Migration Alert: California Hunters Dealing with Unusual Late-Season Doldrums

Jan. 16, 2018 – Pacific Flyway – California

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Photo © Michael Furtman

By Peter Ottesen, WF360 California Migration Editor 

Warm weather has thawed water in the Klamath Basin in northeastern California, and believe it or not, some birds are moving back up to Lower Klamath and Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuges, specifically good numbers of ducks and tundra swans. 

There are very few white-fronted geese in the basin, probably less than 1,000 birds. Canada geese and snow geese number about 2,500 birds each. It has been anything but a typical winter, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staff are worried about water supplies for the coming spring and summer. 

“Things are starting up again,” says Stacy Freitas at Lower Klamath NWR. “We’re going to be in the mid-50s for the remainder of the waterfowl hunting season, which closes for light geese and ducks on Jan. 19.” 

The season for dark geese closed on Jan. 13, Freitas notes. 

Hunting in the Central Valley was upended earlier this week when it finally rained – more than 3 inches in a single day – which scattered birds that immediately moved to temporary habitat created by the downpour. In Sacramento, for example, it rained more in one day than it had the entire winter. 

Now the region is shrouded in dense fog that doesn’t burn off in many locations. The temperatures are mild with light winds, so the hunting has been pretty tough for many folks, though some are doing moderately well. 

For example, on Dec. 10 hunters at Colusa, Sutter, Sacramento, and Delevan NWRs averaged between 3 and 6 birds per gun. Green-winged teal topped the charts, with gadwalls and shovelers ranking second and third. 

Two species that have migrated into the Yolo Bypass, Delta and Grasslands are green-winged teal and wigeon, which arrived en masse on Jan. 8. Among divers, ring-necked ducks and canvasbacks seem to be most numerous. 

As one veteran Yolo Bypass hunter explains, “I usually expect duck hunting to be wide open starting the second week of December. This year, the ducks really didn’t show up until a month later. I blame that on mild weather that has kept ponds, sloughs and managed marsh ice free all along the flyway from Canada down through Washington and Oregon. It has been unseasonably warm and the birds had no reason to migrate south.” 

A rarity of sorts occurred last week when a Yolo Bypass hunter harvested a male northern pintail that was banded in Hawaii, some 3,800 miles away.  

In the Grasslands, hunting has been best for those that go out about 10 a.m. and are willing to stick it out until about 2 p.m. That’s when teal that have held tight in sanctuary zones begin to fly around. 

“I don’t know if we’ve got many new birds, but the ones we are shooting are difficult to call and seem pretty decoy shy,” says Paul McHaney of Salinas. “Hopefully, things will change following the big rain.” 

Public area hunters in the Grasslands haven’t fared as well as their Sacramento Valley counterparts over the past week. Typical harvests ranged from 0.6 to 1.4 birds per hunter. Merced NWR and the North Freitas boat-in unit scored best at better than 3 birds per hunter, with teal dominating the harvest. The second-most-numerous duck in the bag was the shoveler. 

Light geese – mainly snows in large flocks – are roosting on private lands in the north Grasslands and also on Merced NWR, but few are being harvested. 

Very disappointing hunting continues at San Jacinto Wildlife Area, with hunters notching 0.6 to 1.2 birds per gun. Gadwalls and greenwings make up the bulk of the harvest here. It has been among the poorest seasons on record at the wildlife area and on nearby private clubs. 

Find and submit migration reports to the DU Migration Map.

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 2017-2018 waterfowl season.