Some Early Arriving Snow Geese at Merced National Wildlife Refuge
Winter can be a tough time for birds. Some can tolerate severe snows and survive at high altitudes or far northern latitudes. Many Arctic species have to migrate to more temperate latitudes, but over the course of history they have found their wintering grounds have been taken over by agricultural development.
The humans who took over the wetlands and lakes of the Great Valley have made some effort to encourage the survival of the birds, establishing a series of wildlife refuges that provide some haven for the birds (although in a trade-off, the chance to hunt them as well). There are half a dozen refuges in my immediate vicinity including the Merced National Wildlife Refuge, which is one of my favorite sites for bird watching.
At the height of the season, there will be tens of thousands of Sandhill Cranes, Snow Geese, Ross's Geese, White-fronted Geese in residence, along with Pelicans, Swans, and many others. It can get quite crowded by the time January comes around, and food sources can run short, especially in drought years when the fields cannot be adequately watered or flooded. But the effort is made, and many of the birds survive (some succumb to avian cholera and other diseases of overcrowding).
We visit the refuge as often as we can as the year progresses. There are a number of interesting birds present all year, but yesterday we were watching for the arrival of the winter migrants. Thousands of Lesser Sandhill Cranes have already arrived, but it doesn't feel crowded yet. The geese are not yet present in large numbers, but a few early migrants were hanging about. There were White-fronted Geese (above), whom we saw in large numbers farther to the north a few weeks ago at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge.
There were also a few dozen Snow Geese (Chen caerulescens). They generally arrive in large numbers in December when they'll fill the skies by the thousands.
Many of the Snow Greese seemed to be in family groups, with three or four juveniles hanging out with a mature goose. I don't know if they maintain such groupings, but it sure looked like it.
It was dry at the refuge, and many of the lakebeds are still totally empty of water. We've finally had a vigorous storm this week, and I am greatly hoping the storm is a harbinger of things to come. The wildlife needs a break, and a better chance for survival. Life is hard enough as it is.