Migration Alert: Drought Continues to Impact California Waterfowl

Dec. 16 – Pacific Flyway – California

By Bill Monroe, WF360 Pacific Flyway Migration Reporter

California hunters are hoping for the arrival of stormy and wet winter weather, which will hopefully result in more typical waterfowl distribution in the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys.

"We've got tons of ducks in the Sacramento Valley," says Virginia Getz, manager of conservation programs at DU's Western Regional Office in Rancho Cordova, California, "but there's been a real redistribution of birds to the east side of the valley."

The region is in the third year of significant drought, and rice fields on the west side of the valley, usually completely flooded, are now largely dry. Many areas that received water early in the fall have long since gone dry, and ducks and geese have shifted closer to the Sierras, where water and flooded rice fields are more abundant on the landscape.

Getz reports last week's bit of wind, rain, and then freezing weather got the birds up and moving, benefiting hunters in areas where waterfowl are distributed. In the north, the private clubs in Butte Sink and to a lesser degree public areas have had good shooting, but farther south along the west side of the valley, bird numbers have been spotty in many areas.

Habitat conditions and hunting success have been even more variable from the Grasslands at Merced south to the Salton Sea, says Derek Mynear, DU's regional biologist in southern California and Arizona.

This region's bread-and-butter birds, green-winged teal, aren't due for another week or two (if in fact they decide to move out of the Sacramento Valley), but he said there have been more divers showing up on the Salton Sea, where up to half of the state's ruddy ducks will winter.

While the recent unusual freeze helped move a few birds around, both Getz and Mynear have their fingers crossed for the onset of typical wet winter weather.

"We're just not seeing it yet," Getz says.

Meanwhile, to the north, a very hard freeze seems to have moved a lot of birds out of the Pacific Northwest, which Getz says may account for the influx of waterfowl in her region.

The freeze hit hard in eastern Washington and Oregon and Idaho, forcing ducks and geese to either move south or concentrate on big water.

Bill Monroe is an Oregon-based freelance writer who has hunted the Pacific Flyway for three decades. Monroe will provide hunting and habitat reports throughout the Pacific Flyway for the 2013-2014 waterfowl season.