Migration Alert: Limited Habitat, Wildfires Impacting California Waterfowl Hunters

Nov. 16, 2018 – Pacific Flyway – California

Photo © Michael Furtman

By Peter Ottesen, WF360 California Migration Editor

Although waterfowlers generally agree that weather is the most important ingredient for a good hunt, conditions in the Golden State defy description. In short, duck and goose hunters throughout California are hoping for weather conditions to change, and not only for hunting.

Two unprecedented factors are plaguing California right now: wildfires and a lack of rain. In the Sacramento and northern San Joaquin Valleys, hunters and other residents are suffering dangerously poor air quality caused by the same fire that completely incinerated the 26,000-resident town of Paradise, located in the Sierra foothills east of Chico. Then comes the double whammy: Most of the region has received less than an inch of rain since May.

That means the Central Valley, where the vast majority of the Pacific Flyway’s ducks and geese winter, has been bone dry for close to 180 straight days. Harvested rice fields are just now being flooded to decompose straw, and the birds are beginning to spread out in the north valley.

At Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), supervising biologist Michael D’Errico says, “We’ve definitely been picking up more birds at the complex, including ducks—mainly pintails and wigeon—and white geese, both snows and Ross’s geese. Birds are still moving down. They certainly aren’t all here yet by any standpoint.”

Unexpectedly, the refuge complex did produce some of its best hunting success rates of the year on November 10, but not all areas did well. Delevan NWR averaged 3.6 birds per hunter—a major improvement—while Colusa NWR jumped to a 2.5-bird average. Meanwhile, Sacramento NWR struggled with a 1.7-bird average and Sutter NWR had a dismal .7-bird average.

On November 11, some much-needed wind improved the shooting west of the Sacramento River, with Colusa yielding 3.1 birds per gun and Sacramento 2.5. Delevan maintained its 3.6-bird average, and Sutter improved slightly to .9.

Little Dry Creek, Gray Lodge, and Llano Seco Wildlife Areas couldn’t compare to the Sacramento refuge complex, producing between 1.1 and 1.5 birds per gun, an indication that many ducks still haven’t moved to the east side of the valley.

“We haven’t seen large flocks of green-winged teal yet,” D’Errico says. “Perhaps the earliest migrants overflew our area. Other species of ducks look strong, including mallards, which appear to have benefited from wet weather in previous years.”

Rice lands above and below Davis and along the Yolo Bypass are mostly flooded and attracting good numbers of pintails, gadwalls, wigeon and white-fronted geese. Yolo Wildlife Area averaged 2.2 and 2.6 birds per gun on November 10 and 11, respectively. However, Grizzly Island Wildlife Area produced just 1.1 birds per hunter, a telling sign that the Suisun Marsh is short of ducks west of the Delta.

At Tule Lake NWR, the most recent surveys found only Canada geese and modest numbers of ducks, primarily gadwalls. Hunters take note: The spaced blind area at Tule Lake will be self-serve on November 22 for the Thanksgiving holiday. The regular procedure of drawing spaced blinds will return on November 23.

Phil Brown, of Wild Times Guide Service, reports, “It has been a very rough year in the Klamath Basin, with the least amount of water ever available at Lower Klamath NWR. Duck counts have been extremely low, perhaps the poorest on record, and part of the sanctuary area called White Lake is completely dry.”

On a positive note, snow geese are moving in and the refuge is holding sandhill cranes and tundra swans, sure signs that some of the hardiest northern birds are migrating south. Gadwalls are common and green-winged teal just arrived this week, Brown says.

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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 2018-2019 waterfowl season.