Migration Alert: California Waterfowlers Optimistic Heading into Holidays

Dec. 20, 2019 – Pacific Flyway – California

© Michael Furtman

Veteran waterfowlers seem to agree on one topic—the peak migration is likely to happen at least two weeks later than in the past, especially in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Valley.

Sean Allen, manager of the Los Banos Wildlife Area, expects the best is yet to come. “We’ve witnessed a later surge of ducks the past couple years, no doubt,” he says. “I believe we are seeing the front end of the peak, with more birds being taken by hunters and averages on public areas beginning to rise.

“First, the shovelers flew into the Grasslands and now lots more green-winged teal and diving ducks are flying around,” Allen continues. “Of course, we’ve had more cool, overcast days, and an epic rainfall a couple weeks ago that inundated wetlands and washed out blinds.”

He reports that the peak migration hasn’t occurred, and he doesn’t expect the height of the population to arrive into the Central Valley until around Christmas Day. “Hunters should be very optimistic, because more ducks are coming,” Allen says.

Duck hunting season runs through Jan. 31, 2020, in most parts of California.

Public areas in the Grasslands yielded a much-improved harvest during the period of December 11-15, with green-winged teal the most prominent in the bag.

Private clubs located between Los Banos and Gustine are experiencing large flocks of green-winged teal. Tony Rossi at the Salinas Club reports that hunters are taking mostly teal this week with a scattering of shovelers, gadwall, cinnamon teal, ringnecks, and mallards.

Mendota Wildlife Area, which accommodated more than 300 hunters on a single shoot day this week, averaged 2.4 birds per gun, with green-winged teal being the most common bird in the bag.

Heading south, hunting appeared to improve at all areas. Near Bakersfield, Kern National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) averaged three birds per gun, topped by green-winged teal and shovelers. At San Jacinto NWR, public hunters averaged more than two birds apiece, a good mark considering many of the valley’s ducks are holding up on Mystic Lake, an 8-mile-long impoundment that filled during last winter’s storms.

Mike Marshall reports that hunting at the private Mystic Lake Duck Club was “nothing short of spectacular” on December 4, following an infrequent rain. “Ducks suddenly appeared—a real mixed bag of wigeon, gadwall, mallards, spoonies, and green-winged teal,” he says. “Now, the action is much slower and reduced to almost all teal.”

Marshall explains that the season has been very unusual. “We’re seeing high flights, but the birds are either overflying the valley or holding on Mystic Lake,” he says. “Ducks certainly aren’t using our managed wetlands like in past years, and pintails haven’t come in as usual, either.”

In the north valley, an aerial survey of the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex found more geese and fewer ducks in November than during the same time in 2018. This year surveyors counted 510,000 geese (80 percent of which were white-fronted geese) and approximately 940,000 ducks (55 percent northern pintails, 15 percent green-winged teal, and 12 percent wigeon).

In 2018 aerial spotters surveyed 318,000 geese and 1.1 million ducks.

Hunting success on public areas in the Sacramento Valley seemed to lag behind that in the San Joaquin Valley. However, green-winged teal topped the take at all four refuges—Colusa, Delevan, Sacramento, and Sutter.

Private clubs in the Butte Sink are seeing primarily mallards. “The season has been quite rewarding,” says Yancey-Forest Knowles. “The heavy rain left our ponds about four inches deeper than normal, but the added moisture in the air created a number of fog days, which produce really well.”

The peak migration is building up and down the Central Valley, with more birds expected for the holidays and an optimistic outlook for the remaining seven weeks of the season.