Winter Ducks and More

Green-winged Teal, male

This time of year we are greeted in Northern California by half a million ducks. They literally flock to the mild winter climates of the Pacific Flyway; spend the winter here, and then in late January or February head north to their breeding grounds.

Green-winged Teal, Cosumnes River Preserve

The Pacific Flyway is a bird migration route that extends from Alaska down to Patagonia; it runs through central California. The area featured here, the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex, encompasses several refuges and is centered near California’s capital city, Sacramento. But these migratory birds can be found in winter throughout the Flyway, in numerous refuges spanning the state.

 

Here are six of my favorite migrating ducks. Each duck species breeds in a different place; I have linked each one for more information.

 

The Green-winged Teal, with its dazzling green eye patch, is one of the smallest ducks we have in North America. They are abundant in wetlands, preferring shallow ponds.

 

Buffleheads have some kind of magic over me because no matter what I am doing, I always stop to observe this stunning duck. From a distance the male looks black and white, but in certain revelatory light the black on his head is actually iridescent patches of green and purple.

 

Bufflehead pair; male, left; female, right

 

It rains in winter a lot (if we are lucky), and I don’t mind that; but it’s the sunny days when the Cinnamon Teal glows a spectacular burnished red.   Typical of teals, this species is a small duck, and sexually dimorphic (males and females exhibit different physical characteristics).

 

Cinnamon Teal pair, male in front.

 

Mating pair of Cinnamon Teal

 

Then there’s the Northern Pintail. An elegant duck with a long neck and pointy pin-style tail. They can be found in many other northern continents.

 

Northern Pintail, male, Colusa Nat’l. Wildlife Refuge, Calif.

 

Northern Pintails at Sacramento NWR

 

Similar to the pintail in size is the northern shoveler. Northern Shovelers can be mistaken for mallards due to their similar color patterns…until you look closely at the spatulate bill. Named for its shovel-like bill, the northern shoveler is yet another stunner whether floating or flying.

 

Male Northern Shoveler

 

Northern Shoveler, California

 

Bigger than teals and smaller than shovelers, the American Wigeon is another migrating duck commonly seen in the winter Pacific Flyway. They breed in much of Canada and Alaska, and spend their winters in milder parts of the U.S.

American Wigeon, male

American Wigeon pair, male on right

 

I would be remiss if I didn’t give you a few photos of other winter denizens of the area. Not ducks at all, the following winter birds add a flair of avian beauty to the waters.

 

Sandhill cranes congregate every winter in the shallow fields.

 

Sandhill Cranes in rice field

 

Bald eagles get their feet wet, too.

 

Bald Eagle, Sacramento NWR, California

 

We found this flock of White-faced Ibis hopping around in a frenzy one rainy afternoon. They use their long sickle-shaped bills to probe for snails, crayfish, fish, and frogs.

 

Flock of White-faced Ibis, Colusa NWR

 

White-faced Ibis

 

Geese are easily the most abundant wintering migrant to the Pacific Flyway, numbering in the hundreds of thousands. Ducks and geese in this Complex tally ten million.

 

Snow Geese

 

If you have the occasion to be in Northern California, it is well worth a few days of winter adventuring to spend time here. But don’t wait, most of the birds will be gone in a month, headed north.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos by Athena Alexander

Snow geese

 

 

 

 

 

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The Glorious Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle, Sacramento NWR

A pair of bald eagles were spending the day at the refuge last week, perfect timing for our visit. A mother and her immature. America’s national bird hasn’t always been visiting the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, nor has the population always been successfully reproducing.

 

Before venturing onto the refuge, I had asked the ranger about the bald eagles recently observed, as I had not seen any notes on the “Sightings” clipboard. She was happy to tell about the bald eagles.

 

“The mother perches on the outskirts, while the immature circles over the water.”

 

Soon after we started the tour, I spotted the mature adult, the mother. Just seeing her perched in this distant tree lifted my heart. The bird was nearing extinction in the 1950s with less than 500 pairs in the lower 48 states; today the population is close to 10,000. Bald eagle statistics. 

Raptor Tree

A flock of swifts were upset by her presence. I’m sure the merlin, with whom the eagle shared the treetop, was no great comfort either.

Merlin, Sacramento NWR

 

It’s an auto tour, the one I wrote about earlier this month. So getting closer to the tree was not possible. But it was the perfect time for tea; I parked and we pulled out the thermos. We waited for her to take off, hoping to catch the impressive six-foot wingspan (1.82 m).

 

About 15 minutes had passed and tea-time was over, and still she had not moved. So we moved on.

 

An hour later we spotted the immature bald eagle circling high over the water, just like the ranger had predicted.

Immature Bald Eagle

Immature bald eagles have different coloring than the mature adults–they do not have the white head or white tail, not until their fourth or fifth year. But size-wise, the immature is as large as the adult.

 

All at once we heard the rumble of thousands of snow geese taking off. They were upset by the bald eagle. This sound fills me with awe. It reminds me of an avalanche or a calving glacier. Snow geese are big birds, they weigh about five pounds each (2.26 kg). Imagine three hundred of these heavy birds all lifting at once.

 

The immature bald eagle circled repeatedly, and stirred up the huge flocks of white geese sufficiently. The geese were squawking and honking and taking off, filling the sky, while the cool raptor continued circling, threatening. The eagle didn’t seem intent on hunting, I think he or she was just practicing fierceness.

Snow Geese, Sacramento NWR; they were all on the ground the minute before

The bald eagle’s diet includes fish and waterfowl, also small mammals, small birds, and even carrion. Wikipedia overview.

 

Throughout the day we saw ground squirrels and jackrabbits, and even a ‘possum sleeping in a tree hole. All of these would be tasty meals for the bald eagles.

 

But I was happy to just watch the mammals living through another beautiful day.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

Ground Squirrel

 

Jackrabbit

Opossum in tree hole

 

Wildlife Auto Tours

Great Egret at Sacramento NWR Auto Tour Entrance

In the U.S. we have wildlife auto tours all over the country. They are useful for close-up viewing and photographing of wild birds and mammals, especially in inclement weather. Associated with national wildlife refuges, the routes are one-lane roads traversing the refuge.

 

I have been on auto tours in many parts of the country in every season. We’ll focus here on one of my favorites, the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Auto Tour in California’s Central Valley. This complex covers 10,819 acres (43.78 km2).

American Bittern

Every year in the Central Valley, migrating birds descend from the frigid northern climes. The birds overwinter here, in the Pacific Flyway corridor, from November to February. There are 5 million ducks, geese, and swans that overwinter in California, and 1.5 million shorebirds. It is not uncommon to experience flocks of snow geese numbering in the thousands.  Wikipedia overview. 

 

I have visited the Central Valley every winter for 27 years, and each year I am freshly enchanted by the avian visitors. There are over 300 species of birds and mammals.

Red-tailed Hawk, Sacramento NWR

Flock of White-faced Ibis

The auto tour is self-guided, costs a few dollars to enter. Visitors are allowed to get out of their car only at the designated “Park-and-Stretch” spots, where there is a small parking lot, viewing deck, and bathroom facility.

 

By staying in the car, visitors are essentially driving around in their own viewing “blind.” Birding and photography are done through your car window.

Athena photographing, Sacramento NWR

All the photos here (except one, the sunny one) are from our visit last winter to the Sacramento and nearby Colusa auto tours. It was a very rainy day. You can see how unperturbed even the most skittish creatures were, like the bittern and the brush rabbit.

Brush Rabbit

 

The Sacramento auto tour is six miles (9.6 km) long, and we usually spend about six hours here, averaging one mile per hour.

Loggerhead Shrike preying on a praying mantis

Pintails at Sacramento NWR

Snow geese, Sacramento Nat’l. Wildlife Refuge, CA

Winters here are relatively mild, so we don’t get snow; but there is often rain. Some years the rains are so torrential that getting out of the car is like stepping into a tornado. Other years there are mild winters; the sun is shining, all the windows are open and not only can we bird by ear, but there is great visibility.

 

Auto tour passengers include elderly and pre-school ages, and all ages in between. This is great for people who cannot walk far, too. Some people drive through for a pleasant afternoon with the family. Others–geeks like us–are equipped with all the opticals we own, field guides, snacks and meals, and we linger at every turn.

Flock of White-faced Ibis, Colusa NWR

 

Whatever American state you’re in, look up the national wildlife refuge or Fish and Wildlife services for the nearest auto tour.

 

It’s a wonderful way to enjoy wildlife in the worst weather of the year.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified

Black-crowned Night Herons, Colusa NWR

Jet (L) and Athena (R), Sacramento NWR

 

Our Migrating Ducks

Cinnamon Teal, Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, Calif. Male in front, female in back.

Cinnamon Teal, Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, Calif. Male in front, female in back.

Fall and spring bird migrations are exciting natural phenomenon that occur every year in all parts of the world, as it has been for millenium. Additionally, amid milder climates of the Central Valley in California, the migrating birds reside here in agricultural fields and refuge ponds for the winter.

 

American Wigeon, male

American Wigeon, male

From November through January there are hundreds of thousands of wintering birds here that we don’t see at other times of the year, especially ducks and geese, but also cranes and other bird varieties. The migratory route in California is called the Pacific Flyway, and the birds travel here from numerous northern locations.

 

Northern Pintail, Colusa Nat'l. Wildlife Refuge, Calif.

Northern Pintail, Colusa Nat’l. Wildlife Refuge, Calif.

Photographed here are a few of the ducks that we are lucky to have visit for the winter. By mid-February they will almost all be gone.

 

Buffleheads, SNWR; male, left; female, right

Buffleheads, SNWR; male, left; female, right

Ducks such as mallards and coots are here year-round, so they are not pictured here.

 

There are four migratory routes in North America and additional migratory routes in the eastern hemisphere. See maps below.

Pintails, Sacramento NWR

Pintails, Sacramento NWR

More info:

Pacific Flyway

North American migration routes

General Bird Migration

 

When they arrive and when they depart varies every year, depending on many factors, especially climate. The bird species also vary from year to year. Sometimes there are larger populations than other years, depending on how successful and/or brutal the year has been.

 

Northern Shoveler, California

Northern Shoveler, California

Like anything in nature, there are a large amount of variables and nothing is predictable. For me, that’s the true joy of nature.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

 

Image result for bird migration flyways

World Bird Migration Flyways. Courtesy WysInfo.com

 

U.S. Waterfowl Flyways. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

Loggerhead Shrike

Loggerhead Shrike

Loggerhead Shrike

While birding in California’s Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge recently, we came upon this Loggerhead Shrike. This five-photo series demonstrates the shrike’s success in the span of one minute.

 

Loggerhead Shrike

Loggerhead Shrike

They hunt like a raptor, even have a hooked bill for impaling prey; but are classified as songbirds. While the bill resembles a raptor’s, they do not have talons. A shrike can, however, kill and carry an animal as big as itself.

 

You will find them mostly in open areas. They perch from an elevated height, assess and hunt from their perch, then swoop down and attack with a jab at the neck. Sounds like a raptor, doesn’t it?

 

sacto_shrike_consumingIn California year-round and endemic to North America, they are about the size of an American Robin. See map below. Wikipedia info here.

 

Lanius ludovicianus have a large and variable diet including large insects, rodents, small birds, bats, amphibians, and reptiles. Also dubbed the “butcher bird,” they will kill bigger prey by skewering  them onto a sharp thorn or barbed wire. They use their sharp bill for severing vertebrae.

 

sacto_shrike_swallowing

Down the hatch

Sometimes shrikes store their cache and return later (like a leopard). They are one of the few birds who can eat poisonous monarch butterflies by impaling them, and then waiting a few days for the toxins to break down.

 

It was raining and we were on an auto tour in a fierce winter storm.

 

We don’t get to see them too often, and in fact their population has been declining by 3% every year since 1966 (allaboutbirds.org).  Scientists have many speculations, including pesticides ingested by the insect diet. Whenever one does appear, we wait and watch and consider ourselves very lucky.

 

Loggerhead Shrike

Loggerhead Shrike

In driving rain and temperatures in the mid-30s (2 C), how did this warrior find a preying mantis? The preying mantis was probably immobilized by the near-freezing temperature…I’m glad I wasn’t.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

Loggerhead Shrike Range Map

allaboutbirds.org

 

 

 

Pacific Flyway Series 3 of 3

Sandhill cranes at Woodbridge Ecological Preserve

Sandhill cranes at Woodbridge Ecological Preserve

A truly elegant and delightful bird, the sandhill crane visits us every winter.  I don’t know if it’s their elusiveness, beauty, or dramatic mating dances that I find so attractive, but I can never seem to get enough of this four foot tall bird. This is the third and final part of my Pacific Flyway series. Here is Part 1 and here is Part 2.

 

Winter in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta region is not sandy beaches and surfers, that’s southern California.  Although we’re not inundated by a million feet of snow and ice like in other parts of the world right now, it is often raining and in the 40s between October and March.  It hasn’t rained enough this winter, but that’s another story.   

 

The cranes love our rainy, foggy winters in California’s Sacramento Valley.  To a long-legged bird that prefers open grasslands and freshwater marshes, the rice fields in this area are particularly attractive.  There are four sub-species of the sandhill cranes and they primarily live in Canada during the warm seasons.  In the winter they migrate to warmer climates where they can be seen feeding on their grain-filled diet. We saw over 500 cranes on this visit.

 

Cranes with red-winged blackbirds

Cranes with red-winged blackbirds

Although cranes are very skittish, the best viewing time is at dawn when they are leaving their nighttime fields to go out feeding for the day.  You can also watch them coming in to roost at dusk.  There have been many times when I was in the really dense fog, so dense that I could not see the cranes, but I could still hear them.  The sound is sort of like a gobbling turkey, but with bugling and rattling.  If you stand there long enough, soggy and dripping, they eventually descend through the fog and become visible just as they’re landing.  By then it’s too dark for photos, but you can marvel in their invisible cloaking act.  I am happy to say I still have their familiar sounds in my mind from our recent rendezvous. Here’s a recording.

 

On the last morning of our crane adventure, all three of my mates were photographing so I volunteered to drive them around, a sort of crane safari.  We found six or seven cranes in a field with picturesque morning light and stopped immediately, set up the equipment.  Because of the nature of sandhill cranes, the birds were quite far away and, as usual, tricky to photograph.  We parked as close as possible, separated from the field by a deep levy.

I’m not a photographer.  In fact the dozen or so photos you have seen in this 3 part series have all been by my partner Athena.  But I was content to stay quiet, observing, while my mates recorded the crane activity.  There was no wind this morning, so our friend with the video camera could do some decent videography; while the two photographers stood at their tripods patiently clicking away.

Sandhill Cranes in rice field

Sandhill Cranes in rice field

We stayed here for two hours.  In that time dozens more cranes came in, gingerly stepping across the watery field, as you can see in this photograph.  One crane at a time, they walked through the water lifting their legs high, in order to eat on the other side of the field.  All three photographers quietly worked at their skills, changing positions and lenses, recording the grace and wonder of these lovely birds.

I stood elevated on the car’s running board with binoculars, watching raptors perch for hunting, becoming overly-familiar with the car roof.  Ducks and geese filled the air, honking endlessly, and a giant flock of red-winged blackbirds flashed in the sunlight, gurgling their melodic meadow song.

Then a rather spastic jackrabbit came on the scene.  He raced past us on the levy, first down the field, then back up again, did this a few times in fierce pursuit.  He seemed to think that every occasional passing car was chasing him.  He was too fast to photograph but we had a fun laugh watching him.  The last time he shot past us we caught the glint of his pink ears, translucent in the morning sun.

As he disappeared behind a thatch of tall reeds, I vowed to come back again next year, as I have for the last 21 winters.

Red-winged Blackbird

Red-winged Blackbird

 

 

Pacific Flyway Series 2 of 3

Northern Pintail in Colusa Nat'l. Wildlife Refuge

Northern Pintail in Colusa Nat’l. Wildlife Refuge

Welcome back.  Yesterday I presented an overview of the Pacific Flyway in the Sacramento Valley of California, that was Part 1 of 3 in this Series.  Today let’s take a closer look at the ducks and geese that winter here.

 

In addition to the millions of ducks and geese that spend their winters here, there are sandhill cranes, tundra swans and other birds in the thousands.  In the spring they return to their home for breeding.  In between that time, we have the glory of their presence for several months.  If you’re paying attention, you can see stunning ducks like this beautiful Pintail just about anywhere there is water. 

I have a winter birthday and where do you suppose I like to go to celebrate the day?  The local sewage ponds.  Oh yes, you’ll see me in my birthday tiara with a big ol’ smile, because hiking around with my binoculars taking in the magnificence of these wild creatures is one of my favorite things to do on earth.  Ya’ get over the sewage stench in no time.

 

As the ducks and geese make their treacherous journey south, they stop along the way in refuges and fields.  If they can make it through the plight of storms, and perils like wind turbines and sport hunters, they usually start arriving in September and October.  Their arrival is influenced by the weather, and every bird species’ migration pattern varies as well. 

 

Green-winged Teal, Cosumnes River Preserve

Green-winged Teal, Cosumnes River Preserve

For example, the Northern Pintail duck nests in Alaskan and Canadian prairies.  When they migrate down they are one of the earlier arrivals on the Pacific Flyway.  The dapper Green-winged Teal prefers to nest in boreal wetlands and parklands in Canada and northern states of the U.S.  Their winter migration can be here on the Pacific Flyway, but they also head further south, and some even live year-round down here. 

 

male Northern Shoveler

male Northern Shoveler

Large flocks of geese here include:  greater white-fronted goose, snow goose, Ross’ goose, Canada goose.  Ducks in the area include cinnamon and green-winged teal, northern shoveler, gadwall, American wigeon, ring-necked duck, bufflehead, ruddy duck, and common mergansers.  In addition to the many migrants, there are resident birds of all kinds.  There are hundreds of species and it varies every year. 

 

Some years a certain species didn’t breed abundantly for one reason or another, so you may not see them in great numbers one winter.  I record every bird species we see every single year, I guess it’s the novelist in me.  Then I tabulate the data in a birding software, and have kept a Pacific Flyway census that now spans over two decades.  It’s an interesting set of statistics with the ironic theme:  no year is ever the same. 

 

White-fronted Goose

White-fronted Goose

This year for our annual trek we met two friends, and the four of us went birding and photographing for two and half delightful days.  There were several noticeable changes I saw this time compared to previous years.  One disappointing change is that major bird roosting areas surrounding the town of Lodi, areas that were once rice fields for the wintering birds, have now been turned into grape vineyards. This will most likely cut into the wintering grounds for future bird populations.

 

One happy change was that we saw three yellow-billed magpies.  Six or seven years ago it was thought that 50% of the population of this bird had died from the West Nile Virus. We didn’t see any of that special species for many years and thought they were on their way to extinction.  Fortunately they are making a comeback, and we were witness to three healthy individuals frolicking one dawn among oak trees. 

 

White-fronted Geese on Staten Island

White-fronted Geese on Staten Island

And although we saw hundreds of thousands of geese and ducks this year, and many hundreds of cranes and swans, there were not as many ducks and geese as there were last year.  Park rangers told us it was so very mild that the birds had already started to migrate back north by the end of January.

 

If you live or visit California in the winter, I highly recommend checking out one of the refuges in the Pacific Flyway.  The skies are full of geese, the ponds are full of ducks, and sometimes it is so incredibly loud that you can’t even hear your own voice.  Tomorrow we’ll conclude this series with highlights of my favorite winter residents of the Pacific Flyway:  the sandhill crane.