Migration Alert: Strong Numbers, Improving Habitat Helps California Hunters

Nov. 14, 2017 – Pacific Flyway – Northern California

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Photo © John Hoffman

By Peter Ottesen, WF360 California Migration Editor 

With the peak of the waterfowl migration looming this week in the Sacramento Valley, hunters have been taking advantage of foggy days and newly flooded rice fields to bag heftier straps. American green-winged teal and wigeon are most prominent in the harvest right now. 

“We’ve seen fog this past week that pushed birds onto the refuge complex,” says biologist Mike Carpenter. “On Nov. 11, both Delevan and Colusa National Wildlife Refuges (NWRs) did really well. Then the action fell off abruptly the following day when there was no fog.” 

Overall, hunting in the Sacramento Valley and District 10 has been slow. 

Ducks and white-fronted geese are following new water being pumped onto harvested rice fields, thus dispersing their numbers. “A lot of rice farmers on the west side of the Sacramento River waited until November 1 to flood and start to decompose their rice stubble,” Carpenter says. 

Of course, when pheasant season and the second half of mourning dove season opens simultaneously, waterfowl harvests on most public shooting areas typically declines.

Such was the case in the San Joaquin Valley where refuges and state wildlife areas yielded a meager .2 to .7 birds per gun, according to officials with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife in Los Banos. 

A notable exception was Merced NWR where waterfowl are hunted from blinds and pheasant hunting isn’t allowed. The result Saturday was a decent 2.2 bird average. 

Many private clubs in the north Grasslands of Merced County also saw a decline in harvest, but continued to enjoy big numbers of green-winged teal and a surprising number of pintails and wigeon. At locations where deep-water ponds exist, especially south of Highway 140, ring-necked ducks are the top species, followed by northern shovelers. 

At the Suisun Marsh, the largest estuarine marsh in the nation, there appears to be plenty of ducks—including mallards, green-winged teal and wigeon—but they simply aren’t moving around. 

“Our ducks are acting more like bats,” says Steven Chappell at the Suisun Resource Conservation District. “They fly around and feed at night, and sleep in the sanctuary zones by day. We could use a change in the weather—rain and wind—to get them dispersing more widely.” 

Public hunters in south San Francisco Bay will soon have a new place to hunt at Eden Landing Ecological Reserve in Alameda County, with boat-in access available from the Mount Eden Creek ramp, which can be reached off I-880 via Alvarado Blvd. The newly refurbished tidal marsh is open to 100 shooters on Saturdays and Thursdays throughout the season, beginning Nov. 18. There are no fees. For more information, call 415-454-8050. 

In the Sacramento−San Joaquin River Delta, the estuary that feeds San Francisco Bay, the corn crop was late and as such many tracts are just starting to flood up. Birds are loaded on Staten Island and the Cosumnes River Preserve, where white-fronted and Aleutian Canada geese are stacked up, as are pintails, mallards, green-winged teal and wigeon

Central Delta hunters enjoyed a marvelous opening weekend, but since then the morning action has dropped off dramatically due to warm weather, gentle breezes, and nothing to push birds. Recently, the final hour of shooting light has been the most productive, especially for mallards and wood ducks that appear to have had excellent local hatches. 

In the Klamath Basin of northeastern California and southern Oregon, a recent aerial survey tallied more than 800,000 ducks at Lower Klamath and Tule Lake NWRs. Better than average numbers of waterfowl, including gadwalls, mallards and Canada geese, were counted at Modoc NWR and to the south at Fall River Valley. 

Throughout the Central Valley, duck and goose counts are solid and building toward peak wintering populations. This should bode well as the hunting season continues for the next 10 weeks.

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.