Migration Alert: Improved Weather Raises Hopes for California Waterfowlers

Dec. 21, 2020 – Pacific Flyway – California

© Michael Furtman

On Sunday, Dec. 13, the unthinkable happened. Most of the 450-mile-long Central Valley received its first measurable rainfall in more than seven months, and more precipitation is in the forecast.

The most noticeable improvement was the sudden arrival of green-winged teal, which until recently hadn’t been seen in high concentrations. “I saw massive flocks of greenwings, as many as 400-500 birds in a huge ball,” explains Sim Risso, who hunts rice ground just south of the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area, near Sacramento. “They were a welcome sight after nine weeks of a real lackluster season, and I believe the new migrants portend an optimistic outlook for the final six weeks of the season.”

Most rice fields in the Sacramento Valley, especially from Willows to Yuba City, were flooded by the first week of December to decompose stubble. Thanks to the rain, many of the remaining dry fields have entrapped at least temporary water that is attracting ducks and geese and allowing birds to spread out over hunted and non-hunted habitat. With approximately 350,000 acres of rice in the region, there is more than ample habitat available to sustain the birds.

Avid waterfowler Bob Kinser hunted Howard Slough Wildlife Area during the pouring rain and found mostly wigeon, with a sprinkling of green-winged teal and gadwall. “We got one pintail but never fired at a mallard,” Kinser says. “In fact, we hardly saw a mallard. There were plenty of spoonies, but we passed on them.”

Hunting showed modest improvement this week on the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex for greenwings and wigeon. “We jumped up pretty good over the weekend to a four-bird average at Colusa and Sutter,” reports biologist Michael D’Errico. “Our hunting areas on our big four refuges – Sacramento, Delevan, Sutter and Colusa – are topped off with water. As always, Delevan is the most consistent producer.”

D’Errico says ducks and geese are moving around trying to find an “easy meal.” He notes that warm temperatures and a modified regime of water delivery for rice decomposition due to the drought has forced birds to be extremely mobile. The USFWS is conducting its first surveys this week, and the findings should be very enlightening.

Geese are crammed into the Delta, especially on islands such as Staton, Ryer, Bouldin and Venice west of Stockton and Lodi. Aleutian cackling geese and whitefronts can be viewed in spectacular numbers off Highway 12 between Interstate 5 and Rio Vista. Recently, growing numbers of snow and Ross’s geese have joined them. There are also flocks of sandhill cranes, easily seen off Woodbridge and Staton Island roads, so the winter migration for geese and cranes has arrived in full force at the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers. Duck numbers, however, remain extremely low.

Sean Allen, manager of the Los Banos Wildlife Area Complex, is seeing a modest uptick in duck numbers in the Grasslands Ecological Area. “Merced NWR and the Gadwall Unit – with averages of better than two birds per gun – are quite a way ahead of the other public areas in Merced County,” Allen says. “Certainly, there are more green-winged teal, gadwalls and ring-necked ducks, an indication we are seeing some bird movements.”

Allen cited nighttime temperatures in the mid-30s and a developing fog pattern that should make ducks move more in search of food during the day. “Breeding behavior is kicking in, too, and that makes ducks much more active,” he adds.

Paul McHaney, who hunts a private club near Gustine, reports that the hunting has been hit and miss. “Some blinds get their birds – almost exclusively green-winged teal – and others go wanting,” McHaney says. “There are a few shovelers, but teal provide the bulk of the action. There are few other duck species, which makes me believe the peak of the migration hasn’t arrived yet.”

The brightest reports come from southern California around Mystic Lake and the Salton Sea, where wigeon showed up en masse in October and November, and now, green-winged teal are helping to fill consistent limits. Joe Fass at the Romana Club reports that this has been the best season he can recall in many years.

“Wigeon poured in early and now the teal are filling straps,” Fass says. “We’ve been stage-flooding and the action is just terrific, which is surprising, given that winter hasn’t arrived yet and neither has any rain.”

Up and down the state hunters are asking, where are the mallards? Many biologists believe years of drought have taken a toll on the population. Even major mallard clubs in the exclusive Butte Sink are hurting.

The good news: The dreaded “November slump” is over, the weather is more seasonal in the Central Valley, and the best hunting of the season is in the forecast. Be thankful most of California is open for waterfowl hunting through Jan. 31, so there is still time for the hunting to improve.