Delayed Migration Offers Varied Success in California

Migration Alert: Dec. 13, 2016 – Pacific Flyway – California

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Photo © Michael Furtman

By Peter Ottesen, WF360 California Migration Editor

Regardless of their location in California, hunters from the Sacramento Valley to the Salton Sea are hoping duck numbers will increase during the last seven weeks of the waterfowl season. So far, bird numbers have been spotty across much of the state.

"Waterfowl appear to be way late getting to California," says Dr. Fritz Reid, DU's director of Boreal and Arctic conservation, who is based in Sacramento. "It's very frustrating, and it's a trend we've been seeing for a while. Ducks and geese are arriving later each year."

Mike Carpenter, a biologist at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) Complex, has also observed a delayed migration this year. However, he was encouraged by the numbers of ducks that he saw over the weekend during a special youth hunt at Delevan NWR.

"Approximately 60 kids had a fine hunt, with loads of green-winged teal," Carpenter says. "Some areas are shooting well. Others, not so much. The action has been inconsistent, no doubt."

According to Carpenter, the refuges on the west side of the Sacramento River have recently lost birds, while duck numbers are up on Sutter and Colusa.

"Maybe the freeze in the intermountain areas and the Klamath Basin has had positive effects and moved birds into the valley," Carpenter says. "The only caveat is that we are supposed to receive three inches of rain on Thursday (Dec. 15). If the bypasses and creeks flood, the birds will disperse from their usual wetlands to temporary habitats, and hunting will be impacted."

Chad Santerre, a biologist with the California Waterfowl Association, says that over the past week there was a "huge push" of birds, including green-winged teal, wigeon, gadwalls, northern pintails, and white-fronted and snow geese, that arrived in the area from Gray Lodge Wildlife Area to Chico.

"I believe most of the anticipated migration has arrived in the Sacramento Valley," Santerre says. "Geese, in particular, are loaded on the east side."

Other reports confirm that concentrations of birds are holding north of the Delta, where flooded rice fields are providing more than twice the habitat that was available in recent years. Thanks to early November rainfall, farmers were allowed to pump water from the Sacramento River to decompose rice straw and that set the table for arriving waterfowl. Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area, in particular, is holding lots of puddle ducks, primarily northern pintails.

In contrast, private duck clubs in the Grasslands of Merced County are singing the blues. The most commonly harvested species in this area—green-winged teal and shovelers—have been in extremely short supply, as the anticipated migration has failed to materialize.

"You don't see the big flocks of teal, just singles or pairs," says Paul McHaney of the Salinas Gun Club near Gustine. "The typical November slump started the second weekend of the season and here we are in mid-December and the shooting is still slow. There just doesn't appear to be any new birds."

Lonnie Hext, a biologist at Los Banos Wildlife Area, agrees. "We're just now starting to observe a few greenwings coming in, but that's it," Hext says. "There aren't many ducks here."

Reid notes that bird numbers are also well below average on Kern NWR west of Bakersfield and at San Jacinto Wildlife Area and clubs near the Salton Sea.

In the meantime, duck hunters in these areas have no choice but to wait—and hope—that the anticipated fall flight will finally arrive. Better late than never.  

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.