There’s a phenomenal bird spectacle occurring in America right now, it happens every winter. It is the bird migration of waterfowl who have traveled from the northern reaches of the continent to winter here in California and other milder parts of the country. I recently returned from my 21st annual trip to the Pacific Flyway in the California Sacramento Valley. It was such a spectacular site that I present it to you this week in a three-part series.
Millions of ducks and geese winter here. They come all the way from Alaska, Canada, even Siberia. Other travelers include sandhill cranes and tundra swans; and they join raptors, egrets, herons, shorebirds, songbirds, and many other birds too. The avian winter visitors prefer the wet, marshy flat lands and mild weather for feeding, and they stay here usually from October through February. Once the harshest part of their winter is over, they fly back north to breed and raise their young.
There are four general patterns of bird migration pathways or flyways in the United States. In California we have the far western pathway called the Pacific Flyway. It extends from the Arctic Circle down the western coasts of the U.S., Central America, and South America.
Even though I have been going up here every winter for 21 years, there has never been a dull moment. The migration is different every year depending on weather, bird populations, and habitat. This year California has a drought, so I didn’t know if there was water or birds. We called ahead and spoke to one of the rangers, who assured us there were still plenty of birds. All she had to say was “there are a thousand cranes” and our bags were packed. Fortunately rains came in the past few weeks to relieve the drought conditions, and even though there is still low accumulation of rainfall, there was enough water in the rice fields and duck ponds to attract an impressive array of waterfowl.
In the Sacramento Valley there are two major areas. Each year I go to one or the other, and sometimes both.
- The Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex has six major refuges: Sacramento NWR, Delevan, Colusa, Sutter, Butte, and Sacramento River;
- San Joaquin County has Cosumnes River Preserve, Woodbridge Ecological Reserve and many bird-rich back roads.
I like the Sacramento Complex for the insane numbers of geese. Also, if I have loved ones along who are not super mobile or the weather is non-stop stormy, the auto tours are a good choice. I also like the San Joaquin County area, especially for the sandhill crane populations. This year I went to San Joaquin County where the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers create a delta wetland.
The Pacific Flyway is awesome for witnessing the colossal flocks of these birds. They rise up off the pond in an undulating wave, honking and squawking with deafening power. There are over 300 species of migratory and resident birds and mammals here.
Wherever you live there is a bird migration, it is a natural phenomenon that has occurred throughout the ages. But it is not to be taken for granted, especially these days when human population is booming, and wildlife and wilderness habitats are dwindling. Passenger pigeons were once in enormous abundance (much like these geese are today) until they were extirpated a hundred years ago.
If you live in the United States click here to look at the U.S. Flyway map, check out which corridor you are near and when the big migrations occur. If you live outside of the U.S., click here for map and information. Take some time to visit the refuges in your area. We are so lucky to have these resources available to us; it is usually a minimal cost, there are often auto tours, and it makes for a great day of easy, wildlife appreciation for people of any age.
Tomorrow I will cover highlights of the Pacific Flyway with photos and a short essay on the ducks and geese we saw, the day following I will cover sandhill cranes. I hope you like the series.