Northern California Winter Birds

Green-winged Teal, male

This time of year we are greeted in Northern California by half a million ducks. They literally flock to the mild winter climates of the Pacific Flyway; spend the winter here, and then in late January or February head north to their breeding grounds.

Green-winged Teal, Cosumnes River Preserve

The Pacific Flyway is a bird migration route that extends from Alaska down to Patagonia; it runs through central California. The area featured here, the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex, encompasses several refuges and is centered near California’s capital city, Sacramento. But these migratory birds can be found in winter throughout the Flyway, in numerous refuges spanning the state.


Here are six of my favorite migrating ducks. Each duck species breeds in a different place; I have linked each one for more information.


The Green-winged Teal, with its dazzling green eye patch, is one of the smallest ducks we have in North America. They are abundant in wetlands, preferring shallow ponds.


Buffleheads have some kind of magic over me because no matter what I am doing, I always stop to observe this stunning duck. From a distance the male looks black and white, but in certain revelatory light the black on his head is actually iridescent patches of green and purple.


Bufflehead pair; male, left; female, right


It rains in winter a lot (if we are lucky), and I don’t mind that; but it’s the sunny days when the Cinnamon Teal glows a spectacular burnished red.   Typical of teals, this species is a small duck, and sexually dimorphic (males and females exhibit different physical characteristics).


Cinnamon Teal pair, male in front.


Mating pair of Cinnamon Teal


Then there’s the Northern Pintail. An elegant duck with a long neck and pointy pin-style tail. They can be found in many other northern continents.


Northern Pintail, male, Colusa Nat’l. Wildlife Refuge, Calif.


Northern Pintails at Sacramento NWR


Similar to the pintail in size is the northern shoveler. Northern Shovelers can be mistaken for mallards due to their similar color patterns…until you look closely at the spatulate bill. Named for its shovel-like bill, the northern shoveler is yet another stunner whether floating or flying.


Male Northern Shoveler


Northern Shoveler, California


Bigger than teals and smaller than shovelers, the American Wigeon is another migrating duck commonly seen in the winter Pacific Flyway. They breed in much of Canada and Alaska, and spend their winters in milder parts of the U.S.

American Wigeon, male

American Wigeon pair, male on right


I would be remiss if I didn’t give you a few photos of other winter denizens of the area. Not ducks at all, the following winter birds add a flair of avian beauty to the waters.


Sandhill cranes congregate every winter in the shallow fields.


Sandhill Cranes in rice field


Bald eagles get their feet wet, too.


Bald Eagle, Sacramento NWR, California


We found this flock of White-faced Ibis hopping around in a frenzy one rainy afternoon. They use their long sickle-shaped bills to probe for snails, crayfish, fish, and frogs.


Flock of White-faced Ibis, Colusa NWR


White-faced Ibis


Geese are easily the most abundant wintering migrant to the Pacific Flyway, numbering in the hundreds of thousands. Ducks and geese in this Complex tally ten million.


Snow Geese


If you have the occasion to be in Northern California, it is well worth a few days of winter adventuring to spend time here. But don’t wait, most of the birds will be gone in a month, headed north.


Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos by Athena Alexander

Snow geese






99 thoughts on “Northern California Winter Birds

    • Your kind words are much appreciated, Hien. As a photographer of birds yourself, you know these winter ducks well. Athena is proud of that northern shoveler in flight, so glad you enjoyed it.

  1. Fantastic collection! Since we ‘reset’ for bird species at the beginning of each year, I’m always itching to get out and collect some duckies before school starts again. Our places along the gulf coast (which you’ve been) are Anahuac, Brazoria, and San Bernard NWR’s. We share the same wintering species it seems .. which is why my mouth is now watering for the ‘taste’ of some feathered delights.

    Thank you for the lovely kick in the pants, Jet and Athena. Now .. off to ‘shoot’ some winter birds. 😄

    PS – Happy New Year!

    • I have fond memories of Brazoria, Shannon, most notably an alligator that snuck up on us…yikes, a close call! Winter birding in TX is such a rich assortment of migrating waterfowl, I’m glad to remind you of the delights that await you. Always a joy, my friend, and happy new year to you and your family, too.

  2. That’s a wonderful display of migrating birds and interesting information, Jet and Athena! Flock of birds and especially geese looks magnificent. We have Pink-foot Geese and Brent Geese als winter visitors and the Wigeons, Teals, Pintail and Shoveler also show up regularly in our local nature reserve in North Norfolk. They are so beautiful and always a joy to watch.
    Sending the two of you best wishes,
    The Fab Four of Cley xx

    • I am oh so glad to hear that the wigeons, teals, pintails and shovelers show up regularly in North Norfolk. We don’t get those two species of geese, but we get about five or six other species. And, as you say, always a joy to watch. Cheers and many thanks, Fab Four.

    • Ducks gliding are peaceful, and I’m glad you reminded me of that, Jill. Usually the two of us are loaded down with gear, conferring on the species, making field notes and taking photographs that it isn’t very relaxing. It’s great fun, though. It’s not often one finds a bald eagle up to his knees in water, so that was a fun capture. My thanks for your visit, as always, Jill.

  3. Thanks for the flashes of colour to brighten a wintry day! It must have been hard to choose only six – the cinnamon teal is certainly a stunner.
    Thanks, Jet – and a Happy New Year!

    • Yes, there are SO many different kinds of birds and mammals to observe here, that it is difficult to narrow it down to just six ducks. I guess that’s why I snuck in a few other species at the end. lol. I’m glad you enjoyed the winter ducks, pc. Some of these, if not all, come up to Canada to breed. My warm thanks and cheers for a happy weekend ahead.

  4. The stream behind my office gets some of these visitors. It’s covered with mallards and wood ducks right now. (I looked.) We’ve never had a green winged teal, but used to get them in Nevada where I grew up.

  5. Pingback: Winter Ducks and More — Jet Eliot |

  6. It’s like a massive bird convention! Wouldn’t it be fabulous to know if the birds like all of the company at these times? My guess is that when they head north they spread out into much less dense living arrangements. Gorgeous photos of these travellers.

    • It truly is a convention, Sue. And a party. Sometimes there’s some territory scuffles, but mostly it’s a party and a total gab-fest. Quite raucous. Glad you enjoyed the winter visitors, dear Sue. Many thanks.

    • Yes, it is a huge treat to see them live, Anneli. Athena and I have been trekking to this Complex every winter for 28 years…that’s how thrilling it is. And in all those years, it’s always different. My warm thanks, Anneli. I enjoyed your post today…you got me thinking about an old wet suit I donated, I had never thought of using the neoprene. That’s really clever.

      • It’s so easy to work with. A surprise for me. You could probably make all kinds of things with it. Beach bag. Camera bag. I don’t know – probably lots of things. As for the duck place, that is one area I would visit repeatedly too. A real treasure!

    • Yes, we are lucky to have a large stretch of land for the winter migrating birds. I appreciate your kind comment, Belinda, and visit. You and I both like the ducks….

  7. All so beautiful! We get many of the same migrators in the Midwest. Such a joy to have them return every season. It is often on the exact day as the previous year. (I love those Buffleheads, too!)

    • I like hearing about your winter migrating ducks in the Midwest, Nan, thank you. And those little buffleheads, they are great fun to watch, glad you like them too. Always, always a joy to have you stop by.

  8. The Pacific Flyway has a tremendous traffic of migratory ducks compared to the Atlantic Flyway. I like ducks very much, they are beautiful creatures. Great post my friend as always. 🙂

    • Yes, it is a great joy to live on the Pacific Flyway, I am fortunate. I tell everyone I know out here, who is not a birder, that we are living in a ducky place. Always a joy to have you stop by, HJ, thank you.

    • Oh I like how you call it a “wonderful visual celebration,” montucky. There is indeed so much to celebrate with this array of migratory birds. Many thanks, as always, for your visit.

  9. Marvelous post about some of my favorites, too. I think the buffleheads are the clowns of the duck world. They are so funny to watch… besides being quite gorgeous. I didn’t know the Shovelers had such marvelous color. Fantastic shot by Athena! And I’ve never seen the Cinnamon Teal lit up so well. I could go on… and on… 😀

    • So very nice to receive your comment, Gunta, for you know the ducks of the west well. Buffleheads as clowns, yes I agree; I like that term for them. Athena was excited about that shoveler photo while it was happening because we were on an observation deck and they were flying at eye level to her; a perfect opportunity. And you know the cinnamon teal well, they don’t always light up like that. It has to be a certain light…as ducks and photography so often go. Many thanks for your visit, always a joy.

  10. Ducks – so often underrated! I love the iridescent sheen on buffleheads that you point out. As for the cinnamon teal, the first ever to be recorded for Abaco was discovered recently. Just the one, though… RH

    • Oh how I love hearing that a lovely cinnamon teal has been spotted on Abaco. How thrilling that must be for you Abaco scientist birders. Thanks so much, RH, enjoyed hearing your comment, as always.

  11. I love this post, Jet! Your knowledge of shore birds is fantastic and Athena’s photos capture the beautiful details of these birds. The Cinnamon Teal’s coloring is amazing along with the Shoveler in flight. I always learn a lot from your insightful posts. Wishing you both a marvelous 2019. 🌈

  12. Wonderful captures of your favorite winter ducks, Jet! Their colors liven up the dreary cold days of winter. They are arriving here around the Chesapeake Bay by the thousands as well, what fun to watch them. 🙂

    • A true delight to know the migrating ducks are greeting you in the Chesapeake Bay, Donna. I look forward to seeing them on your side of the country. My warmest thanks for your visit, and have fun this winter with your ducks.

  13. I patrol the same territory as Shannon: Anahuac, San Bernard, Brazoria. This past weekend I saw shovelers and ibis, one female bufflehead, and what I think were blue-winged teal. Some that you’ve shown here are familiar only through photos, but that may be due to my lack of identification skills and the amount of water that’s around right now. There’s so much “sheet water” in the fields and prairies that the birds are more scattered than usual.

    I love photos of birds in flight. I managed to capture a pair of shovelers on Sunday, but not nearly so well as Athena’s great photo. Sometimes, luck plays a role. I had no idea what I was photographing when I captured a group taking off from the water. As it turned out, it was a mixed flock of shovelers and white-fronted geese, with one pintail tagging along. Not knowing what will turn up is so much a part of the fun — thanks for sharing these!

    • Oh how wonderful that you are in the midst of TX and get to see these beauties, Linda. As you know, even in predictable circumstances, every year is different. For you this year it’s the sheet water that has stirred things up a bit. We are heading up to Sacramento again in two weeks, and I look forward to seeing what it will be like, following a whole lot of rain we’ve had. As you say, not knowing is part of the fun. Have great fun, Linda, and my thanks.

    • I know it’s hard to believe there are other creatures in this world besides lizards, Dawn Renee. So I’m glad to see I could shine some light on ducks and their beauty too. 😉

      • Haha! True, it seems, I only love lizards, but I cherish all the non-humans. I even have an official bug capturing glass and thick (so I don’t get bit or stung) paper with which I get them out of the house. People laugh at me, but they’ve accepted this behavior. I’ve actually converted a few people to be bug taker-outters 🙂

  14. I wish I could experience this. I am lucky enough to be headed down to Florida next week though, and am excited about watching the diverse winter bird population!

  15. Hey Jet! WOW! It must be so fun to be there among so many different types of birds. Amazing photos. Love the bald eagle standing in the shallow water as well. I’ve never seen them do that here. And WHAT? The Cinnamon Teal and Northern Shovelers are new to me and what an delight!!! Putting Pacific Flyway on our list for someday….. Thank You and Cheers!!! 🤗💖☀️

    • I’ve never seen a bald eagle standing in water either, Katy. It was a rainy day and the eagle was apparently hunting. Fun comment, love your enthusiasm for the new ducks and photos. I hope you do make it out to the Pacific Flyway, and if not, there are several other flyways in North America as well. Enjoyed your recent bright post, my friend — always a pleasure, thank you.

  16. There’s something about ducks that always makes me smile. My guy says that they “quack him up.” Don’t they seem to have a sense of humor, with their paddling and bobbing into the water? Love the photos.

    • I agree, Pam, ducks are so entertaining. And if a mallard starts doing that laugh-like quacking, life just lights up. So happy to see you here, and thanks for your contribution.

    • I am so glad you enjoyed the winter ducks, Alastair. Your sound recordings at some of these ponds would be crazy with quacks! My warm thanks, as always, for your visit and comment.

    • Yes, it is a good time of year for the birding migration observations, very exciting. It is a bit cold and uncomfortable for some folks, but for us it is a time of year not to be missed for birding. Glad you enjoyed the glimpse into the wildlife in northern California, Draco. Thanks so much for your visits.

  17. Fantastic photographs and beautiful birds, Jet. I was simply stunned when I saw the Cinnamon teal. What a gorgeous bird! Earlier this week I took some pictures of Common teals. They too have that green eye patch, but the white stripe is horizontal.

    • Thanks so much for your visits, Inese, always a pleasure to “see” you. I, too, find the cinnamon teal stunning. And I liked hearing about the common teal that inhabits your part of the globe, we don’t have that specific teal in the western hemisphere, so I liked hearing about it from you. Many thanks.

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