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They're converging on Los Banos.

TO PEOPLE, THE Grassland Wetlands near Los Banos, in western Merced County about 60 miles southeast of San Jose, are hardly memorable. But to birds, these marshes and fields form a vast break-watering buffet.

Starting this month, sandhill cranes--as many as 4,000--converge on the wetlands. Duck and goose populations begin rising toward counts that can reach 500,000 in December and January. The spectacle can be viewed at three wildlife refuges and on guided tours.

The concentrations of birds here testify to losses elsewhere. The Central Valley once possessed 4 million wetland acres. Today, that figure is 300,000, with 100,000--the largest contiguous portion--in Grassland Wetlands.

To protect this habitat, Kesterson, Merced, and San Luis national wildlife refuges and Los Banos State Wildlife Area were set aside. Additional protection comes from 160 private duck clubs.

But the wetlands' future is anything but secure. In 1983, scientists discovered that Kesterson waterfowl were dying as selenium leached in from surrounding agricultural areas. More recently, five years of drought have cut the amount of water the Grassland Water District supplies refuges and duck clubs to 25 percent of normal. Another threat comes from population growth. As Bay Area land prices rise, development shifts to Central Valley towns--many of them on or adjacent to wetlands.

Still, there is hope. Federal and state governments are buying 23,000 acres of wetlands to link existing refuges. And area conservationists hope to protect habitat from urbanization through greenbelts and buffer zones.

Each of the following refuges has an observation route. Best bird-viewing is around dawn or dusk. After October 26, refuges open to hunting Wednesdays and weekends, though birders and hunters are kept in separate areas.

Merced N.W.R. The Sandhill crane population peaks this month and next, at 12,000 birds. From Los Banos, go east 7 miles on State 152. Go north 10 miles on Turner Island and Nickel roads, then east on Sandy Mush Road.

San Luis N.W.R. From Los Banos, drive north 8 miles on State 165, then east 2 miles on Wolfsen Road. A new tower for viewing tule elk should be completed soon.

Los Banos State Wildlife Area. From Los Banos, go north 3 miles on State 165, then east 1 mile on Henry Miller Avenue.

For maps and more detailed information, write to San Joaquin Valley N.W.R.s., Box 2176, Los Banos 93635, or call (209) 826-3508.

New tours. New this year are Grassland Water District's monthly tours of refuges and private lands. October 19, groups view tule elk and waterfowl at San Luis N.W.R.; call 826-5188.
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Title Annotation:migrating birds converging on wildlife refuges in Merced County, California
Date:Nov 1, 1991
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