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Just a few miles south of my home, and nearly 30 miles from the City of Sacramento, lies more than 50,000 acres of nature preserve that contains wetlands, trails and habitat. Called the Cosumnes River Preserve (www.consumnes.org), this gem protects one of the last of California’s Central Valley oak savannahs, riparian oak forest, tule marshes and wetland habitat.

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Wetlands at the Consumnes River Preserve

Within the preserve is 11 miles of hiking trails that wind around marshes and the Consumnes River, where wading birds and kayakers can occasionally be spotted. The preserve claims to be home to more than 250 species of bird, and even a few dozen fish species, as well as hundreds of varieties of native plants, like cattails and willow trees. It was designated as a world heritage site in 1976 and was also added by the National Park Service to the National Natural Landmark Program.

Long ago the home of the Miwok Native American tribe, the preserve is an unsung jewel in the otherwise flat expanse between Sacramento and Stockton, east of the Sacramento Delta. The preserve is about eight miles north of the Phil and Marilyn Isenberg Sandhill Crane Preserve, another popular bird-watching site that provides a winter home for these tall birds that sing and dance, flapping wings as wide as six feet.

The Cosumnes River that flows through the preserve is the last free-flowing river in the Central Valley. Oaks and other trees cluster along the riverbanks, and birds hide in the reeds and grasses.

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Kayakers on the Consumnes River

Hiking through the reserve can envelop you in a tree canopy , complete with hanging moss, almost reminiscent of the Spanish moss of the Southeast.

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Hiking Through the Trails

The preserve is strategically located on a migratory path called the Pacific Flyway, making is an Important Bird Area by the American Bird Conservancy and National Audubon Society. Sandhill Cranes, hawks and ducks enjoy the wetlands and grasslands. For a photographer, the muted hues of the  wetlands as the seasons change make it an attractive spot to point and click.

The Pacific Flyway has been well-protected. A hotel proposal was nixed or reduced in size to protect the birds migrating over the bufferlands in Elk Grove to the immediate north of the Consumnes preserve. There is a lake on the west side of Elk Grove, and some of the birds stop by there as well. Below are some ducks and a Great Heron, the latter a frequent visitor during the Christmas season.

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Mallard Couple
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Great Heron

The wetlands are almost painterly, inspiring local artists like Greg Kondos and Wayne Thiebaud.

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Wetlands in Fall

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A Painter’s View

The preserve was established thanks to The Nature Conservancy, which was looking for a spot in the Central Valley to protect the disappearing valley oak (Quercus lobata) as development spread in all directions from downtown Sacramento.  A surveying of valley determined that the best stands were on the lower Cosumnes River, so the preserve began with 800 acres in 1987.  Scientists later developed better knowledge of the relationship between the river and the valley oaks, which are also called “swamp oaks.” The Conservancy determined that a larger watershed that encompassed the river and floodplains was needed, and so in 1993, the conservancy entered into  agreements with local farmers, water agencies and flood control agencies, and created a cooperative management plan that included federal agencies and other non-profits as well.  And so the preserve grew to 1200 square miles.

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Along the River Trail

When the Howard Ranch, which contained wetlands as well, was put up for sale in 1998, the Conservancy purchased the property with loans and grants, adding another 13,000 acres to the preserve.  Now at 46,000 acres, the preserve allows for both educational and scientific work and one of the largest conservation efforts to protect the local habitat.

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Birders in the Wetlands

Not long ago, one of my neighbors visited the preserve in the evening and was treated to an interesting show of nature. A cloud of bats that hide under one of the bridges during the day flew up from underneath it at dusk, and as the cloud of bats rose up, hawks swooped in to grab a bedtime treat. 

This was part of the normal balance of nature, but the preserve also must work to control threats to the trees from aggressive, non-native grasses that grow out of control and attract rodents that feed on acorns and oak seedlings.

The river is also part of the balance of nature, a critical resources for both plans and animals. There is a visitor center with information on the hiking trails and native plants and animals, and where best to find the vernal pools and views of the the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

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Sunset Over the Preserve
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