by Matt Young
An almost impenetrable blanket of fog covers the surrounding marsh as Jeff Kerry and I make our way down a muddy dike leading to a blind somewhere in California’s Grasslands. Having made this trip countless times in similar conditions, my host could find the concrete pit blindfolded. But for new club members and visitors like me, hand-painted wooden signs posted along the dikes clearly mark the locations of the many blinds strategically positioned throughout this intensively managed wetland complex. Dense fog regularly forms during cool winter nights in the Central Valley, where the temperature rarely falls below freezing. Judging by the symphony of green-winged teal, wigeon, and pintail whistling coming from the surrounding marsh, this morning’s flight promises to be a good one when the fog lifts.
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“We need some wind,” Kerry says, pulling away a layer of grass covering the pit. “Ducks have everything they need right here—food, water, and cover—and it often takes a good breeze to break up the fog and get the birds flying.”
A native Californian and lifelong waterfowl hunter, Kerry is an entrepreneur and conservationist who has restored and enhanced wetland habitat on several duck clubs in the Grasslands. Once called “Sprig Alley” for the spectacular numbers of pintails that gathered there, this 160,000-acre mosaic of duck clubs and state and federal conservation lands is the largest remaining contiguous area of wetlands in California. Of the 4 million acres of wetlands that once existed in the state’s vast Central Valley, only 9 percent—or about 350,000 acres—remain intact. At peak times, the Central Valley hosts more than 60 percent of the Pacific Flyway’s ducks and geese. The Grasslands alone regularly support more than 1 million dabbling ducks. Nowhere in the world do more waterfowl rely on a smaller wetland base.