Winter Waterfowl Migration

Northern California is in quite a storm stir this week and last, as many of you have probably seen on the news. Here’s a look at the winter bird migration before the storms began.

In mid-December we visited two wildlife refuges in the Sacramento Valley and it was fantastic, as always.

Since then, blustery storms have battered this area with heavy winds, toppling trees, relentless flooding, mudslides and broken levees. Much of the state has been devastated.

But let’s go back to December and take a look at a pleasant, mild day in the Sacramento Valley.

In addition to several bald eagles at the refuge, many other raptors greeted us that December day–plenty of red-tailed hawks, some red-shouldered hawks, and a few northern harriers.

Northern California, the Pacific Flyway. The migrating birds fly down from the continent’s northern regions and spend the winter in the Sacramento Valley, typically from November through February. Then they fly back north for breeding during the warm months.

The Pacific Flyway is shown on the map below in green, along North America’s west coast.

Courtesy Wikipedia

You can see from the map that there are three other flyways across the country/continent as well. Bird migrations occur all across the world.

More info about Flyways from Wikipedia.

For 30 years Athena and I have visited the Sacramento Valley every winter to observe the migration. Amazingly, it is always different.

At the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge this time there was less water in the ponds, less geese; but the water levels of course have since dramatically changed with the onslaught of recent storms.

At the time they were experiencing an extreme drought, consequently many of the rice fields that attract the birds had had the water redirected into municipal water reservoirs.

Hard to imagine now, with rainstorms raging every day, that a few weeks ago we were in a severe drought.

The birds in biggest numbers on the Pacific Flyway are always geese and ducks.

The predominant goose species is snow geese (see first photo), but there are also many thousands of white-fronted geese (photo below).

There are thousands of ducks. We were happy this time to see the northern shovelers and green-winged teals in bright light, showing off their vibrant features. Often there is thick fog, but not that day.

Northern shovelers, so named for their shovel-shaped bills, were in abundance.

Green-winged teals, one of America’s most beautiful ducks, boast a variety of colors with emerald highlights.

Wading birds were predictably present including great blue herons, great and snowy egrets, black-necked stilts and white-faced ibis.

Often the ibis appear just black, but with a day of sunshine we had the full effect of their magically iridescent feathers. Green, maroon, brown. Their colors actually change as you watch them walk, depending on how the sun is striking.

When it comes to sporting colors, the ring-necked pheasant is a showstopper. There was a brief three seconds before he vanished in tall grass.

There are always plenty of songbirds here, too. Yellow-rumped warblers, scrub jays, and sparrows were prevalent, and the two special songbirds of the day were the western meadowlark and American pipit.

This photograph below shows bits of mud on the meadowlark’s bill where he or she had been probing. They seek wide open spaces of native grassland and agricultural fields for foraging.

American pipits, below, are in the songbird family, but I have never heard them sing. They come here to our mild climates for the winter in their nonbreeding plumage. They don’t sing until they go back home to the Arctic tundra and alpine meadows where they breed and nest.

Although you wouldn’t guess it by the plain and drab brown markings, this bird is a jewel for birders like us. Unlike sparrows, we don’t see a lot of the pipits.

At the Colusa National Wildlife Refuge about 20 minutes away, we were happy to find these black-crowned night herons in their usual place. They are more active at dusk; during the day they are nestled in bare trees, and few are moving.

On the auto route, this colony of black-crowned night herons doesn’t look like much from the car. I often see cars drive by without noticing the herons at all. To the untrained eye I suppose it looks like bits of trash in the weeds.

But a good pair of binoculars or a powerful camera lens bring this stately heron into better view.

We also had some fun sightings of river otters at the refuge that day.

These days I am feeling a bit like a river otter myself here in stormy northern California–slipping in the mud and constantly wet. Although more storms are expected, I’m hoping my fine pelt continues to protect me and that next Friday I’ll have entertaining stories to bark about.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.


80 thoughts on “Winter Waterfowl Migration

  1. Oh, this makes my heart sing and smile! I’ve had to reschedule a trip out to those refuges twice this month already, and now my trip on the 21st may have to be postponed if I can’t get over the mountains!

    The American Pipit is awesome! I’ve only seen one and that was at least a decade ago down in Merced County. What a treat for you to see it and the Pheasant! You had a great day birding en mon avis!

    I wish CA was catching all that rain and run off, but hopefully the reservoirs, and aquifers are getting a much needed refill! Happy Friday and have a good week-end, Jet.

    • Yes, we were planning to go back this month too, Deborah, but with all the flooding we’ve had to postpone it. I’m glad we got there in December and happy I could share this great day with you. We were on the auto tour when I spotted that pipit and it was on my side of the car, so Athena had to do some acrobats to capture it in her camera. Thanks for stopping by, always fun to share the birds with you.

      • I’m familiar with the camera acrobatic work! When shooting with friends in the car I’ve done it! 😂 I’m hoping I don’t have reschedule the trip again! I’m hoping to see Bay Area friends too.

  2. Such beautiful photos. It is so fulfilling to see nature unfold. I hope you are spared from damage from the storms. If only mankind would pay attention to the stress we replacing on our environment we might get back to more normalcy.

    • Hi Hien, I like that hope of yours and yes indeed I am hoping for a spring of fantastic wildflowers. In spite of all the damage and flooding that’s going on, I am still thrilled to see the waterways flowing with precious water and not bone dry. Many thanks for your lovely visit today.

  3. Your posts are alway informative and enjoyable, Jet, so I’m always happy to see one. The amount of birds on that first photo is amazing! Spotting the herons among the trees can certainly be a challenge, can’t it? That happens at the Preserve as well but it’s fun when you see them.

    • Yes, it is great fun to train your eyes to pull the beautiful birds out of the weeds. I enjoyed your comment, Janet, and am gratified that the posts make you happy. I enjoy doing them. Many thanks.

    • I have been to the websites, and both of these wildlife refuges mentioned here are still open and running, but with the warning that they can close at anytime. And the webscam looks as calm as ever. So far so good. Thanks Steve.

  4. So happy for you both you managed to be there on a mild, clear and dry day – what a bird wonderland! Getting the rain must be a relief after such a long drought, and fingers crossed water levels are climbing in the right direction. The worry is these extremes, from drought to flood, with the ground unprepared to cope with either…
    Anyway, you otter get back out there when it’s safe, and in the meantime, thanks for this one and have a great weekend!

    • Oh so lovely to have you stop by, pc, thank you. I was otterly delighted! And we do keep our fingers crossed for this precious rain to soak into our parched earth. You, too, have a wonderful weekend.

  5. Lovely post. It’s so nice that you can return to the same places every year to see the differences and changes. I’m glad you had a sunny day this year. And I’m laughing at your description of yourself as a river otter! We just had one swim by the dock; I wish it was you…

    • I’m delighted you had a good laugh over the last paragraph, Nan, about the otter word play. And how fun that an otter swam by your dock. And yes, we are so thrilled every year to go back there and note and observe the changes and similarities year after year. It’s a real honor. Sending lots of thanks and love to you.

    • Yes, I imagine the refuge is all flooded by now too, Jan, there’s been a lot more rain since I wrote this post. I’m glad to hear from you, and send my best wishes to you. Weather like this is tricky when you’re not steady on your pins, but a good time to stay put and continue healing. Best wishes and thanks.

  6. I know this won’t come as a surprise to you 😉 but I loved this post, Jet! Being on the opposite side of the U.S., we get to see many of the same migrants. The annual migrations are phenomenal, thank you for sharing all the information!

    • I’m smiling, Donna. It’s always fun to share the bird specifics with fellow birders and I am mutually enamored of your bird photos and observations in the east. We are lucky to have such a fascinating and enchanting pastime, aren’t we? My warmest thanks for your visit.

      • We certainly are, Jet! Although my grown, busy, career-oriented kids think I am a little cuckoo crazy lol. I’ve got my little grandboys interested though, they are and will be my future birding partners. 🙂

  7. Fabulous, Jet. What a wonderful abundance of birds. Great photos. Cool shot of the pheasant! Congrats, Athena. Hope you’re doing ok in the storms. We had a disturbing amount of rain in the LA area. We both better hunker down for the weekend! Take care and warm wishes to you both for a great year ahead. 🌟

    • Thanks for stopping by, Jane, and joining us on the bird migration day at the Sacramento refuge. Glad you liked the pheasant photo, because he was there and gone in such a quick minute. When we’re birding there we can hear popping from the hunters’ guns outside the refuge, so you can imagine how skittish a game bird would be. Today it is raining again and I am hoping you and your family are indeed staying safe. As you say, hunkered down. I too am not going anywhere this weekend. Cheers to you and many thanks.

  8. Wonderful sightings, Jet. It must be exciting to see so many different birds in one area. I can imagine the scene is a bit different now. I wonder if the refuge roads are perhaps even under water?
    I hope your home and roads are faring well, the scenes we’re seeing online are pretty wild. But if I remember correctly, this is what winters used to be like before the drought.

    • Yes, it is exciting Eliza to see so many different birds in one area. Sometimes it’s all happening at once and you don’t know who to look at first! The refuge roads are low-lying, so it’s possible some areas are flooded. The website says the refuge is open but subject to closing without warning, as the rains just keep coming and coming. And you’re right, we used to have very rainy winters here. I remember in the 1980s when the winter was rainy days all the time. I am personally thrilled to have so much rain here, and hope it soaks in good. We like our thriving plants, eh, Eliza? Cheers and thanks.

    • Thank you, Diana. I am indeed safe during all the storms, and doing well. Activities had to be curtailed considerably due to flooding and accidents, and I don’t get to go outside every day, but it’s all doable. Thanks for your visit and thoughts.

  9. The changes in migration flyways it definitely has to do with the storms that have been hard on the USA, From West to East we had rains, Snow, extreme cold temperatures, etc. I loved your post, Jet. Thank you. 🙂

    • Yes, these weather extremes are hitting all of us in different ways, you’re right, H.J. The climate is changing as the planet warms. We do what we can to keep ourselves and our families and friends safe, and we are so grateful to all the people who make our lives safer due to their diligent work. Always a pleasure, my friend, thanks for your visit.

  10. In all the storms we think about the affect on people but not so much on the wildlife. Seeing the Pipit passing thru is a great spot and the dirt on the beak of the western Meadowlark. In Illinois we saw the ducks headed north in the spring, we’ll have to figure out who is passing thru in Southern Georgia on the eastern flyway
    Thanks for sharing

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the photos on our bird migration visit, Bill. Yes, you will have a completely different experience with the bird migration in southern GA versus IL. It will be interesting for you to watch the different birds in your new region. Some birds, the wood stork for example, migrate TO your area where the weather is so mild. It’s a fascinating science. My warmest thanks for your visit, Bill.

  11. I always enjoy your posts, Jet, but I always learn something, too. This time, it was the Pipit. I’d never heard of the bird; it really is a lovely one. As impressive as the clouds of birds can be, the sight of a single, special one can be just as satisfying. I’m glad to hear that you’re faring as well as can be expected in the midst of the rains, but I know you’ll be glad to be able to get out and about as your choose in the future!

    • I’m truly delighted, Linda, to know that I introduced the adorable American pipit to you today. They look so much like sparrows but there is one identifying thing that stands out with that species: they bob their tail a lot. They do live in TX in the winter, so maybe one day a little bobbing tail will call out to you. Athena’s photo shows a bit of a blur in its tail, and that’s the bobbing. Cheers and many thanks.

    • Oh we were so delighted we went in December to the refuge, Val. It was a beautiful day. It was in the days right before Christmas when we figured most people would be out shopping and there were less people and gorgeous views. I am happy you could join us, thank you. I always enjoy your cheerful emojis.

  12. So glad you’re okay. All my CA friends are, but it seems like a tough place to live in the last few years. I love these flyway posts. The gravel pit I drive by every evening is covered with swans these days. Probably whistlers, but I think those have been renamed. There has also been the rare eagle some evenings. Hard to enjoy when shooting by at 60 mph, but I still look.

    • I was fascinated to hear about your swans at the gravel pit, Craig. I had forgotten about whistlers, vague memory of that term; but learned they are now called tundra swans, as you guessed. Per the range map, tundra swans live in swathes of southern Idaho in the winter, so that probably is what you’re seeing. How very cool. And lovely to see occasional eagles. Sending a big smile your way…and thanks.

  13. Nothing but the best in photos and story concerning our beautiful natural wonderlands.
    Then you are staying safe during these awful heavy flooding storms?
    I am a bit concerned to say the least. big hugs, Eddie

    • Always a treat to receive your visit and warm words, dear Eddie. I’m glad you enjoyed the bird migration post, and am happy to report that all is well for me, yes, staying safe. Many people are struggling with this onslaught, but I am laying low and weathering the storms just fine. Sending a big smile and hug your way, Eddie…thank you.

    • Always a joy to have you stop by, Sylvia. Thank you for your visit and warm words, and how lovely that you learned a few things here along the way. Yes, we are safe. Don’t get outside every day, which makes me a little cranky, but doing just fine, fortunately. Warmest thanks.

  14. Pingback: Winter Waterfowl Migration — Jet Eliot – Echoes in the Mist

  15. Have been thinking of you, of fellow Californians, and of neighboring birds & wildlife, quite a bit in recent days & hoping that you all weather the big changes in safety. Thanks for another excellent post. The bird pics are amazing.

  16. So many migrating birds in one place on one day! No wonder you make this expedition a yearly tradition. We don’t have White-fronted Geese, White-faced Ibises or Western Meadowlarks here so it was a treat to see yours. The Green-winged Teal is so beautiful, it looks like a floating painting from an art museum. I think of you often when I see the weather news coming from California and hope that you are being spared the worst of it. Stay safe, my friend!

    • I loved hearing about the birds shown here that you don’t see on the east coast, Barbara, and am happy I could share some of the west coast bird beauty with you. And thank you very much for your kind thoughts and words about the Calif. weather. Athena and I both work from home now, so we are spared the necessity of driving through storms when it’s this bad, so we’re staying low and doing well. Thanks very much.

  17. Such a paradise for bird lovers! All of these are new to me, although I spotted a Eastern meadowlark two years ago, and I might have mistaken the American pipit for something else. I need to check it out if we have it here in Ontario 🙂
    Stay safe!! Christie

  18. I hope you and Athena are doing ok with all this weird weather. I understand that because the ground was so hard from the droughts that all this flood weather isn’t soaking in. Thinking of you and hoping for the best.

    • Thanks very much, LuAnne, for your kind message. Yes, you understand correctly, the earth is saturated here now and not soaking in quickly enough. But we have had a few days this week with a respite and sunshine and things are settling down better. All is well. My warmest thanks.

  19. Lovely to see all your birds, 6k miles away and we share some species! Not that gorgeous meadow Lark though.
    Hope your weather settles down, makes our recent wet spell seem like a damp day!

    • Thank you, Brian. Yes, things are settling down now re rain in No. Calif. And I, too, love that you and I, though 6k miles apart, have bird species in common. Many thanks for your visit today.

  20. Great collection of birds you got there Jet! Some what embarrassed to say I found my first American Pipit on New Year’s eve (an end of the wire tick for the year). Now I am seeing them EVERYWHERE we go down here in Texas. Things you miss until you finally see one ha. I missed the Ring-Necked Pheasant last year – beautiful bird, but I must say, I find Pintails to be the most elegant on the water – such well coordinated colors and always prim and proper. As you can probably guess, I am very familiar with the yellow flyway – thanks for educating me on the flyway in your neck of the woods.

    • You and I, we love our flyways, Brian, don’t we. I liked hearing your American Pipit story and I, too, think the pintails are one of the most elegant ducks we have in this country. It was great fun sharing the Pacific Flyway with you, and your appreciation is a joy. Many thanks.

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