Migration Alert: Late Arrivals Improve Success Rates for California Hunters

Jan. 14, 2021 – Pacific Flyway – California

© MIchael Furtman

As an unusual waterfowl season winds down to a promising finish on January 31, the trend of a later migration seems to have held true for 2020–2021. Historically, you could count on the peak of wintering birds funneling into the Central Valley about December 10. But with this season’s warmer weather, most birds appear to have shown up in early January.

On the Grasslands Ecological Area in Merced County, green-winged teal arrived late but in solid numbers. With balmy weather and a full moon, the teal flew early and then sat tight in areas where they weren’t being disturbed, preferring to feed at night. Saavy hunters on public areas and private clubs chose to go afield about 11 a.m. and enjoyed consistent gunning through midafternoon. That strategy seems to be continuing to pay off.

Recently, Grassland hunters got a bonus of increased numbers of pintails, wigeon, and ring-necked ducks. Of course, hunters also counted on the ubiquitous shoveler to fill straps that might have been a bit light. Mallards have been all but nonexistent.

Sean Allen, manager of the Los Banos Wildlife Area, reports that hunting is much improved, thanks to a nice influx of white-fronted geese and snow geese. More wigeon and pintails are appearing in the bag, and, of course, the green-winged teal is king. This past Wednesday, most of Allen’s areas enjoyed a three- to four-bird average, and greenwings made up 60 percent of the bag.

“All our staff appreciate public hunters for following COVID-19 protocols – wearing masks, staying in vehicles, and not congregating around the check station,” Allen says. “Their actions and cooperation allow our areas to remain open during the height of the pandemic, and we want to thank them for their cooperation.”

In the southern San Joaquin Valley, both Mendota Wildlife Area and Kern National Wildlife Refuge are yielding three- to four-bird averages, composed mainly of greenwings, wigeon, and shovelers.

Mallards are scarce in the Sacramento Valley, and their lack of numbers could foretell a real shortage of wintering greenheads in the area. Perhaps the coveted ducks are holding in winter wheat and barley fields in eastern Oregon, Washington, and western Idaho, where an abundance of food and relatively mild weather may be allowing the birds shorten their migration.

On federal refuges and in rice fields, hunters are taking a variety of ducks, including shovelers, green-winged teal, wigeon, and gadwalls. On dense fog days, such as this past Wednesday, refuges like Colusa and Delevan have averaged about three birds per hunter, while Sacramento and Sutter have averaged about two birds per hunter. It is curious to note that green-winged teal have become much more prominent in the Sacramento Valley in recent years. Have the teal shifted from the Grasslands to the north valley or, perhaps, are there simply more teal to go around?

Goose hunting has been really slow, with hunters taking .01 to .03 geese per outing on public areas from Willows to Colusa. For rice-blind hunters, the take has been hit or miss at best and a downright bust at worst. Fog days the past week or so have allowed goose hunters to cash in on whitefronts, snows, and Ross’s geese in rice fields. When visibility has been poor, the goose counts are much improved. When it is clear and warm, the take is lower.

The Delta Islands and Suisun Marsh complex is fairly void of birds, except for the usual suspects: green-winged teal, wigeon and shovelers. Grizzly Island hunters have been working hard to gather a couple of birds per day. Mallards are scarce in the islands, but wood ducks, wigeon, and teal have taken up some of the slack. White geese and specklebellies have invaded Delta corn stubble and have been heavily taken on some tracts where ducks have been absent.

Most of the Central Valley has received 60 to 80 percent less precipitation than normal, which might be a boon to hunters, especially later in the season. Ducks are concentrated on managed wetlands and haven’t had a chance to spread out onto other areas flooded by rainfall. In this situation, hunters have the advantage because ducks are using established ponds instead of temporarily flooded habitat.

East of Los Angeles, in the San Jacinto Valley, the recent full moon slowed what otherwise has been a very good duck season. Joe Fass, with the Ramona Duck Club, explains that the valley is hosting lots of green-winged teal, good numbers of pintails, and more gadwalls than they’ve seen in a long time.

Fass says the key to success has been their habitat management under the watchful eye of Tommy John, who has propagated swamp timothy and developed a plan to stage-flood ponds that attract throngs of hungry ducks. The plan has come at a price, though.

“We’re in a severe drought here, and we’ve been forced to buy more recycled water to keep our ponds fresh and full,” Fass says. “Last Wednesday, it was 80 degrees. The lack of rain has stressed our budget, no doubt, but the birds that are loafing on Lake Perris and Mystic Lake are really using the habitat we have strived to create. Imagine providing multiple summer irrigations in the middle of a desert to sustain the swamp timothy. But that is what it takes.”

Important upcoming dates for most parts of California:

Jan. 31 – Waterfowl season closes.

Feb. 6-7 – Youth hunts for boys and girls 17 years and under (ducks and geese). Feb. 13-14 – Veteran’s hunts (ducks only).

Feb. 20-24 – Late-season white-fronted, snow, and Ross’ goose hunts (no ducks).