Sacramento Valley Winter Migration

We are blessed in Northern California every winter with the arrival of millions of geese and ducks. Arriving from Alaska, Canada, and Siberia, the birds spend the winter here on the Pacific Flyway.

The Pacific Flyway is one of four bird migration routes in North America (see map at end). Some waterfowl don’t stay long, they migrate further south in fall. Others stay here for the winter, taking advantage of the mild temperatures. Migratory waterfowl populations peak from Thanksgiving through February. After that, the birds return north to begin breeding.

Roughly 3 million ducks and 1 million geese spend the winter here, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Pacific Flyway Wikipedia

The migratory ducks and geese can be seen all over the Bay Area and surrounding counties, but 44% of them flock to California’s Sacramento Valley. There are several refuges in the valley, the biggest is Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge where there is a self-guided auto tour.

More info: Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex Wikipedia

While most of the Pacific Flyway’s natural wetlands have disappeared in the past 100 years, in the 1930s and 1940s several agencies were formed when the waterfowl populations began to decline. Refuges were established and water diversion projects were eventually set in place. The diverted water aids with agricultural needs and attracts the migrating waterfowl as well.

Today, managers, biologists and refuge workers maintain more than 35,000 acres (14,164 hectares) of wetlands in the Sacramento Valley. Local farmers work cooperatively with agencies, allowing their rice fields to be flooded every winter.

Due to current Covid stay-at-home conditions, we have not yet visited the Sacramento Valley this winter; most photos here are from our visit last winter.

In addition to the millions of geese and ducks, other birds and mammals join the raucous scene.

We spotted these jubilant river otters in a water-filled ditch where they were gorging on fish.

In between waves of wildly noisy geese constantly landing, taking off, and filling the sky, there are over 200 species of other birds enjoying the safe, protected waters.

Songbirds abound, like this western meadowlark.

Egrets and herons are commonly seen, and raptors hunt from the winter-bare treetops.

These ibis were probing their long bills in the mud, actively fishing. They eat crayfish, insects, invertebrates and fish.

We were fortunate to spot this American Bittern through the reeds. They are solitary, elusive birds, difficult to photograph. They extend their necks and look to the sky when they are trying to hide.

Another elusive bird, the ring-necked pheasants shimmered in the sun. Last year we spotted about two dozen individuals, more than usual.

Sandhill cranes are a treasured migratory species that winter in the Sacramento Valley, too.

There are also millions of migratory ducks occupying the refuge waters.

One recent year at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge it was a blustery, rainy day. We came upon this victorious shrike and drenched brush rabbit.

Geese honking, ducks cruising, water sparkling, raptors soaring. Another heaven on earth–this one, a wetland paradise.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Waterfowl Flyways in the United States. Courtesy Wikipedia.

95 thoughts on “Sacramento Valley Winter Migration

  1. Looks like a nice way to spend a winters day. Wonderful pics and information and what a nice treat to spot an American Bittern. Someday in the post Covid world we will have to take a winter birding road trip there. Thanks and have a great weekend.

    • As a photographer, you know the difficulty in spotting an American Bittern, Mike, and the great thrill when it happens. If you and Christy are in the area and feel like company, let us know, we’ll meet you there. It’s so incredibly exhilarating. It’s a six-mile auto tour and we spend the whole day there. Many thanks.

      • HI Jet, yes Bitterns are oh so elusive. There is one place we go maybe once a year where we typically here one calling but never have seen it as the cattails and marsh grasses are very thick. If we do make it out to the Sacramento vally some winter would would very much welcome a couple of expert guide. Cheers and heres to a wonderful week ahead.

  2. A Wetland paradise indeed. I am trying to imagine the sounds that go with these images….It must be amazing and wonderful.
    Thank you for this beautiful post….we all need to be reminded that there is one great big beautiful world out there and that it is not all governed by politics and the virus.

    Stay well Jet, and I hope that your creative juices are flowing. Janet πŸ™‚

    • We have been enjoying the Sacramento Valley migration every winter for the past 30 years. So it’s great to share it here, Janet. Even though it isn’t safe to visit yet this year, it’s pleasant to have the memories and images, and anticipation for the future. Cheers to you, Janet, and you too, stay well and creative.

  3. Wow, Jet. That’s a lot of migrating birds. I am fortunate to live more or less along the Atlantic flyway, so we get some of those same migratory species in our area. It is easy to see how you and Athena could spend an entire day at the Sacramento NWR–there is so much to see. I was particularly struck by the photos of the otters with fish in their mouths and the shrike shot grabbed my eye with the human-like form of the praying mantis that has become prey. In theory we have bitterns where I live, but I have not seen one yet, so it was cool that you observed one. Wetlands are wonderful areas to explore and this one one seems particularly good. I am hoping and praying that things will settle down later this year and we will begin to be able to travel again. Perhaps next year, you can do a return visit to this refuge.

    • With your photography experience, Mike, you zeroed in on the challenging photo captures. The otters were a super thrill. They were ten feet away from the car and since we had to stay in it (auto tour), the car was our blind. They were not easy to spot because mostly they were underwater. I had noticed the water was roiling in an odd way, and then for the next hour we were anchored there with this incredible scene unfolding. The shrike shot was fortunate in that the preying mantis was so small that Athena didn’t see it until she got home and brought it up on the computer screen. And the bitterns, too, as you know, are really difficult to get. She had a few “better” shots from previous years, but liked this one from last year because she was able to capture the entire body of the bittern. I, too, fervently hope the virus settles down and the contagion slows down and the vaccines continue to be distributed so that we can all get back to our adventures. For now, I’m glad to be well and alive, and sending you warm wishes and thanks.

      • Thanks so much, Jet for the “color commentary”–I love to hear the stories behind the shots and will sometimes provide those details in my own postings. I am blessed to have plenty of places to go to experience nature in my local area and can easily avoid the popular places where there are too many other people.

  4. Two of my favorite Wildlife refuges you have featured here. You had so many wonderful sightings while there! The Otters would have been a huge highlight for me. I’m still in the Pacific Flyway zone, but they don’t seem to actually get here until Feb/March. Until then, I am glad you shared your visit(s) and your sightings.

    • You and I both like the same refuges, Deborah, and how nice that we both have the thrill of the Pacific Flyway. The river otters were a huge highlight for us, too. Usually we see one about every other year, but last year the ditches were pretty full and we happened to be in the right place at the right time. Thanks so much for your visit, I always appreciate them.

    • It just takes your breath away to see the sky so filled with geese, Bill. And they make such a racket! It’s so marvelous! I’m glad we could share this refuge with you, and appreciate your visit today and every Friday.

    • You have many wonderful refuges at your disposal near Cape May, Hien, you know the gifts we have of these magnificent places. I’m glad I could share this one with you. Thanks so much.

  5. You girls are beyond talented, Jet! What amazing info & photos you have once again shared. To me, seeing that many birds flying at once is a spiritual experience. Their skill and intelligence to be of one mind & act as one unit makes my heart swell. If only we humans could act in a similar manner! This post, Jet, is nothing short of amazing. How thrilling it must be for you both to spend time in Nature, capturing the images and ideas that you will later share. Blessings to both of you for a lovely weekend. 🌞

    • Your comment and visit to the Sacramento Valley post were most appreciated, Lisa. It is indeed a spiritual experience to witness bird flocks this huge. It is invigorating and chaotic, super loud and endearing all at once. Going to the Sacramento Valley every winter is one of my favorite things to do in this world, I’m happy I could bring you along today. Thanks very much, Lisa.

  6. This is really spectacular Jet! Beautiful pictures and story, and I particularly like the photos of the otters – they are so appealing… πŸ™‚

    • Thanks very much, Meg. With all your outdoor adventures, you know there are so many thrills out there just waiting to be experienced. The otters were a fantastic find that day. We were on an auto tour so the car was a perfect photo blind for Athena to get those photos. Thanks so much.

  7. What a celebration of this special place, Jet. Love all of Athena’s photos especially the shots that show the sheer number of birds. Amazing. The individual captures of the pheasant, the otter, the sandhill crane… what a treat. Hope someday I’ll get there to witness this! πŸ™‚

    • Auto tours are great for photography, because the car acts as a blind and if the birds are near the road, you can get some good shots. The Pacific Flyway goes all the way down the west coast, so you should be able to find something similar down in your SoCal neck of the woods, Jane, when the you-know-what is under control. I know the Salton Sea is good…. Athena was happy about the pheasant photo, because they’re usually so skittish and the sun isn’t always shining, but that day last year both cooperated. The otter was a p u r e thrill and the sandhill crane shot, I love that one too, it’s one of my favorites of her sandhill cranes. Many thanks, Jane, always a delight to “see” you.

  8. A watery wonderland! Loved this, how between your words and Athena’s photographs, you conveyed the excitement and adventure in seeing a land teeming with life. Great stuff – thanks, Jet!

    • We are so lucky to have this refuge; as you say, pc, “a land teeming with life.” With 39 million residents in Calif. and persistent droughts, it is quite a human miracle that this water wonderland, to use your words, and open expanse still exists. Great fun to share it with you, pc, thanks so much for stopping by.

    • We were driving along on the auto tour and I noticed underwater activity. Since it was a ditch there wouldn’t be a current, so we waited and watched, and then these three otters popped out and entertained us with their bonanza. I’m glad I could share it with you, Cindy. Thanks for your visit.

  9. I’ve always wanted to get up there this time of year. I can almost hear those geese. Perhaps I’ll make it this week as Monday it’s supposed to get into the 70s. Thanks for reminding me!

    • Yes, it is very fortunate that the North American flyways are so accessible to us. The nice thing about the Pacific Flyway is that many of the birds stay for the winter and are not just flying through. Dear Nan, always a joy to have you visit.

  10. Ok, I give up. I can’t choose a favorite; I just loved the entire post. What a joy it must be to see all these! I’m glad that farmers are letting their out-of-season fields be used. According to the information at the Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch here in Gilbert where I like to walk, there used to be many riparian areas/wetlands throughout the Southwest, but most of them are now gone, which puts a strain on wildlife, particularly migrating birds. I’m happy that Gilbert has set aside such a large area and there’s also a smaller place, Sweetwater Wetlands, in Tucson which serves the same purpose. We need more of that.


    • You said it, Janet. Riparian habitats and wetlands are shrinking and its refuges like the two you mention and the Sacramento Complex that are so important not only for the migrating birds but for humans to interact with nature. I am so impressed that the Sacramento Vly system is a cooperative effort with so many different kinds of people, including farmers. And I agree, we need more of it. My warmest thanks and happy wetland walking to you.

  11. These are wonderful photos but the one I admire a lot is the meadowlark, mainly because I have tried so many times to get a photo of one and I can never get them to sit still long enough. Great selection of critters on this post.

  12. Wow…the arrival of millions of geese and ducks, what a stunning and exciting scene. Thank you for sharing with us.
    Such a beautiful bird series, Jet! πŸ™‚

  13. The Pacific Flyway has a tremendous traffic of birds and you have the pleasant opportunity to witness that every year. Fantastic! We’re lucky to have you , best to report the event. Thank you, my friend! πŸ™‚ πŸ‘

    • Your comment gave me a big smile, HJ, thanks so much. I do love reporting on these phenomenal nature events, and well, I will just never ever tire of the Pacific Flyway. Cheers to our birds and you, HJ.

  14. Wish I could have spent a bit more time in Northern California during my time here. We’ll be back to visit a lot after we move so maybe then! A very informative write up and great pictures by Athena!

    • You bring up a good point, Belinda, otters just make us smile. They’re so adorable and adept in the water, watching them swim and spin for these fish was a true delight. Great fun to share it with you, thanks so much.

  15. You’ve both captured, in words and photos, the excitement and vitality of this bit of bird paradise. (Athena’s talent shines!) I hope one day to get to visit Sacramento NWR in person when this pandemic is over… hope springs eternal!

    • I liked your comment for the brightness and hope, Eliza, and appreciate your kind words. If there is a day when you visit Sacramento NWR, let me know, we’ll show you some of the rewarding back roads where sandhill cranes hang out. Until then, don’t stop hoping, my friend.

  16. Enjoyed your post, Jet, and Athena’s photos! Although I’m in Florida for the winter, your descriptions and Athena’s gorgeous photos make me homesick for ‘my’ Chesapeake Bay, where I’m missing these birds and scenes right now. πŸ˜‰ Kidding aside, I do know the thrill of seeing thousands and thousands of Snow Geese, swirling in the sky, each squawking as loud as it can. What a sight! What a sound!! I think I might have said it before to you, we liken being in the midst of SG swirling overhead to standing in a real-life Snow Globe. 😊

    • I so enjoyed your swirling “snow globe” theory, Donna, and completely agree. Even though you’re missing the waterfowl bonanza in Chesapeake Bay, I’m guessing you’re finding all kinds of wonderment in FL. I’m headed your way right now to see what you’ve been up to.

  17. I especially enjoyed the river otters, and the bittern. I saw my second bittern this year, and I had no idea what I was looking at. It had blown itself up like a volleyball — have you ever seen such a thing? I read that they’ll do that sometimes during mating season, but surely November wasn’t mating season. In any event, it was great fun to see, and tremendously interesting to find that you have them, too. I’m glad, too, that you still have the chance to see those huge flocks of geese. I think I’ve mentioned that ours have shifted their ‘flight path’ a bit. They’re still crossing Texas: just not in my immediate area. It makes your posts even more enjoyable.

    • It was a delight to have a flyway exchange with you, Linda. It’s really interesting that your waterfowl have shifted their flight path, and proves that this is movement is a living occurrence and subject to change. Weather, hunting, food, and habitat changes all play a part. But sad for you, I’m sorry. I also l o v e d hearing about your recent siting of the bittern. These are the trickiest birds, so elusive and clever how they camouflage and re-shape their bodies. But no, I have never seen one shaped like a volleyball. I’m smiling as I type this, because it’s so like a bittern to do something weird like that. My warmest thanks.

  18. Winter is a wonderful time to be outdoors! β€˜Get out and look for the migrants’ I tell all my Texan friends. Once they’re discovered, it’s hard to come back in. Love that pintail. Be well, Jet!

    • It’s so lovely to hear from you, Shannon. I like that you tell your Texan friends to get out and look for the migrants. Your state is brimming with wild birds in winter, it’s wonderful. I’m glad you’re down there spreading the word. Take care, Shannon, and thanks so much for stopping by.

    • Hey Lloyd, great to “see” you! Yes, how about that American Wigeon? Isn’t that an incredibly stunning bird? The majority of their over-wintering population breed in central US and Canada, so they’re only here for a few months, but wow, what a joy when they’re here. They’re one of the easiest ducks for identifying, with that white crown patch, and they dazzle wherever they paddle. I’m happy you enjoyed that beautiful bird, Lloyd. Thanks so much for your visit.

  19. Wow! You can see a LOT of birds there, all varieties. Our city dug up drainage tiles to change farmlands back to wetlands on the south side of town. We drive by them a lot, and I always look for what birds are there. Nothing like the numbers you have, though.

  20. There is such power in a swarm (I’m sure that’s not the right term) of migrating birds. Here in NE in the early fall I get so upset when I hear the geese – swarms of them – honking goodbye as they migrate south. To me, it means the end of summer and the beginning of long cold winter. Then in late March the red-wing black birds swarm in, covering every tree branch it seems, then migrating further north. The photos you share are so magnificent! (Oh, and I’ve never seen hummers migrating. Suddenly in early May one or two appear at our hummingbird feeder, which we put up by middle of April in high hopes. I know they migrate, of course, but in large swarms?)

    • It is a delight to see the really big flocks of really big birds, and you’re right, Pam, there is great power in it. As for hummingbird migrations, our resident hummingbird in No. Calif. does not migrate, due to the mild temperatures. In the NE your main hummingbird is the ruby-throated species, and although I am no expert, I am pretty sure they don’t migrate in flocks. It’s such a great skill the birds have for finding their way around this big earth. Lovely to hear from you, Pam, thank you.

      • I’m glad I asked you! Yes when we lived in the bay area we had hummingbirds except for the month of January and February I believe. So it is sort of like a miracle when they arrive here in May. πŸ’˜

    • Always a joy to have you stop by, Frank, thanks so much. It is indeed very cool to witness the enormous flocks of geese and ducks, I hope some day you can. Meanwhile, your exquisite pastoral landscape photos are a real treat — don’t ever stop. Cheers, Frank.

  21. If I am not mistaken you have posted about this incredible spot before? Or we have spoken about it? I hope one year soon we might end up in the Sacramento area at the same time! There’s something to hope for. It’s interestign ot think that especially in Saskatchewan the massive white flocks are seen in newly harvested fields, likely eating up before their long journey.
    Jet on another note I wanted to let you know that your Gravatar is no longer linking back to your blog. So if I click on it from a comment you have made, I get an error rather than your website.

    • Yes, I have posted about the Sacramento winter bird migration numerous times, Sue, and we also had an email exchange about it. With your family visits to the area, I recommended it to you, espec. if you visit in winter. And thanks so much for the techno note re the Gravatar. I’ll look into it. Dear Sue, thanks so much for your visits today, always a joy.

    • Thanks, Andrea. It is a most exhilarating experience to be beneath a sky filled with rambunctious geese. I like it that it’s one of your favorites. There’s something very comforting, grounding, and exciting about it. Cheers to you.

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