By Peter Ottesen, WF360 California Migration Editor
If current duck and goose numbers are any indication, hunters should see plenty of birds when California’s waterfowl seasons open later this month.
At Bird Haven Ranch near Biggs, in the Sacramento Valley, owner and DU Chairman of the Board Paul Bonderson Jr. reports that pintails and white-fronted geese arrived en masse about a week later than usual. “But they are here now,” Bonderson says.
Mike Carpenter, a biologist at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) Complex near Willows, reports, “The birds are here, no doubt, but they are really spread out due to much more habitat on the landscape, primarily flooded rice. On our complex, we are holding less than half the ducks and geese as we did at the same time in 2016.”
Carpenter notes that snow geese arrived early at Delevan NWR, during the first week of October. As for habitat conditions, water supplies are in great shape and most units are 80 percent flooded or more. “For a real positive change, Sutter NWR has good water for the first time in the past few years thanks to a delivery ditch and pumps that bring ground water to the ponds,” he says.
In the North Grasslands near Gustine, thousands of pintails crammed onto the Salinas Gun Club immediately after flood-up began on August 15. The elegant birds filled the air throughout the 90-degree days, moving between the private clubs and Volta Wildlife Area (WA), where early water makes this a traditional “first stop” for migrating waterfowl. A drive along the Santa Fe Grade, which bisects several clubs, revealed other species had arrived as well, including prodigious numbers of green-winged teal, wigeon, and shovelers.
“We’re definitely ahead of the last couple years for fall flood-up. Most state and federal areas will be 70 to 80 percent full, and others such as the Gadwall Unit and Volta WA are already standing at 100 percent capacity,” says Bill Cook, manager of Los Banos WA.
Cook adds that numbers of ducks and other water birds far exceed last year’s totals at this time. “They moved this year and showed up,” he says. “It’s really exciting to see them all. Even the coots have arrived. Last year, I hardly even saw a coot until December.”
Cook isn’t sure why so many birds have arrived this early in the 300,000-acre Grasslands, the largest contiguous marsh west of the Mississippi River. “Maybe it’s a migratory thing or a stimulus we don’t understand,” he says. “Perhaps the early flood-up helped, but how do you explain four times as many sandhill cranes arriving this year than we normally have?”
In the southern San Joaquin Valley near Bakersfield, local mallard production has been excellent according to state biologists. Mallards will be a welcome addition to hunters’ bags in the Tulare Basin to supplement locally raised cinnamon teal.
Farther south, waterfowl habitat is being flooded at San Jacinto WA. “We’re seeing cinnamon teal and pintails,” says Joe Fass, of the nearby Ramona Duck Club, who explains how the water regime works in the region.
“Private clubs go light on early flooding because we’re competing with agricultural interests for recycled water,” Fass says. “We spread enough water to shoot, but elect to fill up our ponds later when the water is cheap.”
Currently, the weather is hot and dry in the desert, but plenty of early migrating ducks and local birds should benefit hunters. “It has been so hot, it’s really hard to think about duck hunting,” Fass concedes. “Big flights of birds usually don’t get this far south until the first full moon in November.”
In northeastern California, the Klamath Basin refuges have more water now than at any time during the past five years, reports Stacy Freitas, a wildlife refuge specialist in Tulelake. As for bird numbers, an aerial survey in early October estimated 64,324 ducks and 5,072 geese on Lower Klamath NWR and 62,606 ducks and 3,114 geese on Tule Lake NWR, which are right at the median for this time of year.
As cooler temperatures move into the upper reaches of the Pacific Flyway, bird numbers should continue to increase, but habitat and weather conditions will impact local hunting success as always throughout California’s 107-day waterfowl season.
To submit or find reports in your area, visit 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.