Migration Alert: California Hunters Finding Mixed Conditions and Results

Nov. 10, 2021 – California

© Eric Call

It has been an unusual season in California, to say the least. Half the managed wetlands and 75 percent of harvested rice ground in the Central Valley were dry for the Oct. 23 opener. Then, a week later a major storm dumped two to six inches of rain across much of the region in less than 24 hours, dispersing birds far and wide. Following is an update on waterfowl numbers and hunting success in key areas during the first week of November.

Sacramento Valley

Michael D’Ericco, supervisory biologist for the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) Complex, reports that his refuges are on schedule to be fully flooded by early December. “I’m happy where we are in terms of flooded habitat based on water allocations and how dry it has been during the protracted drought,” D’Ericco says. “The early rain really helped.”

D’Errico notes that hunting pressure has been light on Wednesdays, but quite heavy on weekends at Colusa, Delevan, and Sacramento NWRs. Sutter NWR is closed. Overall, hunting success has been slow on the refuge complex since the rain.

“Birds vacated the area after the big storm but are now starting to bounce back,” D’Ericco says. “Pintails are number one on the complex. Wigeon and green-winged teal are also moving in.”

White-fronted geese have moved out, preferring the east side of the Sacramento Valley and District 10. Snow and Ross’s geese made a big push into the valley last week.

“Greenwing numbers were up in September and October, which was surprising,” D’Errico says. “We’ve been holding pretty steady on the teal, which are consistently good around the entire complex. Hunters are harvesting greenwings and shovelers now.”

Absent from the bag are locally reared species such as mallards, gadwalls, and cinnamon teal, which have suffered greatly during five years of persistent drought.

D’Errico speculates that ducks have changed their normal patterns due to drought in the Klamath Basin, clubs that have delayed flooding up until early December, and the torrential downpour that scattered birds.

Suisun Marsh/Delta

Duck hunting has been slow in the tidal marshes, with only sporadic harvests of green-winged teal, shovelers, and wigeon appearing in the bag.

Public hunters are scoring in the recently rehabilitated Cullinan Ranch−North Bay units off Highway 37, where canvasbacks, greenwings, shovelers, and ruddy ducks are concentrated.

On Nov. 20, hunters will get their first crack at ducks on the East Bay Ecological Reserve, located in the South Bay near Hayward. Hunting will be permitted on Tuesday and Thursday, and there are no fees nor entry quotas. Hunters typically bag a three-bird average per gun, consisting largely of wigeon and shovelers, according to area manager John Krause. Boats, canoes, and prams are recommended to reach ponds and blinds.

In the Central Delta, where flooded corn and moist-soil plants are the attraction, mallards and wood ducks top the harvest. The focal points of the goose migration are Mandeville, Venice, Webb, and Empire Islands. There has been an early influx of wigeon, with lesser numbers of pintails and green-winged teal arriving recently. Aleutian Canada geese provide wide-open shooting opportunities with 10-bird limits possible. White-fronted geese have also arrived in large numbers.

At the Woodbridge Ecological Reserve west of Lodi, sandhill cranes and white-fronted geese are making good use of large areas of water on the Brack Tract. Pintail and wigeon are the most numerous ducks here. The Cosumnes River Preserve offers shallow ponds west of Galt that attract pintails, whitefronts, and Canada geese.

Northern San Joaquin Valley

The Grassland Ecological Area, the West’s largest wetland and upland complex, is in flux. Hunting is poor. The top birds, green-winged teal, have left. Greenwings have either flown back to the Sacramento Valley (that’s what most biologists believe), or continued south to the Southern San Joaquin Valley, Salton Sea, and Mystic Lake.

Duck clubs in the Grasslands are now settling for ring-necked ducks, shovelers, and greenwings, with a sparse take of pintails and wigeon. Mallards and gadwalls are rare indeed.

Public areas have been averaging about one bird per gun or less. Sean Allen, manager of the Los Banos Wildlife Area Complex, suggests hunters turn their attention to pheasants when the season opens Nov. 13 or the second half of the mourning dove season.

“Duck hunting is very slow,” Allen says. “The birds have found undisturbed spots such as San Luis Reservoir, which is extremely low, and neighboring O’Neill Forebay, where they can loaf and feed. They are also using sewage treatment ponds and only return to seasonal wetlands during the night, if at all.

“We haven’t seen the green-winged teal numbers like we do in most years in the Grasslands,” Allen says. “Ring-necked duck numbers are strong, and there certainly are more canvasbacks than one would expect.”