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.
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.
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.