Waterfowl Numbers Respond to Improved Habitat in California

Migration Alert: Oct. 20, 2016 - California Preview

Photo © Michael Furtman

By Peter Ottesen, WF360 California Migration Editor

Following four years of devastating drought, California's wetlands rebounded last season. Most will be covered with at or near a 100-percent water supply in time for the fall migration and start of a 100-day waterfowl hunting season that runs Oct. 22-Jan. 29, 2017 in most parts of the state.

A well-timed, three-inch soaker drenched northern California on Oct. 16, just a week before opening day. The deluge will help farmers flood harvested rice fields in preparation for the fall migration. Restrictions for pumping water out of the Sacramento River have been lifted thanks to the storm.

"Birds are on the move," says Mark Biddlecomb, director of operations for DU's Western Regional Office, who has already received good mallard shooting reports in eastern Washington and the northeast corner of California. "Storms are pushing them south."

While many of the state's 5 to 6 million wintering ducks and geese flock to the vast Central Valley, the 800-mile-long state also offers an unusual mosaic of wetlands habitats in contrasting regions, from high plateau semi-arid desert to brackish tidelands, cultivated rice and corn fields, to alkali-laced native grasslands.

The Golden State's outlook is good and, for solid reasons. Its most abundant species, green-winged teal, are 104 percent of the 61-year average and the earliest migrants arrived en masse about Aug. 14 at Volta Wildlife Area near Los Banos. Better yet, national wildlife refuges, state wildlife areas, and private duck clubs within the Grassland Ecological Area of Merced County, a nearly 300,000-acre complex of private and public lands, is receiving 100 percent water for fall flood up.

Bill Cook, manager of Los Banos Wildlife Area Complex reports, "Water wise we are in very good shape with delivery schedules being met. In fact, we had summer water to irrigate our wetlands for the first time since 2012, so we got a good response by local waterfowl and water birds. Sandhill cranes and peregrine falcons have flown in early in response to the improved habitat."

How strong an indicator for a good waterfowl year is the Grasslands? Well, year in and year out Merced usually ranks as the number one duck harvest county in the entire U.S., only occasionally trailing a county in Louisiana. As Yogi Berra often exclaimed, "You can look it up." Northern pintail and shovelers also arrived with the green-wings.

Sacramento Valley rice country is vastly improved, too. At Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex near Willows, spokeswoman Lora Haller says, "Our waterfowl population using the refuges looks very strong, with northern pintail the most numerous. White-fronted geese arrived in September and their numbers have been building ever since."

Sacramento, Delevan, Colusa and Sutter refuges are flooding up and will open on time for hunting. Even Sutter NWR, which has been dry at the beginning of the past four years, is taking water, about a 50-50 split between the sanctuary and hunting areas. White-fronted geese and some early snow geese are being reported on all the refuges and area farmers are close to completing their harvest.

Mark Hennelly, vice-president of legislative affairs and public policy for California Waterfowl Association explains that local mallard production is up about 50 percent from the previous years and, "quite notably in the Delta, Suisun Marsh, Sacramento Valley and northeastern California, to include Tule Lake, Lower Klamath and Modoc National Wildlife refuges."

The pre-season youth hunt at Modoc NWR near Alturas validated his optimism, youth hunters harvested 35 mallards at the public shooting area. Hennelly commented, "It seemed like most of the kids we encountered shot mallards."

At Lower Klamath National Wildlife refuges near Tulelake, Steve Rooker says, "Compared with the last three years, the water outlook is much improved and waterfowl are making use of it." He reports that Tule Lake NWR is full and Lower Klamath NWR has received partial delivery.

"There is ample water and hunters are taking mostly gadwall with fair numbers of northern pintails, wigeon and mallards," Rooker says. "Snow geese numbers are building and while white-fronted geese are being seen over flying the basin to the Central Valley." He adds that refuge managers anticipate more water releases from the Bureau of Reclamation as the season progresses.

Around San Francisco Bay and the Delta, water is ample and open water species such as green-winged teal, northern pintail and shovelers are taking advantage of it. At the Cullinan Ranch, a Ducks Unlimited partnership on the shores of the north bay along Highway 37, ducks have arrived by the thousands, including divers such as redheads, canvasbacks, and scaup. Farther east in the Suisun March, ducks have moved in and are holding, according to Shawn Overton, interim manager of the Grizzly Island Wildlife Area.

"Northern pintail started early and now mallards are arriving," Overton says. "We're doing fine with flood up water. Since we are below sea level, getting water is easy. Getting rid of it is hard."

In the semi-arid south state, recycled water is being applied to Mystic Lake and adjacent San Jacinto Wildlife Area. "We're half-flooded and white-fronted geese have already arrived, as well as a mix of birds like wigeon, cinnamon teal, and spoonies," says Joe Fass of the Ramona Duck Club. "What we haven't seen are many northern pintail. They usually arrive early but are absent so far."  

Overall, waterfowl managers and hunters are optimistic due to much-improved habitat conditions throughout the state.

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.