With less than a week before waterfowl seasons open statewide in California, the long-term drought has made things perfectly clear. There will be at least 50 percent fewer flooded wetlands and croplands this year. The recent storm churning out of the Pacific could change conditions as birds continue to arrive.
While water shortages in the Golden State are severe, the situation could be a boon for duck hunters in certain areas. If they have water over which to shoot, they will have birds. Lots of them.
In northeastern California, at Lower Klamath and Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuges, only limited hunting will be allowed on dry fields. At Modoc National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), the season opener was cancelled. Asked when hunting might start, assistant refuge manager Stacy Freitas says, “We hope to open in early November.” Currently, just half of Modoc’s sanctuary area and one-third of the hunting area is flooded.
Shasta Valley Wildlife Area will be closed for the season, but Ash Creek Wildlife Area does have sufficient water and is holding birds.
In the northern Sacramento Valley, Paul Buttner of the California Rice Commission anticipates that about 125,000 acres of rice lands will be flooded, which is about 45 percent of normal. Most of the flood-up will occur on the east side of the Sacramento River. Wherever there is water, there are plenty of ducks and geese crowded onto limited habitat. There is no discernable water west of Interstate 5 and limited water in District 10.
At the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex, three units – Colusa, Delevan and Sacramento will open, but will only be able to accommodate roughly half as many hunters as in a normal year. Sutter NWR will be closed all year. A drive along the six-mile tour route this week at Sacramento NWR revealed the effects of the drought. It seemed like less than half of the sanctuary ponds held water while others were completely dry or just beginning to take on water.
White-fronted geese, northern pintails and shovelers were the most common species observed on the drive. A large flock of snow geese was also observed.
Dry conditions have forced early arriving birds to change their usual flight patterns. The Suisun Marsh and the Delta are the recipients of more birds and earlier birds than usual. White-fronted geese, northern pintails, green-winged teal and shovelers are in good supply. Sandhill cranes have moved in.
Cosumnes River Preserve has begun flooding and is already hosting good numbers of northern pintails, white-fronted geese and Canada geese. Nearby Woodbridge Ecological Reserve on Brack Tract in the eastern Delta boasts northern pintails, wigeon, white-fronted geese and sandhill cranes.
In the 300,000-acre Grassland Ecological Area – the largest contiguous wetland and upland complex in the West – public areas and private clubs have about 50 percent of their normal water, and the birds are taking advantage of it where they can. Northern pintails arrived en masse during the first week of August, and legions of gadwall, green-winged teal and shovelers followed suit, not to mention an inordinate number of white-fronts.
“Our wetlands must make do with half the surface water we normally receive from the Bureau of Reclamation,” says Ric Ortega, general manager of the Grassland Water District. “If warm weather continues and there’s no more water coming, our wetland acres will shrink as the season progresses.”
Ortega adds, “There are more birds arriving early this year, and they are hungry because their normal rest stops in the Klamath Basin and Sacramento Valley were dry. Many appear to have flown straight through.”
Early season hunting should be very good in the Grasslands, though about half of the private clubs won’t be hunting and opted to take their allocated water to flood ponds in late-November. Clubs located between Gustine and Los Banos that chose to take water are covered with ducks and geese.
Sean Allen, manager of the Los Banos Wildlife Complex, reports that larger than normal flocks of white-fronted geese, snow geese, and sandhill cranes have arrived. Green-winged teal, shovelers and northern pintails appear to be numerous, especially with the early flooding, where they “chase” the new water.
“We are definitely above average in the number of birds,” Allen says. “We’re also seeing early wigeon, redheads and ring-necked ducks, which could be because of the dry Klamath Basin.”
Allen adds, “Across the board, the public areas in this region will open with a reduced capacity of hunters. We’re dealing with a 65-percent water allocation.”
In the southern San Joaquin Valley, Mendota Wildlife Area will be open with reduced quotas. Kern NWR, set in the old Tulare Lake Basin, will delay its opener until Nov. 20.
In southern California, clubs around Mystic Lake and San Jacinto Wildlife Area expect a productive opener. Joe Fall at the Ramona Duck Club said, “There are quite a few white-fronted geese in the San Jacinto Valley and about 2,000 cinnamon teal, more than we’ve seen in years.”