That darned pair of mute swans steadily out-maneuvered me. Plus, a breeze from the west slowed my kayak as I tried to position myself between a setting sun and that lovely pale duo so that I could take a photo. The swans weren’t frightened and didn’t bother to take flight. They simply swam off on a clever escape route to foil my plans. After giving up, I just let myself feel grateful for the sighting – and for managing to score it in one of California’s newest wildlife preserves.

I sat in a sea kayak, but I wasn’t at sea. I paddled on a newly flooded lagoon of Cullinan Ranch, a unit of the San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) found near Vallejo on San Francisco Bay’s north shore. There, a string of preserves form a broad and verdant arc of habitat that sprawls between the Napa and Petaluma rivers.

Avocets at Cullinan Ranch.

Avocets. Cullinan Ranch. Photo by Paul McHugh.

Sacramento citizens who value waterbirds and shorebirds as feathered friends have many potential options to watch them frolic in their native habitat. They can go north, to state and federal refuges in the Sacramento Valley, or south a few miles to the Cosumnes River Preserve. Or they can jaunt an hour west on Interstate 80 and admire the startling abundance of the San Pablo Bay refuge units.

“It’s been terrific to see the canvasback ducks migrate back here in such numbers,” says Don Brubaker, who has managed the refuge here (as well as two others) for six years. “Giving them a winter home was a big reason our San Pablo refuge was established in the first place. Those ‘cannies’ and other migrants will stick around a while longer, but be gone by the end of April. We’ve also seen lesser scaup in great numbers, mallards, wigeon, American coots, even some ruddy ducks already starting to color-up for mating – with those neat blue bills.”

One thing that makes San Pablo Bay NWR unique is how much of this feathered abundance can be glimpsed on both sides of Highway 37. Of course, to truly observe it well, and score photos, it’s better to pull off at a turnout and hike or bike one of the levee-top trails. Best of all, this refuge encompasses an array of lagoons, ponds and deep-water sloughs that can accommodate hand-launched boats.

San Pablo is a fun place to paddle – as long as you adequately plan for the yo-yo effect of the tides, a potential for wind and strong currents that can ripple through the levee breaches that let water flow from lagoons into main channels. During that day trip when I saw the swans, I rode an ebb tide out of Cullinan Ranch into Dutchman Slough, went into the Napa River estuary, then south to a Vallejo launch ramp. Here, I parked, ate lunch and read. After the tide turned, I rode the flood back in, for a round trip of about 16 miles that took some seven hours – including my lunch stop.

A much shorter voyage can be had by just paddling around the main Cullinan lagoon during a high or incoming tide. A floating launch dock at the principal Cullinan access point makes this relatively easy.

Once upon a time, the 470 square miles of San Francisco Bay were ringed by 306 square miles of tidal wetlands, the abode of tule elk and grizzly bears, and waterfowl in such abundance they could blot out the sun when they took flight. Now, a tiny percentage (5-10 percent) of that remains unaltered by development. The present refuge system seeks to bring back additional habitat, primarily by converting bayside salt ponds, ag land that can no longer be farmed and obsolete military facilities.

The San Pablo Bay NWR is dwarfed by its neighbor to the south – the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay NWR in Fremont. But since San Pablo has room to expand, it may do much better in coping with global warming and sea-level rise. San Pablo at present holds 19,000 acres, of which 11,200 are open water. The official boundary, set by Congress in 1970, encloses about 30,000 acres. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service hopes the infill will be accomplished by acquisitions from willing sellers.

Sonoma Baylands, on the west end of the San Pablo refuge, flooded 960 more acres of marsh recently and will open a new 2.5-mile-long hiking trail in May. Skaggs Island and Haire Ranch on the north side will add about 4,400 acres to the refuge, and public access will gradually be provided. Continuing that broad emerald swath of preserves are the nearby Napa-Sonoma Marshes and American Canyon state wildlife areas.

In all of this restoration labor of love, the wildlife service’s efforts have been ably and steadily assisted by an array of other agencies and non-governmental groups, including Point Blue, the Sonoma Land Trust, and especially the sportsmen’s conservation group, Ducks Unlimited – which planned much of the “terra-forming” to engineer the restored habitat.

Renee Spenst, the regional biologist for Ducks Unlimited in Sacramento, says all this doesn’t just benefit flocks of resident and migratory birds, but also provides enjoyment and enlightenment for human visitors eager to experience all the beauty and tranquility.

“It’s great for the people in Sacramento to find out about what’s been happening in the North Bay refuges,” Spenst said, “because they’re only about an hour away from our city. Plus, we just got new interpretive panels put up at the main Cullinan access, and they really help explain what’s going on out there.”