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The Great Migration

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Great egret, Ardea Alba, Colusa NWR, Williams (12/18/18) John Poimiroo

Waterfowl have taken up residence, late this autumn, in the rice fields and wetlands of California’s great central valley.

Televised images of a mass ascension of snow and Ross’s geese lifting off from flooded rice fields north of Sacramento, seen on last night’s news, compelled me and a fellow photographer to drive north to the Colusa National Wildlife Refuge today, where we stood with local photographers to await their arrival.

One of the regulars said, “It was magical yesterday, the best I’ve seen. Tens of thousands of geese arrived at 10 and stayed until one.”

 

Migratory waterfowl fly high over Colusa NWR (12/18/18) John Poimiroo

It looked promising. Spread across a pond at the entrance to the refuge,  hundreds of pintails, mallards, shovelers, coots, stints and wigeons bobbed, preened, courted, demonstrated, strutted and napped.

Then, great flocks of the “white birds,” as the locals called the geese, approached from the west in mile-wide Vs that undulated across a gray sky. They flew thousands of feet above us, then continued eastward, but their departure didn’t discourage the locals.

“That’s a good sign,” they encouraged, “The wind is perfect. They like to land into it (meaning they’d be facing our cameras when they touched down). Yesterday was so good. It’s sure to be as good, today.”

Mass Ascension of ducks, Colusa NWR, Williams (12/18/18) John Poimiroo

Again and again, the photographers would say hopefully, “Here they come,” only to have them fly too high over or too far north or south of the refuge. Swirling cyclones of white geese appeared to be circling areas just a mile away.

Massive formations of the white birds continued to fly east in successive, long, flapping, gliding ribbons. 

In the end, they stood us up. We didn’t see the mass ascension we’d driven north to experience, unless you call the above image of ducks spooked by a passing Winnebago, as one.

Instead, we settled for images of wigeons, egrets, coots, stilts and pintails enjoying their sanctuary, and later returned south through Yuba City along CA-99 past tundra swans that bent their long necks to forage the flooded shallows of rice fields.

Though we missed seeing a mass ascension, California’s great migration of waterfowl occurs in northern Sacramento Valley rice fields and wildlife refuges, from mid autumn into winter. So, many more opportunities exist to witness one.

On refuge auto tour routes, the best viewing is from inside your car (which acts as a blind) and when parked on levee roads beside rice fields. Precautions: stay in the center of levee roads – as their shoulders are soft- and getting out of a car will spook the birds (it’s also prohibited).

When wildlife viewing, approach only so close that the animals are not agitated. If they move away, you’re too close. Instead, bring them closer to you by watching them through binoculars (8 x 42 is a good choice – monoculars for kids, $13 on Amazon) or photographing them using a telephoto lens (300 mm and up). With long lenses, a gimbal tripod mount balances the heavy lens and helps keep the image sharp when following a bird’s flight. 

At a few locations in refuges, photo platforms allow photographers to get out of their cars, close to the action. The birds get used to people standing on the platforms, but unusual or unexpected events – like a Winnebago driving past – will spook them into the air and away for minutes on end.

Four photo blinds are available by advance reservation. CLICK HERE for more information. In springtime, nesting wood ducks are often photographed from these blinds.

The Sacramento NWR ($6 entrance fee – all others are free entry) is located beside I-5, immediately south of Willows. Its visitor center helps orient you to the refuges and guides you in identifying the birds. Sac NWR has an auto tour loop, trails and naturalist-guided programs. The refuge is open between an hour before sunrise and an hour after sunset.

Other wildlife refuges in the Sac NWR complex include Colusa, Delevan, Sacramento River, Sutter, Llano Seco (best before 10 a.m.), Butte Sink, North Central Valley and Willow Creek – Lurline. 

Mass ascensions are most dependably seen at the Colusa NWR entrance photo platform (10 a.m. to 2 p.m.) in late autumn and early winter. CLICK HERE for a map of birding hotspots in the Northern Sacramento Valley.

Though, as we experienced, wildlife viewing is never dependable. 

  • Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex – Peak (75-100%) GO NOW!
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