Bird Extravaganza in California’s Central Valley

Every year from November through March, millions of migratory birds winter in California’s Central Valley. The Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge alone is the winter home for three million geese and one million ducks, nearly half of the birds on the Pacific Flyway. For the last few years, I have been visiting the refuges and the surrounding rice fields, flooded after the harvest, where many of the birds feed to take it all in. The sound of all that honking and quacking alone is amazing, and when a flock of thousands of snow geese takes flight at once… well, see for yourself in this video by Mitchell and make sure you have your sound turned on.

Here are some photos from our trips over the past couple of years, with captions identifying the species, followed by another video recorded two days ago during the spring breeding season.

All photos by Mitchell Yee

Northern pintail

Cinnamon teal

Northern shoveler

Snow geese lifting off from their feeding zone in a flooded post-harvest rice field

Western meadowlark

Cooper’s hawk

Mitchell and I went back out to Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge a couple days ago, the first time we have gone in the spring. It was incredible to see the place in a different season.

For one thing, we weren’t buried in thick layers in temperatures just above freezing, a welcome change. And the brown grasses and leafless trees have come to life in all their shades of green. We got to see the birds that stay all year in the breeding season–everybody is paired off, the male waterfowl are in their bright colors, and the silence of winter for songbirds has transformed into the music of birdsong.

Our recent trip included a photography outing with a ranger. He took us to a couple parts of the refuge that aren’t otherwise open to the public, and we got to see a nesting pair of bald eagles. The male flew right above us.

After the guided tour was over, Mitchell and I went on our own on the auto tour, where you have to stay in your car. Because the birds don’t associate vehicles with people, they aren’t alarmed and therefore you can get quite close to them. Unlike the winter season when the place has many visitors observing the overwintering birds, that day we had the entire place to ourselves. We were fortunate to stumble upon an elusive bird that is quite hard to see hidden in the reeds, and even observed it booming in its spring call. Check out this American bittern.

Nature continues to amaze and inspire. All you have to do is be there for the show.

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