Snow Geese are Heading Home

It’s that time of year when the snow geese are beginning their long journey home. The fields of central California’s Pacific Flyway are drying up, the winter rains seem to be done. These snow geese are starting their return migration to Alaska and the Canadian arctic.

 

They have spent the winter here living on marshes, fields, and open habitats.  Preferring to be near water, this vegetarian bird forages on grasses, shrubs, tubers, and seeds.

Snow Geese

Snow Geese and Sutter Buttes

About half of a snow goose’s year is spent away from home, migrating and wintering in warm locations all across the country. See map at end.

 

More snow goose info here.

 

When migrating, they fly very high, and take one of four different North American corridors, or flyways, to and from their breeding grounds. Our geese here in central California occupy the Pacific Flyway (green, west coast on this map directly below).

 

A gregarious bird, they migrate in large flocks and nest in colonies.

Courtesy Wikipedia

We visited several northern California wintering grounds last month. As some of you know, Athena (photographer and partner) and I have been returning to this area every winter for over a quarter-century.

 

Every visit we record all the bird species we’ve seen, enter the information in birding software. We now have a substantial idea of the migrating species here every winter.

Snow Geese, Sacramento NWR

Each year is a different story. Species populations vary depending on weather, food supply, habitat degradation, and breeding success. In the span of this many years, most bird species recover whatever hardship they had, and eventually we see the numbers back up again. Some species, like the bald eagle, even increase. Some species decline.

 

As far as snow goose populations go, this year there were enormous numbers of them, more than we have seen in many years.

 

I have read articles and books by ornithologists and birders from long ago, like John James Audubon, or more recently, Aldo Leopold and Roger Tory Peterson. Even some fiction writers from bygone years describe certain birds in their narratives.

 

I pay attention to the species they write about, a bird they are happy to see, how they describe it to the reader. Sometimes those species have been extinct for some time, or is a bird that I know would be nearly impossible to see anymore, there are so few of them left.

 

What I treasure about the snow geese, therefore, is their abundance–the way they darken the sky with their masses, fill the air with their boisterous, lively sounds. They still have a presence on this planet.

 

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

 

Listen to a minute of this recording, and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Snow Geese, audio, large flock. 

 

They’ve had a mild winter here this year, have fattened up for the journey north, and now they begin their return trip.

Snow Goose “grin patch”

A seasonal farewell salute to this loveable bird, I look forward to seeing them again next winter.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

image of range map for Snow Goose

Snow Goose Range Map, provided by Birds of North America

 

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.