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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Celebrating Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill Crane

Sandhill Crane

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Every year the Delta and Central Valley of northern California come alive when thousands of sandhill cranes settle here for the winter. My recent post highlighted the migrating ducks; here is a post, with pleasure, on the cranes.

 

Originally named for their migration through the sand hills and dunes of Nebraska, they fly here from the northern part of the continent every winter. See map and links below.

 

Sandhill Cranes, California

Sandhill Cranes, California

The sandhill cranes are mesmerizing to observe with their distinctive bugling calls, animated mating dances, graceful foraging, and stately appearance. A social bird, they travel in large flocks as a form of protection.

 

Approximately four feet tall (1.21 m) with a wingspan of over seven feet (2.13 m), the long-legged Grus canadensis is an omnivore. They eat insects, roots of aquatic plants, rodents, amphibians, snails, reptiles, berries, and cultivated grains.

 

Sandhill Cranes near Cosumnes River Preserve, CA

Sandhill Cranes near Cosumnes River Preserve, CA

With one of the longest fossil histories of any extant bird, sandhill cranes date back 2.5 million years. Over-hunted in the Gold Rush days, and listed as threatened in 1983, the population has made a recent comeback.

 

Wikipedia overview.

 

Sandhill Cranes in rice field

Sandhill Cranes in rice field

 

 

Winter in northern California is typically cool in the 40s F. (4 C ) with frequent rain storms. The cranes forage in shallow wetlands, a habitat that is diminishing across America. In addition, some states allow hunting of sandhill cranes, though not in California. So here they have a haven where it is safe to traverse the wet fields and open skies in search of meals.

 

Sandhill Cranes; parent on right, juvenile on left

Sandhill Cranes; parent on right, juvenile on left

 

The Nature Conservancy has worked cooperatively with farmers for many years toward attracting the cranes for winter “stopovers.”

 

This worldwide non-profit organization pays California rice farmers to keep their fields flooded and to leave rice straw acreage in place, providing suitable crane roosting and foraging habitat. While it is not a huge moneymaker, the farmers respect the land as crane habitat.

 

In the spring the cranes will return to their breeding grounds in the northern parts of  North America and northeastern Siberia, usually producing two eggs per season. With a lifespan of 20-30 years, cranes mate for life.

 

Sandhill cranes, California

Sandhill cranes, California

I have spent over two decades traipsing around these back roads, watching for this bird that I am so happy to greet every winter. I have watched many people (birders and not) at refuges and along the country roads–they are enthralled with the cranes, stop and watch the spectacle of these flocks.

 

How can you not be transformed by thousands of cranes congregating in a field?

The sound of a large flock of sandhill cranes by Bobby Wilcox

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

Sandhill Cranes, Lodi, Calif.

Sandhill Cranes, Lodi, Calif.

 

 

 

Where to look for sandhill cranes in northern California:

Consumnes River Preserve

Isenberg Sandhill Crane Preserve

 

Sandhill Crane Range Map

Sandhill Crane Range Map. Courtesy allaboutbirds.org

 

Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill Cranes, California

Sandhill Cranes, California

Sandhill cranes are one of the all-time joys of my winter. A large bird that moves with strength and elegance, they forage and roost here every winter in large migrating flocks of “survival groups.”

 

After 22 consecutive winters of circling back roads and rice fields in the Sacramento Delta, I can tell you one thing:  every winter is different.  Sometimes it is super foggy and you can only hear the cranes.  More recently with our milder winters and sunshine we can often spot large flocks of them dotting the landscape.  The quantity of migrating cranes, their roosting grounds and daily activities, all vary depending on the weather, the fields, and the resources.

 

Grus canadensis have several subspecies which vary in size and colorWe see the lesser and greater sandhill cranes which are about 4 feet tall, partaking in the grains of the flooded rice fields.  With a wingspan of over 7 feet, they migrate down from Canada every year by the thousands.  This year we counted over one thousand cranes in a weekend.  Having spent the winter months here, soon they will head back to Canada to breed. 

 

They gobble, sort of like a turkey only softer, and sometimes I’m so happy to see them that I gobble back.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander