Northern Pintail in Colusa Nat’l. Wildlife Refuge
Welcome back. Yesterday I presented an overview of the Pacific Flyway in the Sacramento Valley of California, that was Part 1 of 3 in this Series. Today let’s take a closer look at the ducks and geese that winter here.
In addition to the millions of ducks and geese that spend their winters here, there are sandhill cranes, tundra swans and other birds in the thousands. In the spring they return to their home for breeding. In between that time, we have the glory of their presence for several months. If you’re paying attention, you can see stunning ducks like this beautiful Pintail just about anywhere there is water.
I have a winter birthday and where do you suppose I like to go to celebrate the day? The local sewage ponds. Oh yes, you’ll see me in my birthday tiara with a big ol’ smile, because hiking around with my binoculars taking in the magnificence of these wild creatures is one of my favorite things to do on earth. Ya’ get over the sewage stench in no time.
As the ducks and geese make their treacherous journey south, they stop along the way in refuges and fields. If they can make it through the plight of storms, and perils like wind turbines and sport hunters, they usually start arriving in September and October. Their arrival is influenced by the weather, and every bird species’ migration pattern varies as well.
Green-winged Teal, Cosumnes River Preserve
For example, the Northern Pintail duck nests in Alaskan and Canadian prairies. When they migrate down they are one of the earlier arrivals on the Pacific Flyway. The dapper Green-winged Teal prefers to nest in boreal wetlands and parklands in Canada and northern states of the U.S. Their winter migration can be here on the Pacific Flyway, but they also head further south, and some even live year-round down here.
male Northern Shoveler
Large flocks of geese here include: greater white-fronted goose, snow goose, Ross’ goose, Canada goose. Ducks in the area include cinnamon and green-winged teal, northern shoveler, gadwall, American wigeon, ring-necked duck, bufflehead, ruddy duck, and common mergansers. In addition to the many migrants, there are resident birds of all kinds. There are hundreds of species and it varies every year.
Some years a certain species didn’t breed abundantly for one reason or another, so you may not see them in great numbers one winter. I record every bird species we see every single year, I guess it’s the novelist in me. Then I tabulate the data in a birding software, and have kept a Pacific Flyway census that now spans over two decades. It’s an interesting set of statistics with the ironic theme: no year is ever the same.
This year for our annual trek we met two friends, and the four of us went birding and photographing for two and half delightful days. There were several noticeable changes I saw this time compared to previous years. One disappointing change is that major bird roosting areas surrounding the town of Lodi, areas that were once rice fields for the wintering birds, have now been turned into grape vineyards. This will most likely cut into the wintering grounds for future bird populations.
One happy change was that we saw three yellow-billed magpies. Six or seven years ago it was thought that 50% of the population of this bird had died from the West Nile Virus. We didn’t see any of that special species for many years and thought they were on their way to extinction. Fortunately they are making a comeback, and we were witness to three healthy individuals frolicking one dawn among oak trees.
White-fronted Geese on Staten Island
And although we saw hundreds of thousands of geese and ducks this year, and many hundreds of cranes and swans, there were not as many ducks and geese as there were last year. Park rangers told us it was so very mild that the birds had already started to migrate back north by the end of January.
If you live or visit California in the winter, I highly recommend checking out one of the refuges in the Pacific Flyway. The skies are full of geese, the ponds are full of ducks, and sometimes it is so incredibly loud that you can’t even hear your own voice. Tomorrow we’ll conclude this series with highlights of my favorite winter residents of the Pacific Flyway: the sandhill crane.