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.

Pacific Flyway Series 1 of 3

Snow geese at Sacramento Nat'l. Wildlife Refuge

Snow geese at Sacramento Nat’l. Wildlife Refuge

There’s a phenomenal bird spectacle occurring in America right now, it happens every winter.  It is the bird migration of waterfowl who have traveled from the northern reaches of the continent to winter here in California and other milder parts of the country.  I recently returned from my 21st annual trip to the Pacific Flyway in the California Sacramento Valley.  It was such a spectacular site that I present it to you this week in a three-part series. 

 

Millions of ducks and geese winter here.  They come all the way from Alaska, Canada, even Siberia.  Other travelers include sandhill cranes and tundra swans; and they join raptors, egrets, herons, shorebirds, songbirds, and many other birds too.  The avian winter visitors prefer the wet, marshy flat lands and mild weather for feeding, and they stay here usually from October through February. Once the harshest part of their winter is over, they fly back north to breed and raise their young.

 

There are four general patterns of bird migration pathways or flyways in the United States.  In California we have the far western pathway called the Pacific Flyway.  It extends from the Arctic Circle down the western coasts of the U.S., Central America, and South America. 

 

Even though I have been going up here every winter for 21 years, there has never been a dull moment.  The migration is different every year depending on weather, bird populations, and habitat.  This year California has a drought, so I didn’t know if there was water or birds.  We called ahead and spoke to one of the rangers, who assured us there were still plenty of birds.  All she had to say was “there are a thousand cranes” and our bags were packed.  Fortunately rains came in the past few weeks to relieve the drought conditions, and even though there is still low accumulation of rainfall, there was enough water in the rice fields and duck ponds to attract an impressive array of waterfowl. 

 

Sandhill Cranes near Cosumnes River Preserve, CA

Sandhill Cranes near Cosumnes River Preserve, CA

In the Sacramento Valley there are two major areas.  Each year I go to one or the other, and sometimes both. 

  1. The Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex has six major refuges:  Sacramento NWR, Delevan, Colusa, Sutter, Butte, and Sacramento River;
  2. San Joaquin County has Cosumnes River Preserve, Woodbridge Ecological Reserve and many bird-rich back roads.  

 

I like the Sacramento Complex for the insane numbers of geese.  Also, if I have loved ones along who are not super mobile or the weather is non-stop stormy, the auto tours are a good choice.  I also like the San Joaquin County area, especially for the sandhill crane populations.  This year I went to San Joaquin County where the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers create a delta wetland.

 

Geese flying, San Joaquin County, CA

Geese flying, San Joaquin County, CA

The Pacific Flyway is awesome for witnessing the colossal flocks of these birds.  They rise up off the pond in an undulating wave, honking and squawking with deafening power.  There are over 300 species of migratory and resident birds and mammals here.

 

Wherever you live there is a bird migration, it is a natural phenomenon that has occurred throughout the ages.  But it is not to be taken for granted, especially these days when human population is booming, and wildlife and wilderness habitats are dwindling.  Passenger pigeons were once in enormous abundance (much like these geese are today) until they were extirpated a hundred years ago. 

 

If you live in the United States click here to look at the U.S. Flyway map, check out which corridor you are near and when the big migrations occur.  If you live outside of the U.S., click here for map and information.  Take some time to visit the refuges in your area.  We are so lucky to have these resources available to us; it is usually a minimal cost, there are often auto tours, and it makes for a great day of easy, wildlife appreciation for people of any age.

 

Tundra Swans

Tundra Swans

Tomorrow I will cover highlights of the Pacific Flyway with photos and a short essay on the ducks and geese we saw, the day following I will cover sandhill cranes.  I hope you like the series.