As most of California kicked off the 2019−2020 waterfowl season last weekend, bird numbers were all over the map. Waterfowl migrations are always unpredictable—you never know where the birds will go. And, so it is this autumn in the Golden State, where 60 percent of waterfowl in the Pacific Flyway eventually winter.
In the Northeast Zone, where duck and goose seasons opened on Oct. 5, the season is off to slow start. Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) Complex spokeswoman Stacy Freitas reports that the October 2 aerial survey found just 17,095 ducks on Lower Klamath and 17,095 on Tule Lake refuges. Geese, mostly Canadas, numbered about 4,000 birds on each refuge. White-fronted geese were literally nonexistent.
Hunters scored mostly on Canada geese, bagging two to four birds per group. Mallards, gadwalls and shovelers made up many of the light duck straps at Tule Lake, where sumps 1A and B always have water.
“The majority of white-fronted geese and some ducks overflew the Klamath Basin and headed straight for the Sacramento Valley,” Freitas says. “Geese have been migrating down earlier and earlier, and we just don’t have the habitat here in early-September when they move through.”
Freitas explains that there is more water than anticipated at Lower Klamath but not necessarily in the hunting units. Most of the grain fields haven’t been harvested so the goose hunting is a bit tougher than usual. Light geese are scattered throughout the basin but haven’t shown up in hunters’ bags.
At the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex, supervisory biologist Michael D’Errico says flood-up has proceeded nicely at Sacramento, Colusa and Delevan refuges. Sutter NWR opened on time with limited hunting opportunities.
D’Errico expects white-fronted goose number to jump “tremendously” on the complex as the season progresses. Ducks are also starting to show up in increasing numbers. “There are plenty of pintails, gadwalls, and shovelers. We even logged our first green-wing teal sighting on Oct. 7—another good sign the birds are on the move early,” he reports.
In Merced County, refuge manager Sean Allen says early water at Volta Wildlife Area and the Gadwall Unit of North Grasslands Wildlife Area attracted large numbers of early ducks. “There were robust numbers of ducks in August and September,” Allen says. “Green-winged teal and shovelers are really thick.”
Overall bird numbers look “above average” for this time of year in the Grasslands. Sandhill cranes and white-fronted geese are also present on state areas, where flood-up was on schedule.
Refuge manager Jack Sparks confirms that flooding was also on track at San Luis and Merced NWRs, attracting mostly green-winged teal and shovelers. All the federal refuges opened on time, with the planned exceptions of East and West Bear Creek and the Lone Tree units, which will open for hunting starting Nov. 16.
Private clubs that make up the bulk of the 300,000-acre Grasslands began receiving water on September 1, and have steadily attracted ducks, particularly pintails, greenwings, and shovelers, which are busy gleaning swamp timothy and invertebrates in shallow-flooded wetlands.
At Woodbridge Ecological Reserve, thousands of sandhill cranes and Aleutian Canada geese are feeding on waste corn and rice, putting on spectacular aerial displays during the final 90 minutes of daylight. Nearby Cosumnes River Preserve recently flooded its ponds off Interstate 5, where white-fronted and Canada geese have already moved in.
Farther west, Grizzly Island Wildlife Area, in the Suisun Marsh, has water and early arrivals, including pintails, shovelers, wigeon and green-winged teal. Local mallards appear to have had a good hatch.
In the desert of southern California, water is available on San Jacinto Wildlife Area and the surrounding private clubs. Field scout Joe Fass at the Ramona Duck Club says the table is set but ducks haven’t arrived.
“It appears like a delayed migration, for who knows why,” Fass says. “There just hasn’t been a lot of ducks moving with the very warm weather.”