Our day last week at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge was another bonanza of wildlife, a particularly exciting adventure in the middle of winter.
The enormous number of birds is what keeps things so interesting. It is a 10,819-acre (43.78 sq. km.) wetland expanse; a wintering home to hundreds of thousands of migrating geese, ducks and other waterfowl.
The Northern California migration typically lasts from November through January, depending on the weather.
The most predominate goose species every year is the Snow Goose. They come from Wrangell Island in Siberia (U.S.S.R.) and spend the winter here in our milder climate.
This year there were also several hundred Ross’s geese.
And thousands of White-fronted Geese.
What we saw were waves and waves of white geese flying in all different directions.
What we heard was the most magnificent cacophony of honking and squawking.
This is a good representational recording: Click here for Snow Geese flock cacophony.
There are also many duck species who winter in the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge.
Last week the major duck species was the Northern Shovelers. Last month, according to the Survey Summary, there were a lot of pintail ducks. It varies depending on the month and weather.
Northern Shovelers (Spatula clypeata) have similar coloring to mallards, but their namesake shovel-shaped bills easily distinguish them. They can often be seen swinging their spatulate bills from side to side in the water as they strain aquatic vegetation, plankton, and tiny invertebrates.
We often saw the Shovelers like this…
…but just as often like this.
The geese and ducks are only part of the refuge extravaganza, for there are also songbirds, shorebirds, waders, gulls, grebes, woodpeckers, raptors and other birds.
Here a white-faced ibis joined the northern shovelers. Tall bird in center with the long bill.
We spotted this adult and immature pair of bald eagles early on our auto tour (photo below). From this distance it looks like two dots in the tallest tree.
We knew we would get a better look at them as we progressed down the road.
At times we heard them calling out–a screeching sound.
And eventually we came closer.
The adult was easier to spot due to the characteristic white head.
It takes 4-5 years for a bald eagle to reach maturity, acquire the white head and tail. Prior to that there are many stages of maturation.
The immature bald eagle (below) still had a gray bill and a dark head, so is probably around 2-3 years old.
The young eagle’s flying was accomplished, and we enjoyed watching him/her swoop over the ducks, practicing bravado. The ducks scattered in a flutter of wingbeats when the young eagle came near.
We spotted western meadowlarks numerous times that day. They brighten up the brown landscape with their vivacious yellow markings, and even more bright is their song. A magical fluty series of notes.
We have always seen an interesting array of mammals here too. This year we saw nearly a dozen black-tailed jackrabbits, a striped skunk and a ground squirrel.
Two years ago we came upon a trio of river otters in one of the water-filled ditches. They were having a grand time catching fish, and the feeding frenzy lasted at least a half-hour.
Reptiles also joined last week’s fracas. First there were two western pond turtles on a log. Soon a third and then a fourth climbed onto the same log.
Throughout the whole turtle encounter, I noticed there was one who kept opening its mouth wide. You can see it in this photo, third from the left.
Come to think of it, it seems like all these wildly beautiful creatures seemed to have their mouths open that day. The geese were honking, mallards laughing uproariously, the bald eagles were screeching and the meadowlarks were warbling.
Made me want to sing too.
Written by Jet Eliot.
Photos by Athena Alexander.