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.
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.
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.