By Peter Ottesen, WF360 California Migration Editor
Three weeks into the waterfowl season and reports from northern California, especially the Sacramento Valley, tell a similar story: It has been tough so far, at least for hunters. Advantage goes to the ducks.
"During the drought years, birds were highly concentrated, but things have changed in 2016," says Mike Carpenter, biologist at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex near Willows. "We had good numbers of ducks before the season began, but with all the water available to decompose rice stubble and then the heavy rain, the birds really spread out. Coupled with the warm temperatures, the birds are not having to feed much, either."
The action at private clubs in the Butte Sink has cooled off after a bang-up opening day, where mallards were the focus. With so much available habitat most of the clubs are experiencing slow shooting.
Carpenter explains that a lot of ducks and geese are holding in the Klamath Basin and farther north into Oregon and Washington, where the weather has been mild and food plentiful.
The migration of snows and Ross's geese into the Central Valley was delayed this year, but light geese have been arriving en masse this week. White-fronted goose numbers are solid in the Sacramento Valley, but the harvest has been light.
"White-fronts show up early and generally hang around," Carpenter says. "Then in November they bounce to District 10 and the east side of the valley to glean waste rice in the flooded fields."
Federal refuges, including Sacramento, Delevan and Colusa, received 100 percent of their water for fall flood-up. All refuges opened the hunting season on time, an anomaly from previous years. Nongame species such as sandhill cranes and tundra swans are increasing in number at Colusa NWR and in the flooded rice on the east side of the refuge.
In the Delta, where the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers converge west of Stockton, northern pintails, wigeon, and green-winged teal have just arrived. They're joining a very good local population of mallards and wood ducks, which have sustained freelance hunters and club members in the region.
At Staton Island, part of the Cosumnes River Preserve near Lodi, ducks, white-fronted and Aleutian cackling geese, and sandhill cranes are loaded on non-hunted ponds. It will take cooler weather to move the birds to nearby islands to feed on waste corn and rice. This week daytime temperatures are in the upper 70s, with no rain in the forecast, allowing the birds to hold tight.
In north San Francisco Bay, canvasbacks are taking full advantage of the newly refurbished tidal marsh at the Cullinan Ranch, giving motorists on Highway 37 plenty of looks at the "king of ducks." Public hunters on state property to the west are getting cracks at big cans and bunches of shovelers.
In the northeast zone, Tule Lake NWR is enjoying a much better water year than in 2015, reports Dustin Johnson at refuge headquarters. "On the Tule Lake side there are several grain and wetland units flooded that await the peak of the migration, which is yet to happen," Johnson says. "Puddle ducks like pintails, wigeon, and mallards are strong and have increased a lot the past two weeks. There are not many geese yet, but there is some limited snow goose activity."
Johnson adds that Lower Klamath is currently flooding several units and birds are frequently using the open hunted areas.
At Modoc National Wildlife Refuge, near Alturas, project leader Steve Clay says the water supply is "solid" with 100 percent of his area completely flooded.
"Conditions were excellent in late summer and into fall so we held plenty of ducks, mainly mallards, for the early youth shoot and opening day of the regular season," Clay says. "Right now we're holding a normal number of ducks for this time of year. We saw a big drop in bird use after the opener, and our numbers won't rise the remainder of the season, which is typical for this high plateau region."
Clay expects to have a few thousand ducks through late December or when the freeze finally drives them out.
"Modoc will receive some movement of Canada geese, and we have a very good resident flock that hangs around," Clay says.
What surprises Clay is the number of snow and Ross's geese that are still using the refuge. "We usually see white geese moving through early, but this year there are little bunches that are staying put."
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.