Sunday, October 4, 2015

Greater White-fronted Geese are Arriving in California!

These are birds who have traveled a very long ways. They breed and feed all summer in the far northern reaches of Canada and Alaska, but in fall they fly 2,900 miles south, pretty much without stopping until they reach northern and central California. Our valley is their winter home. A bunch of tired geese have arrived in these last few weeks. I've got pictures from two refuges, the Tulelake and Sacramento, both from my trip last week.
The Greater White-fronted Geese (Anser albifrons) of Alaska and Canada migrate into California, making stops at Tulelake National Wildlife Refuge before moving on to the Great Valley.
Some of the birds that I saw feeding in the fields of the Tulelake refuge will be spending the winter in a refuge just a few miles from my house in the San Joaquin Valley.
Tulelake National Wildlife Refuge may be one of the most beautiful bird habitats in the country. Mt. Shasta and California's largest volcano, Medicine Lake Highland, form the backdrop to the refuge. Tulelake is a small remnant of a once larger lake that covered a wide fault valley near the California-Oregon border. Water diversions at the beginning of the last century caused most of the lake to dry up, the barren lake floor now planted with potatoes and alfalfa. The present lake is 1/6 the size of the original.
On the fortunate side of the coin, there were some who recognized that Tulelake was a critical knickpoint on the Pacific migratory flyway. More than a million birds need the break to rest and feed before moving farther south. The refuge was established, and whatever water could be spared, borrowed or pumped was put into Tulelake. Unfortunately, the birds are too crowded, and there are outbreaks of avian cholera at times that kill thousands, but most of the birds are able to feed and move on. The ongoing drought has been particularly disastrous, as Tulelake is near the lowest priority in water claims in the basin. Nearby Lower Klamath Lake, another critical habitat, is dry this year.
We drove home a few days later, but made a brief stop at Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge near the town of Williams to see what was going on. A six mile auto-tour trail provides access to parts of the refuge. We found that thousands of Greater White-fronted Geese had already arrived and started feeding in the flooded reservoirs and adjacent fields.
The White-fronted Geese show a great deal of variation and at least five subspecies are recognized. One of the smallest populations is the Tule Goose, which numbers only 10,000 or so and winters exclusively in the Great Valley, in the Sacramento and Suisan marshes.
I'm looking forward to seeing some of these beautiful birds in my own backyard soon!

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