Wildlife photos on display at the Los Banos library

The new artist display at the Merced County Library Los Banos Branch features not one artist but a handful.

The display highlights wildlife photographs taken at the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Complex – which encompasses the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge just north of Los Banos, the Merced National Wildlife Refuge on Sandy Mush Road between Los Banos and Merced, and the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge west of Modesto.

“I think wildlife photographers view the refuges as a great place to get out and take photos. There’s always something to take a photo of, no matter what the season,” said Jack Sparks, an Outdoor Recreation Planner for the San Luis NWR Complex.

“In the coming months, people should get out and see the large concentrations of ducks, geese and cranes that are here. Then if you were to ask me the same question in the spring, I would say get out and see the huge migration of shore birds that are moving through,” Sparks said.

Most of the photos the complex uses for publicity – including the library display – come from what Sparks calls semi-professional photographers, which are hobby photographers who have professional equipment and offer the organization their photos for publicity.

Some of the photos on display came from former San Luis employees – an image crowded with cranes from the Merced refuge was taken by Rich Albers, the former assistant manager of the Merced refuge. Another shot of a tule elk was taken by Lee Eastman, who was an equipment operator until his recent retirement.

“The smaller photos are part of a display that we’ve had up in our building now since about spring,” Sparks said, “and those photos are all from the same photographer named Rick Kimball, primarily taken on the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge.”

Sparks said he hopes the display will garner interest in the three refuges from the home crowd – most of the complex’s visitors come from outside a 90-mile radius, from places like the Bay Area, central coast or from Fresno.

“We do get a handful of visitors from the county, from the Los Banos area, but most are coming from slightly out of the area,” Sparks said. “I think we’re still working on getting the word out that we’re here, and we run into people regularly that lived here all their lives and had no idea there’s a wildlife refuge just 10 miles away that has a herd of elk you can view year-round, and all these ducks and geese.”

He said since the visitor center opened on the San Luis refuge in 2011, visitor numbers have been up. The refuges feature year-round residents such as elk, deer, coyotes and some birds, as well as seasonal migratory birds such as ducks, geese and cranes. One bird, the Swainson’s Hawk, breeds in the refuges during the summer and spends the winter in Argentina.

These birds used to spend time in the wetlands of a flooded San Joaquin River, but with so many dams on the river, it doesn’t flood anymore, so the refuge recreates the flooding via canals and ditches using water shipments from out of the area. Sparks said the drought has affected the refuge, with it getting only about 50 percent of its normal water allocation this year.

“And the wildlife is coming no matter what,” he said, “so they’re coming to less habitat.”

The San Luis refuge features auto tour routes, which visitors can use to view wildlife from the confines of their vehicles, as well as nature trails that spur off of the auto routes.

The San Luis Refuge will celebrate the 40th anniversary of its elk herd with Tule Elk Day on Oct. 11. The day will feature two guided elk tours, two photo safari nature walks and two speaker presentations at the visitor center. The guided elk tours require prior sign-ups – to do so, call (209) 826-3508.