Swan Central: Sacramento Valley rice fields offer best winter waterfowl viewing in state | TheUnion.com

Swan Central: Sacramento Valley rice fields offer best winter waterfowl viewing in state

Laura Petersen
Special to The Union

Each fall and winter, tens of thousands of migratory water birds traveling on the Pacific Flyway come to feed in the rice fields and wetlands of the Sacramento Valley.

"They're fun to watch. They're fun to listen to. It's a treat for your eyes and ears. This part of Central Valley is best for seeing the swans," said Bruce Webb, of Roseville, who set up shop selling binoculars and scopes from Swarovski Optik during last weekend's California Swan Festival in downtown Marysville.

"A half-hour drive from Grass Valley and you're in Swan Central," said Interpretive Services Supervisor for California Department of Fish and Wildlife Bruce Forman. "It's the best place for swans in the state."

With the recent storms, rice fields are filling up, he added. Despite the foul weather, birders are coming out in force for the free tours. (See the tour schedule below)

"Some of the best bird viewing is had after a storm," according to Forman. "December tours are nearly booked."

Considered the single most important part of the Pacific Flyway, four major drainage basins spill into the Sacramento Valley.

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On average, 3 million ducks and 2 million geese overwinter here, said Biologist Virginia Getz of Ducks Unlimited.

The Pacific Flyway is a major north-south flyway for migratory birds in America, extending from Alaska to Patagonia. Every year, migratory birds travel some or all of this distance both in spring and in fall, following food sources, heading to breeding grounds, or traveling to overwintering sites.

While bird populations remain healthy, 95 percent of native wetlands in the Sacramento Valley are gone, replaced by surrogate rice fields. Good examples of working landscapes, two-thirds of this important wetland habitat is in private ownership by farmers. During the height of the winter waterfowl migration, many valley refuges offer tours of the private rice fields to the public.

"We're the heart. These are the wintering grounds. It's a great opportunity for folks to get out and see some of these wildlife areas," said Getz.

Bird enthusiast Mike Peters ventures out with his camera weekly to the refuges dotting the valley that provide habitat for the birds. A hunter and photographer, Peters uses the images he captures as a guide when carving wooden decoy replicas of the birds.

Peters is also a Wildlife Refuge Manager for Colusa and Sutter National Wildlife Refuges, part of the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex.

For amateur bird enthusiasts from Nevada County, he recommends several wildlife refuges: Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) near Willows, Gray Lodge State Wildlife Area near Gridley, Llano Seco Unit south of Chico and Colusa National Wildlife Refuge near Colusa.

"Each have large concentrations of waterfowl this time of year and they have public access that permits good viewing opportunities," he said.

Peters says Sacramento NWR, Grey Lodge and Colusa NWR have auto tour routes that are great for families who want to view birds.

"There is a fee to enter Sacramento NWR and Grey Lodge auto tour routes, but I think they have the highest concentration of birds and great photo opportunities for large flocks of birds," said Peters.

The Llano Seco Unit and Colusa NWR offer free viewing decks that provide close up photographic opportunities of ducks and geese.

Every Saturday, November through January, Brian Gilmore gives free tours along the roads less traveled to visit flooded rice fields around Marysville where tundra swans, snow geese and greater white fronted geese come to winter and feed on the decomposing rice stubble left after harvest.

"This was a flood plain of the Feather River," said Gilmore, of the area known by refuge managers as District 10, a 40 square mile reclaimed flood plain used today to grow much of California's rice crops. It's a symbiotic relationship between farmer and bird, where the rice provides nourishment for the swans and geese that in return fertilize the fields.

Tighter water allocations to farms because of the California drought have left an impact on the wetlands.

"I've noticed the habitat changing," Gilmore said.

To register for free naturalist led Tundra Swan Tours, register and learn more at http://www.wildlife.ca.gov or call 916-358-2852.

View thousands of water birds during the winter months at Gray Lodge Wildlife Area. Guided tours are held weekends fall and winter. For more information, visit http://www.wildlife.ca.gov or call 530-846-7505. To review the tour schchedule, see: http://www.wildlife.ca.gov/regions/2/swan-tours

Contact freelance writer Laura Petersen at laurapetersen310@gmail.com or 530-913-3067.