculars and telephoto lenses.
Hagerty is an Oakdale real estate developer active in community nonprofits. Sen
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