As of March 2011, the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service has opened the southern portion of this refuge to the public from dawn to dusk, seven days a week. The Pelican Nature Trail is a 3.8 mile loop trail that goes through seasonal wetlands, restored riparian woodlands, and old-growth valley oak habitat.
DIRECTIONS: 1. BECKWITH VIEWING PLATFORM: From Modesto, drive west on Standiford Avenue, which becomes Beckwith Avenue as it crosses over Highway 99. Continue on Beckwith Road, past Gates Road, to the viewing platform on the south side of the road. A spotting scope will be useful for scanning the winter waterfowl.
2. PELICAN NATURE TRAIL – From downtown Modesto, go to Ninth Street and turn left (west) on L Street. Follow this road, which becomes Maze Blvd. (also State Route 132) for 13.6 miles. Turn left on River Road and continue south for another 2.1 miles to Dairy Road. Turn left onto Dairy Road, go for one mile, and enter through the gate to the parking lot and trailhead.
A work in progress, the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge will one day be a required destination for birders in search of Central Valley specialties. Thousands of native trees such cottonwoods, several species of willows, and valley oaks have been replanted here.
The winter populations of Aleutian Cackling Geese are justly famous here, as formerly more than 90% of this species could be found in this refuge. Snow and Ross Geese are also abundant in winter, as are White-fronted Goose, Canada Goose, and Sandhill Crane. All these birds can be seen from the wooden viewing platform on Beckwith Road, just west of Gates Road. There are winter records of Brant and one record of Vermilion Flycatcher, about half a mile south of the platform. Harris’s Sparrow and Clay-colored Sparrow have been found at the end of Beckwith Road, associating with Golden- and White-crowned Sparrows.
Peregrine Falcon is always a possibility, with most sightings occurring in winter or migration. Merlin is present every winter, and American Kestrel can be found year-round. Shorebirds abound when nearby agricultural fields are flooded, and Lesser Yellowlegs have been seen in winter and in migration. Red-tailed, Swainson’s, Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks are common in the appropriate seasons. Bald and Golden Eagles are occasional visitors.
There are plans for more trails in the future, where the public will be treated to hosts of wetlands, riparian forest, and grassland bird species. Great, Snowy, and Cattle Egret; White-faced Ibis, American Bittern; Great Blue, Green, and Black-crowned Night Heron are just a few of the common wetlands species. There are records of Chestnut-collared and Lapland Longspur in the grasslands near the refuge entrance on Dairy Road, but these species are extremely rare.
Look for nesting Yellow Warblers in the willows and cottonwoods along waterways, Blue Grosbeak in the fields, and Lazuli Bunting in both places. There are records of nesting Least Bell’s Vireo, Lawrence’s Goldfinch, and Least Bittern in the wetlands. American White Pelicans flying overhead are possible anytime, as is Great-tailed Grackle. The growing riparian forest harbors Acorn, Nuttall’s and Downy Woodpeckers, Black-headed Grosbeaks, Anna’s and Black-chinned Hummingbirds in the appropriate seasons. Pacific-slope and Willow Flycatcher are common in migration, Say’s Phoebe in winter, and Black Phoebe year-round.
Some of the specialty birds include California Thrasher, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Yellow-billed Magpie, and Wrentit. Red-breasted Sapsucker is occasional in winter. Nearly every species of duck can be found on the small lakes within the refuge, in addition to Double-crested Cormorant, Kingfisher, Eared Grebe, Common Moorhen, and several species of gulls. Great Horned and Barn Owls are common in the appropriate habitat, and Short-eared Owls are occasionally seen at dusk and on foggy days. Rare birds have included Eastern Phoebe, Rusty Blackbird, Eurasian Wigeon, and Swamp Sparrow. There are historic records of Yellow-billed Cuckoo, and local birders eagerly await the return of this bird as the replanted riparian forest grows and matures.
It is difficult to overestimate the value of the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge to denizens of wetlands and riparian forests. As time passes and more birders gain access, the refuge bird list will grow until it is recognized as one of prime birding locations in California.