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Join Naturalist Journeys and noted Central Valley birder expert David Yee on this winter California birding tour. With just two hotels, enjoy the luxury of settling in and exploring daily without frequent moves.
The Central Valley is world-famous for wetlands, waterfowl and wine—and you can enjoy all three! Be awed by clouds of Snow Geese and ponds filled with Sandhill Crane in an active wetland habitat, search for rare shorebirds along rivers and dormant agricultural fields, and delight in Yellow-billed Magpie and Swainson’s Hawk in oak woodlands. Visit six of the region's most renowned small vineyards, several of which have cultivated native habitat along with grapevines and all of which welcome birders. Stay in a premier historic inn, located in Lodi, a delightful winegrowing hub.
- Relax in the historic Wine and Roses Hotel, surrounded by gardens and offering some of the best cuisine in Central California
- Bird premier National Wildlife Refuges and the Sacramento Delta for thousands of Blue, Snow, Ross’ and Tule Goose, Sandhill Crane and a huge range of ducks
- Enjoy iconic western species in extensive oak woodlands, where Yellow-billed Magpie, and Acorn Woodpecker and Swainson’s Hawk compete for your attention.
- Get a taste of original California native open grasslands with Ferruginous Hawks, Prairie Falcon, Long-billed Curlew and Burrowing Owl
- Sip a wide variety of California wines in the gardens, patios and tasting rooms of a sampling of Lodi’s best vineyards
Itineraries are guidelines; variations in itinerary may occur to account for weather, road conditions, closures, etc. and to maximize your experience.
Sat., Dec. 2: Arrivals
Plan to arrive at the Sacramento International Airport in time for a 3:00 PM group departure. Have your binoculars handy to leisurely bird from the van for your first taste of western birds as we stop by flooded fields right off Highway 99, the access road to the centrally located town of Yuba City. Dinner tonight is at the delicious Marcello’s Italian Restaurant.
Accommodations at the Best Western Yuba City Inn (D)
Sun., Dec. 3: Sacramento & Colusa National Wildlife Refuges
After breakfast today we visit Sacramento and Colusa National Wildlife Refuges (both close to Yuba City) for a wintering waterfowl extravaganza! Both refuges are extremely birder friendly with plenty of photo opportunities for those with a camera. We drive the roads in both refuges, with opportunities to visit viewing platforms and take short walks. The Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1937 to provide refuge and breeding habitat for migratory birds and protect habitat, and currently supports over 250 species of bird. We are awed by huge numbers of Snow Goose at the Refuge, with Blue Snow Goose individuals commonly found and guaranteed wintering Bald Eagle in many plumages. Marsh species include Gallinule, Yellow-headed Blackbird, Marsh Wren, Song Sparrow, Loggerhead Shrike, Tri-colored Blackbird and, if we are lucky, a wintering Road Runner may also make an appearance.
We then seek out seasonal specialties in a local cemetery (known for wintering vagrants), and other special hot spots. By mid-winter, all of the rarities have been staked out, and there are usually many in the Sacramento Valley. Last winter, highlights included Vermilion Flycatcher, Plumbeous Vireo, and Northern Shrike.
We enjoy lunch at nearby Family Taco to sample some local cuisine. After lunch, expect amazing photo opportunities at Colusa NWF, where seasonal marshes, permanent ponds, and uplands were protected in 1945. This refuge has a different mix of species than we saw in the morning: waterfowl congregate where refuge personnel have installed gravel strips (which the birds need to help their gizzard work), including at areas close to a viewing platform. Featured species include the greatest number of wintering Eurasian Wigeon in the lower US, and all other expected species of ducks, including large numbers of Cinnamon Teal, Pintail, and shovelers. See terrific numbers of the Tule race of the Greater White-fronted Geese (Tule Goose); with less than 2K total individuals in the world, this is one of two populations in the Central Valley. Additionally, both Ross’ Goose and the blue morph of Ross’ Goose are usually present. Peregrine Falcon, a range of raptors, shorebirds including Greater Yellowlegs, Long-billed Dowitcher, Wilson’s Snipe, and usually some rarities like Ruff are very possible. We return for dinner at Yuba City’s popular Sutter Buttes Brewery.
Accommodations at the Best Western Yuba City Inn (B,L,D)
Mon., Dec. 4 : Gray Lodge State Wildlife Area | Wine Tasting
After breakfast and check out from our Yuba City hotel, we visit Gray Lodge State Wildlife Area, just 15 minutes south of Yuba City on our way to Lodi. While similar to Sacramento NWR, this state wildlife area has a smaller loop that provides for more intimate viewing. The number of birds that winter in this relatively small area is impressive. We take the opportunity for very close looks at huge numbers of Snow Geese and other waterfowl. Good-sized populations of White-faced Ibis are easy to see, as are raptors, including Red-shouldered Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk in multiple plumages with likely looks at the very rare Harlan’s Red-tailed Hawk. Merlin and Peregrine Falcon are regular visitors.
We have lunch nearby in the town of Live Oak, an agricultural hub of the Central Valley adjacent to the protected conservation stronghold of the picturesque Sutter Buttes. Afterwards, as we head toward Lodi, we go by the cities of Sacramento and Davis, where there are a multitude of birding opportunities in the wild lands surrounding both cities. Because of long-standing conservation efforts, the number of wetlands set aside are impressive, and the birding here all year-round has become almost legendary for Northern California. For example, at the Yolo Basin Bypass loop, we look for regular wintering species along with specialties seen in this year’s Christmas Bird Count. Waterfowl are different than what we saw in the refuges the day before and an hour or two spent exploring wet riparian habitat also gives us the chance to discover shorebirds like Lesser Yellowlegs, Long-billed Curlew, and Mountain Plover, along with our best chance for Rough-legged Hawk, Sora, and Virginia Rail.
This afternoon we visit our first wine-tasting spot to enjoy a key California agricultural product. Our hotel for the next four nights is the renowned Wine & Roses Hotel. There is plenty of time to unpack and relax before dinner in downtown Lodi at Pietro’s Trattoria.
Accommodations at the Wine & Roses Hotel (B,L,D)
Tues., Dec. 5: Heritage Oak Winery | Mokelumne Fish Hatchery
We spend three full days centering around Lodi; our outings are filled with a combination of woodland/grassland birding in the morning, followed by wetland explorations in the afternoon, with wine tasting interspersed throughout. Well-known spots for tremendous populations of cranes and waterfowl are numerous. Each day we enjoy breakfast at the Towne Corner Café at the Wine & Roses Hotel. Lunches are catered picnics or at local restaurants near birding spots, and dinners are as noted below.
Today we spend the morning at Heritage Oak Winery where we bird the oak woodland and riparian areas next to the Mokelumne River. Heritage Oak is a popular and welcoming spot for birders. Apart from the numerous species that are attracted to the front patio and its adjacent garden, the vineyards, riparian woodland, and river itself provide habitat for hundreds of species including wintering Anna’s Hummingbird, American and Lesser Goldfinch, White-crowned and Golden-crowned Sparrows, a Barn Owl roost, and forest wintering birds like Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Hermit Thrush, Varied Thrush, Western Bluebird, Oak Titmouse, and Bushtit. We return to the winery after a good morning of birding for a catered picnic under a towering fig tree or in a covered area accompanied by wine tasting.
After lunch we go upstream to the Mokelumne Fish Hatchery and adjacent scenic riparian woodland habitat for Osprey, Common Merganser, California Quail, Phainopepla, and Lewis’s Woodpecker. This should be our best day for Wood Duck. Mammals seen today could include Black-tailed Deer, Gray and Red Fox, Racoon, native Western Gray Squirrel, which is on the decline, and River Otter. We enjoy dinner tonight back in Lodi at Casa Flores.
Accommodations at the Wine & Roses Hotel (B,L,D)
Wed., Dec. 6: Oak Grove Regional Park | Woodbridge Road
Today after breakfast we head further south to Oak Grove Regional Park in Stockton to search for iconic Central Valley birds including Yellow-billed Magpie, Acorn Woodpecker, Hermit Thrush, Spotted Towhee, Kestrel, and the wintering Swainson’s Hawk that makes this area famous. Few know that the Central Valley is known for hybrid Flickers—while the Northern Flicker (Red-shafted) is common, we also see Red and Yellow-shafted hybrids, as well as the rare wintering true Yellow-shafted Flicker. Nuttall’s Woodpecker and Downy Woodpecker, wintering Tree Swallow, and White-throated Swift round out the array of species expected.
We take a break to enjoy a delicious lunch and wine tasting at the Michael David Wine Cafe (home of the “7 Deadly Zins”) along with birding in their spacious gardens. This afternoon, travel to the Sacramento River Delta’s famous Woodbridge Road for swans and Sandhill Crane, where both Greater (breed in lower 48) and Lesser (breed only in the Arctic) Sandhill Crane winter side by side. In addition, there are plenty of shorebirds and deeper-water ducks including Blue-winged Teal and diving species like Canvasback, Ring-necked Duck, and Greater Scaup. If weather conditions are favorable, we see tens of thousands of cranes fly-in against the sunset before dinner. Tonight we enjoy dinner at one of Lodi’s best breweries, the Lodi Beer Company.
Accommodations at the Wine & Roses Hotel (B,L,D)
Thurs., Dec. 7: Sierra Foothills | Staten Island
Today we have a raptor morning, traveling east about 45 minutes to visit a spot in Sierra Foothills. Explore birds of the open grasslands of the eastern Central Valley and get a taste of what the whole valley used to look like before it was settled for agriculture. Key species include Ferruginous Hawk, Prairie Falcon, Merlin, Golden Eagle, Northern Harrier, Burrowing and Short-eared Owl, along with Horned Lark, Long-billed Curlew, and American Bluebird.
We enjoy lunch in the town of Linden, then head back towards Lodi for a final afternoon in the Delta. At Staten Island, we see numerous Aleutian Cackling Goose (an Endangered Species Act success story—from the verge of extinction, down to less than a couple of thousands, the population has now grown to 50 thousand birds, larger than it was originally, and is fully delisted); plus more Sandhill Crane, swans, gulls, wintering Swainson’s Hawk, American Pipit, Western Meadowlark, Say’s Phoebe, Great Horned Owl, Turkey Vulture, American Kestrel, Loggerhead Shrike, and many species of blackbirds: Red-winged, Tricolored, and Brewer’s. Coyote are very possible as well. To celebrate a great week of birding, we gather this evening for a farewell dinner at Wine & Roses Town House Restaurant.
Accommodations at the Wine & Roses Hotel (B,L,D)
Fri., Dec. 8: Departures
After a light breakfast at the hotel, we depart at 7:00 AM; please plan your flights from Sacramento International Airport to leave no earlier than 9:00 AM (or you can arrange for alternative transportation earlier or later by Uber or airport shuttle, $60-100 least expensive options; hotel check out is 11 AM.) (B)
Wine and Roses Hotel, courtesy winerose.com
California Quail, Steve Wolfe
White-headed Woodpecker, Steve Wolfe
Burrowing Owl by Greg Smith
Wine and Roses Hotel, courtesy winerose.com
Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge
Male and Female Snowy Egrets in Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge
Assorted Waterfowl in Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge
Snow Geese in Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge
Cost of the Journey
Cost of the main journey is $2990 DBL / $3790 SGL, based on double occupancy, from Sacramento, California.
Accommodations for six nights, meals as specified in the itinerary (B=breakfast, L=lunch, D=dinner), land transportation during the journey, professional guide services, park and other entrance fees, and miscellaneous program expenses.
Cost Does Not Include:
Round-trip airfare to and from Sacramento, items of a personal nature such as laundry, telephone, drinks from the bar, and gratuities for luggage handling or personal services.
Please plan to make air travel plans only after the minimum group size has been met. We will send you a confirmation email as soon as the trip has been confirmed.
The airport for this tour is Sacramento International Airport (SMF). Please plan to meet David Yee no later than 3:00 PM on December 2. Please plan on departures after 9:00 AM on December 8.
Browse below for trip reports and species lists from past versions of this and other tours from this destination.
Birds & Wine
- March 2012
- March 2013
- March 2014
- March 2022
Sierras to Seacoast
David started birding at the age of 10. By high school, birding was his passion. He went to college at UC Santa Cruz, majored in biology, and bird science was always his focus. David went on to become a full-time chemist, but birding remained his passion, and according to his wife, his obsession. He has authored the Annotated Checklist of the Birds of San Joaquin County. He was the Regional Editor of North American Birds, Northern California Region. He has travelled extensively, and enjoys guiding throughout the US, Mexico, Central America, and Southeast Asia.
Other trips with David Yee
Essential Information +
This information is important for being prepared for your journey; we want you to have the best experience possible. If you only read one section, this one is key!
Ahead of Your Tour
- Please talk with your doctor about general health needs. It is a good idea to consult with your doctor about general vaccinations recommended for travel.
- Please plan to make air travel plans only after the minimum group size has been met. We will send you a confirmation email as soon as the trip has been confirmed. After you make travel reservations, please send a copy of your travel itinerary to the Naturalist Journeys office at email@example.com.
- Travel insurance in case of serious medical emergency is recommended. Full health coverage and repatriation is available through Allianz Travel Insurance.
- Soft sided luggage/duffel bags are easiest for packing the vans. Remember to pack essential medications in your carry-on luggage, as well as one day of clothing and optics in case of luggage delay.
We will share a copy of your health and emergency contact information with your guide. This information will be kept confidential but is very important in case of a medical emergency. In addition to bringing any prescription medications with you, we recommend that you have a copy of the prescriptions in case of loss.
Pace of the Tour & What to Expect
You will receive a Schedule-at-a-Glance and list of hotels (our eContact List) a few weeks before your departure. This will serve as an outline for each day and alert you to any recent changes made in the schedule or to our hotels, if needed.
Our journeys are set up to follow the rhythm of nature. Our focus is on birding and nature; we offer full, well-planned field days and often get up early for that magical time around dawn. We generally follow the published itinerary, but we stay flexible to the weather, wildlife opportunities and the interests of the group. Your guide will keep you apprised of the next day’s schedule at each evening meal, noting what to bring and what to prepare for. Questions and/or concerns are welcome.
The pace of our Naturalist Journeys tours is moderate; to fully participate you should be able to get in and out of vehicles several times a day, and walk 1-3 miles over uneven terrain. It is important to participate with a flexible attitude as adjustments may be made in our schedule to make the most of our time in the field or for other purposes at your guide's discretion. We are not a “listing” bird company that drills down on target species, but at times we do wait for those special species unique to the places we visit. During the day, we take time to stop for photos and for educational opportunities to learn about conservation projects, landscapes, and geology. We appreciate other taxa as well as birds, with mammals often the biggest draw but plants and butterflies are also very popular. Our clients often lend their own expertise to the mix.
We like to make meals a fun and memorable part of the experience, too. Breakfasts are often at hotels, and we carry snacks, fruit, and water in the vans each day. Lunches are a mix of picnics in the field (weather dependent) and a chance to dine with locals at small cafes and restaurants. For dinner, we pride ourselves in our homework to keep up with the best choices for dining, choosing restaurants with atmosphere that specialize in local foods. On occasion we keep dinner simple to go back out in the field for sunset wildlife viewing or night walks. In some remote locations, our choices are limited. If you are tired, room service for dinner may be an option you can choose.
Food & Drink
We carry water and juices/cold drinks in the cooler each day, and sodas if people like them. Please also plan on bringing and filling your water bottle for hiking each day. We try to use as few plastics as possible!
Packing, Clothing & Laundry
Soft sided luggage/duffel bags are easiest for packing the vans. Please pack essential medications in your carry-on luggage, as well as one day of clothing and optics in case of luggage delay.
Dress is informal and is casual even at restaurants. Layering is a great way to stay comfortable. Protective clothing is essential, whether it be from from sun, rain, cold, insects, or vegetation. You need closed toe shoes, and we comfortable walking shoes with good tread. Hiking boots with good support for hiking and on rocky terrain can work well.
Many people ask how much to plan to bring as spending money. Part of that depends on how much you want to shop. Most shops will take VISA and MasterCard or American Express. Typical items people purchase include local souvenirs and T-shirts, caps, and natural history books. You may want to bring cash for drinks with dinner (if available) or smaller local purchases.
Expect the normal tipping protocol to apply for hotel maids and bar service. If at the end of the tour, you would like to show your appreciation to your guides, tipping is entirely appropriate but at your discretion. We hope that you will be pleased with all professional services. Gratuities for group meals are included. For your birding tour guide, we suggest $10-$15 per day per guest. Note that if there is more than one guide, this amount can be split among them.
Cell Phones & Internet Service
Wi-Fi and cell phone service are available in most US destinations, although there are some exceptions in remote locations. Wi-Fi is generally provided in all hotels, lodges, and restaurants you visit, at least in public areas. Please refrain from taking or making cell phone calls in the vehicles when traveling with other passengers unless it appears to be an emergency as this disrupts other guests – please plan cell phone calls on your own time.
Smoking is not permitted in any vehicle or in any situation where the group is participating in an activity together, such as a vehicle excursion or a guided walk. Please respect all designated smoking areas at hotels and restaurants.
For this tour, your guides will drive travelers in either full-size or mini-vans or a combination of those two. We ask all attendees to please rotate your seating, so you ride with different drivers and alternate between front and back seats.
Photo Release & Sharing
We take many group photos and will share photos with the group. And after your tour, we will organize a chance to share photos via Dropbox or Google Photos. Please note that this is our policy and if you prefer to be excluded, we need to know ahead of your tour.
By registering for this tour, you agree to grant to Naturalist Journeys and its authorized representatives permission to record photos and/or video of your participation in the tour. You further agree that any or all of the material photographed may be used, in any form, as part of any future publications, brochures, or other printed materials used to promote Naturalist Journeys, and further that such use shall be without payment of fees, royalties, special credit or other compensation.
Please contact Naturalist Journeys by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or telephone our office: (520) 558-1146 or toll free: (866) 900-1146 if you have any questions. Many thanks for traveling with us and we hope you enjoy your journey.
Packing List +
Please pack light!
Soft luggage is much easier for us to pack than a more rigid hard sided piece, so if you have the choice, please use your soft luggage. Be sure to have your name and address on the inside of the bag, as well as on the luggage tag on the handle. It is our hope that you can pack in one checked suitcase that does not exceed 45 pounds. Please pack your personal medication, airline tickets, passport, binoculars, camera, and other essential items in your carry-on bag. You will want a day pack for field trips, so this is an ideal carry-on. Please reconfirm your airline’s baggage weight and size restrictions about a week or so before departure.
Dress is very informal. In general, the weather during your stay should be mostly pleasant, with days in the low 60°Fs and nights in the low 40°Fs, though colder weather dipping into freezing temps and rain are always possible. We want you to be comfortable and the key to that is layering. Also, choose clothing you don’t mind getting dirty and that are comfortable and easy. Lightweight long-sleeved shirts and long pants make ideal field clothing, as they are more protective from sun, insects and vegetation. Supportive hiking books will be nice for our walks.
Clothing & Gear
- Long pants, 2-3 pair
- Long-sleeved shirts, 2-3
- T-shirts or equivalent, 2-3 for layering
- Raincoat or poncho (great if this double as windbreaker)
- One lightweight and one heavy weight sweater, fleece or equivalent
- Comfortable clothes for evening (a cleaner version of your field clothes or a skirt, sundress, etc.)
- Jacket; fleece fabric is ideal
- Hat with broad brim
- Scarf, warm gloves, warm hat for cold weather
- Personal underclothing and pajamas
- Socks – easy to wash and dry
- Comfortable walking shoes (such as tennis shoes)
- Lightweight hiking boots
- Comfortable sandals or light shoes for evenings, travel days
- Bandana (optional)
- Bathing suit (optional)
- Field vest (optional), a great source is Big Pockets, www.bigpockets.com
Equipment & Miscellaneous
- Airline tickets or e-ticket verification
- Personal identification
- Small daypack or fanny pack to carry field gear
- Umbrella (a great option for occasional rain as you can keep using your binoculars…)
- Walking stick(s) - if you typically use them when hiking
- Flashlight or headlamp with fresh batteries
- Alarm clock (or use your phone)
- Sunscreen/Chapstick with SPF
- Sunglasses with neck strap
- Insect repellent
- Toiletry articles
- Binoculars (a hotel shower cap is great to cover these when it is raining…)
- Camera and extra batteries, digital chips etc., lens cleaning supplies and your instruction manual. Do a good check before leaving. (Optional)
- Spotting scope and tripod (optional)
- Tablet or laptop for personal use and/or transferring photos, USB cord and charger (optional)
- Water bottle (or plan to reuse our store-bought water bottle if prefer)
- Gallon-size zip-lock bags for keeping things dry
- Laundry soap for hand washing
- Travel sewing kit
- Earplugs (if you are sensitive to noise at night – optional)
- Notebook or journal and pen (optional)
- Field guides (optional)
- Rechargeable power bank (optional)
- Hairdryer (optional - Best Western Yuba City Inn and Wine & Roses Hotel provides a hair dryer in each room)
- WE DO NOT RECOMMEND TRAVELING WITH PRECIOUS OR VALUABLE JEWELRY – don’t tempt anyone and don’t bring things you’d regret losing - your mind will be at ease!
Medical & First Aid Items
- Personal medication
- Copy of eyeglass prescription, medical prescriptions, and any medical alerts
- Motion sickness preventatives if likely to be needed on bus, van drives, etc.
- Personal first aid kit including medications for general and stomach ailments
- Band-Aids, moleskin to protect against blisters
- Foot powder, lotions for dry skin, general “comfort” items
- Insurance information
- Extra pair of eyeglasses or contacts
- Antibacterial soap in small container for quick handwashing
Suggested Reading List +
Merlin App. A phone-based birding app from Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology. Download it here, then choose the area-specific ‘pack’.
History & Culture
Guide to Central Valley Wines (website)
Your guide will also have a selection of reference books and materials for participants to share. As an Amazon Associate, Naturalist Journeys earns from qualifying purchases, and may get commissions for purchases made through links on this page at no added cost to you.
Useful Links +
Wine & Roses Hotel
Heritage Oak Winery
Michael David Wine Café
Wine tasting advice
Nature, Wildlife & Biology
California Birding Overview
California Oak Woodlands
Conservation, Parks & Reserves
California Wine Sustainability
Colusa National Wildlife Refuges
Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge
Gray Lodge State Wildlife Area
Mokelumne Fish Hatchery
Oak Grove Regional Park
Geology & Geography
California Geological Survey
Interactive map of California’s geology
History & Culture
History of California
“Wine Was A Tool Of Conquest: California’s Hidden Multiethnic History of Winemaking” - Article by KCET.org
Helpful Travel Websites
Sacramento International Airport (SMF)
Free, printable map: Northern California
Homeland Security Real ID Act
Transportation Security Administration (TSA)
Center for Disease Control (CDC)
Time & Date
Photo credits: Banners: Short-eared Owl by Greg Smith; Colusa NWR by Ed Harper; Tundra Swans by Ed Harper; Snow Geese by Ed Pembleton; Itinerary: Long-billed Curlew by Ed Pembleton; Lewis's Woodpecker by Ed Harper; Greater White-fronted Geese by Ed Harper; Yellow-billed Magpie by Ed Harper; Acorn Woodpecker by Ed Harper; Mountain Bluebird by Ed Harper; Sandhill Cranes, Hugh Simmons Photography; Cinnamon Teal, Hugh Simmons Photography; Wine and Roses Hotel, courtesy winerose.com; Wood Duck, Doug Greenberg; American Kestrel, Greg Smith; Western Bluebird