By Peter Ottesen, WF360 California Migration Editor
While optimism had run high for a bang up waterfowl season in the San Joaquin Valley and southern California, things haven't exactly gone according to plan. Without a doubt, mild wet weather to the north has held up the migration.
In the Grasslands Ecological Area, a 300,000-acre mosaic of managed wetlands and uplands in Merced County, waterfowl numbers are well below average for this time of year.
"We're way short of birds," says Bill Cook, manager of the Los Banos Wildlife Area. "We don't have many coots, let alone ducks. They simply haven't arrived yet. The migration is very late."
The lack of birds comes in stark contrast to the excellent habitat conditions that await arriving waterfowl. "The Grasslands look about as good as they have in many years," Cook says. "Federal, state and private wetland managers were able to apply summer irrigation water following heavy spring rains. There will be plenty of food for ducks and geese when they finally get here."
Cook reports that local duck production was up noticeably this year, and hunters have bagged more mallards, cinnamon teal and gadwalls than usual. But the Grasslands' most important duck, the green-winged teal, has been almost nonexistent this season. Other typically abundant duck species, such as shovelers, wigeon and pintails, have been equally elusive.
Snow and Ross's geese have also been scarce in the Grasslands, and their arrival is at least three weeks late and counting. However, some white-fronted geese have arrived, and Aleutian Canada geese are using the San Joaquin River and Merced National Wildlife Refuges in solid numbers.
"We're using rocket nets and banding Aleutians this week," says Tim Keldsen, wildlife biologist at San Luis National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) Complex. "We've already banded 270 geese out of our 400 quota, so that's an indication of the large numbers of geese using our refuges."
Keldsen says that hunters are able to access both the West and East Bear Creek refuges for the first time in years, due in part to adequate water. But the hunting action has been slow overall, with many public areas averaging less than one bird per hunter.
Farther north, in the Delta west of Stockton, corn has been harvested on the islands and most of the fields have been flooded to start decomposition. The first flock of snow geese was spotted on Nov. 27 at Venice Island, where they joined large groups of white-fronted geese, and Aleutian Canada geese are using the Empire Tract. But green-winged teal, wigeon and northern pintails have yet to arrive in typical numbers. Reports indicate that the most commonly harvested ducks are local mallards and wood ducks. The situation is similar in Suisun Marsh, where waterfowl numbers and harvests have been running below average.
Farther south, in the southern San Joaquin Valley, Kern NWR is holding decent numbers of shovelers, cinnamon teal, gadwalls and diving ducks. At the Salton Sea and private clubs such as Mystic Lake and Ramona, shovelers and cinnamon teal have been the most abundant species.
With two months remaining in California's waterfowl season, there is still plenty of time for a change in the weather to send more birds south. For hunters in the San Joaquin Valley and southern California, that couldn't happen soon enough.
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 2016-2017 waterfowl season.