By Peter Ottesen, WF360 California Migration Editor
Rain, rain and more rain.
Waterfowl hunting was reported to be good to excellent in many areas of California, from the northern Sacramento Valley to the San Joaquin Valley. That was before record rainfall fell across a wide swath of the state over the January 7-8 weekend, causing rivers and creeks to flood and bypasses to be inundated, with no end to the downpour in sight.
"It certainly is a crazy combination: the height of the migration and the unprecedented rain," says Dr. Fritz Reid, a senior DU biologist based in Rancho Cordova. "Hunting had been very good in many locations and now much of the state is faced with flooding, so the ducks will take advantage of the temporary sheet water."
Reid reports that hunting was good before the rain in the Grasslands of Merced County as well as in the Delta and the Sacramento Valley, including the Butte Sink and District 10.
Now all that has changed, as many clubs have been forced to move their equipment and boats to higher ground. Many creeks in the Butte Sink have risen six to 12 feet above their banks. Sutter and Yolo Bypasses are full, and ducks and geese are following the floodwaters.
Mike Carpenter, a biologist at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) near Willows, confirmed that the birds have already shifted. "Lots of birds have left our refuge complex to seek newly flooded areas," Carpenter says. "They are flying west and south. We'll have to wait and see what the next round of rain will bring. It's really saturated up here."
Currently the Delevan NWR is closed because access roads are deep underwater. Sutter NWR, which is located in the Sutter Bypass, is flooded out and closed. Most duck clubs in the Butte Sink are also inundated.
"We brought in crews and worked for 48 hours moving boats, gear and vehicles to high ground," says Yancey Forest-Knowles, a member of the Brady's 80 Club. "By now I suspect the water is up to the second-story porch of the clubhouse and the entrance road. It's completely gone."
Clubs that sit inside the Yolo Bypass are flooded too, as is the public hunting area at Yolo Wildlife Area (WA) west of Sacramento. A drive across the bypass on Interstate 80 reveals an expanse of water of epic proportions and an abundance of northern pintails, which seem to be reveling in the abundance of new habitat.
In the 300,000-acre Grasslands of Merced County, the largest remaining wetlands complex in the state, biologists haven't seen rain like this since 1997-1998. "The floodplain at China Island and Kesterson is very high," says Bill Cook, manager of the Los Banos Wildlife Area Complex. "Water will hit the Mariposa Bypass later today, and ducks and geese are spread all over inaccessible places."
Both Cook and Reid observed large numbers of birds that were moving south in the heavy rain, pushed by high winds.
Cook says that floodwaters have impacted public hunting opportunities at the Lone Tree Unit of Merced NWR and China Island WA. "It will take a boat to hunt these areas," he adds. "With the exception of green-winged teal, our duck counts haven't been very good. That was true even before the rain event. There is even an absence of shovelers. It's been a strange year."
"With the normally dry East Grasslands flooding now, traditional duck clubs may not do well until the water recedes," says Paul McHaney at the Salinas Gun Club. "We've been shooting lights out since December 14, but all that will change after this weekend. Boy, did it rain."
In contrast, more birds are showing up now in the southern San Joaquin Valley at Kern NWR and at San Jacinto WA near the Salton Sea. "Hunting had been a little slow in December but the storm has moved new birds into our interconnected region, which includes a wildlife area and three private duck clubs," says Mike Marshall at Mystic Lake Duck Club. "We're shooting lots of shovelers, and there are now more northern pintails too."
Joe Fass, a member of the Ramona Hunt Club, confirmed the positive report. "We received a big push of birds after the Great Salt Lake Basin froze about three weeks ago," Fass says. "Many ducks from across the flyway come here to the Salton Sea."
Fass reports that shovelers, pintails, and green-winged teal are arriving daily. "Out of a total area of 19,500 acres in the valley, about 9,500 acres are now flooded," he says. "Most people don't realize what an important bird area this is. The December Audubon counts noted more than 300 species, including great numbers of raptors."
Southern California will continue to see bird numbers increase as habitat conditions continue to improve. "For our southernmost region, it has been a very good year," Fass says.
Peter Ottesen is an award-winning, California-based writer who has a passion for hunting, conservation, and farming. Ottesen will provide Migration Alerts for the Pacific Flyway during the 2016-2017 waterfowl season.