Migration Alert: Poor Habitat Conditions, Lack of Weather Result in California’s Slow Start

Nov. 18, 2020 – Pacific Flyway – California

© John Hoffman

Hunting is slow up and down the Golden State, which is pretty typical for November, though two popular species – mallards and green-winged teal – seem to be in much shorter supply than in most years.

In the Sacramento Valley, to include the Butte Sink, mallards are extremely scarce, causing hunters, even those in high-dollar clubs, to focus on wigeon, shovelers and little else. Mike Passaglia, a retired Yuba City dentist, who lives and breathes ducks says, “In my 42 years at the Live Oak Gun Club, this is the worst start of the season I can remember. Numbers of hunters are coming in with nothing.”

Passaglia cited water shortages, warm temperatures and the botulism outbreak at the Klamath Basin that has killed an estimated 65,000 ducks, mostly local mallards that north fly to the basin to molt, as the chief reasons for the lack of ducks in the air.

Public areas in the Sacramento Valley have yielded from less than one-bird per hunter on average to 1.8. Shovelers and gadwalls are making up the bulk of the bag.

“We have no lack of birds on the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex,” says biologist Michael D’Errico, who said concentrations of wigeon and green-winged teal showed up in October, earlier than usual. “The birds are holed up and won’t move until the weather turns more winterlike.”

D’Errico explains that limited habitat in eastern Washington and Oregon, where extremely dry conditions persist, forced wintering birds to bypass these areas and move quickly into the Sacramento Valley. Snow and Ross’s geese followed suit, arriving much earlier and in greater numbers in October.

There are spectacular numbers of geese in rice fields from Willows to Sacramento, giving outdoors enthusiasts plenty to gawk at, confirmed the California Rice Commission. Spokesmen said there are more than 1 million light geese already wintering in the Sacramento Valley and gleaning waste rice, with more on the way. So far, harvested rice fields are flooded on the east side of the valley, while more water is now being applied on the west side, which will further spread the birds.

The situation is bleak at Klamath Basin, specifically on the California side of the border. Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge is dry and completely closed to hunting. Normally, the refuge offers more than 11,000 acres of wetlands. At Tule Lake, the main body of water in Sump 1A is low and dropping. There is water in Sump 1B but only a limited number of hunters are allowed. Gadwalls and Canada geese have composed most of the light straps and the action will slow ever further when subzero weather hits later this month.

In quite the contrast to the Klamath Basin, two wildlife areas in the far north – Ash Creek and Butte Valley – offer decent gunning for mallards, wigeon, and green-winged teal. Best of all, these areas never reach hunter capacity so there’s no chance of disappointment.

The Bay-Delta Estuary, Suisun Marsh and Yolo Bypass also report very slow duck hunting, though a number of islands in the central Delta are giving up heavy straps of Aleutian Canada geese, with 10-bird limits possible.

Around San Francisco Bay public hunting opportunities are expanding. At the East Bay Ecological Reserve near Union City in the South Bay, hunting is allowed on Saturdays, Tuesdays and Thursdays beginning November 21. One hundred hunters are allowed daily, at no fee, on a first-come, first-served basis, according to state biologist John Krause.

At the Los Banos Wildlife Area Complex, manager Sean Allen says greenwings are typically our “go-to bird,” but not this year. “We held good numbers of greenwings when the season opened on October 24, but the birds have been very scarce ever since.”

His assessment is consistent with hunter success at private clubs and public areas throughout the Grasslands Ecological Area from Gustine down to Dos Palos, and farther afield to Mendota Wildlife Area. Green-winged teal are almost nonexistent some days when the only ducks that make an appearance are shovelers.

Allen reports that the usual contingent of diving ducks, primarily ring-necked ducks and canvasbacks, began to show up in mid-November. Hunter averages on public areas have risen from about one-half bird per hunter to close to one bird, so at least the trend is going in the right direction, albeit, slowly.

Perhaps, the most consistent hunting is taking place in the Tulare Basin where Kern National Wildlife Refuge hunters are bagging a 2.5-bird average, composed mainly of shovelers and gadwall.

In the far southern part of the state, hunters at San Jacinto are bagging less than one bird per hunter. Private clubs around Mystic Lake are finding slow shooting and very dry conditions.