Migration Alert: Duck and Goose Numbers Fluctuating with Available Habitat in California

Dec. 20, 2017 – Pacific Flyway – California

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Photo © Michael Furtman

By Peter Ottesen, WF360 California Migration Editor  

Northeastern California can be categorized in one word: chilly.   

“We’re starting to get cold,” says Stacy Freitas, wildlife refuge specialist at Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) near the town of Tulelake. “This coming week, the high temperatures are predicted to be in the mid-30s.” 

Freitas explains that there are still a lot of ducks and geese in the Klamath Basin. On the California side, there are an estimated 400,000 ducks and 35,000 to 40,000 geese, mostly snows and Ross’ geese, on Lower Klamath and Tule Lake NWRs. Recent duck harvests on these refuges have consisted mainly of American wigeon and gadwalls as well as diving ducks, such as buffleheads and common goldeneyes. 

“Most of the northern pintails and green-winged teal have flown south,” Freitas notes. 

To the south, Central Valley hunters were given an early Christmas present in the form of high winds on December 16, which resulted in a spike in the daily waterfowl harvest on many public and private hunting areas. 

At the Sacramento NWR Complex near Willows, good numbers of ducks and geese have shifted to the east side of the Sacramento River and are loading up Colusa and Sutter NWRs. 

“Our numbers are good for this time of year, but not as good as a few years ago,” says Steve Emmons, manager of Sacramento and Delevan NWRs. “The high winds Saturday yielded many more white-fronted geese. Our goose numbers are fluctuating. Dry conditions on this side of the valley are causing the geese to move, many to the flooded rice in District 10.” 

“Most of the rice straw on the west side is being cut, baled and stockpiled for industrial use,” Emmons adds. “As a result, farmers are going back in and disking, so waste grain isn’t available to the birds, and this is causing major shifts in waterfowl distribution.” 

In the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, Ducks Unlimited volunteer Douglass Eberhardt II reported excellent white-fronted and Aleutian cackling goose hunting on Saturday during the wind event. The Delta appears to be holding many more geese than ducks now, with the larger fowl feeding in dry or shallow-flooded grainfields. 

As for ducks, pintails, wigeon, and green-winged teal have arrived on the Delta islands in increasing numbers, but are still not as numerous as in previous seasons. 

The peak of the duck migration seems to have reached the Grasslands in the northern San Joaquin Valley, at least on private clubs south of Gustine. Wigeon, gadwalls, green-winged teal, ring-necked ducks, and shovelers are filling hunters’ bags. Pintails are much less numerous now, having returned north to the Sacramento Valley to feed in flooded rice fields, a traditional move that occurs each year. 

“I’m seeing increased numbers of green-winged teal, but not yet at peak numbers,” says Sean Brophy, assistant refuge manager at the San Luis NWR Complex near Los Banos. “However, hunting has improved from the November doldrums, and the good news is the best is yet to come.” 

Geese and sandhill cranes have reached expected numbers at San Joaquin River and Merced NWRs, and light geese are starting to show up at the East Bear Creek Unit off Highway 165.

Find and submit migration reports from your area on 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.