Friday, October 28, 2016

Cackling Geese and Sandhill Cranes Arrive at the San Joaquin National Wildlife Refuge

One of the pleasures of the fall semester is that short break I have between the afternoon lab and the evening class. That's just enough time to drive over to the Beckwith Road viewing platform for the San Joaquin National Wildlife Refuge (about ten miles west of Modesto). Tens of thousands of winter migrants shelter here, including Snow Goose, Ross's Goose, Greater White-fronted Goose, and today's visitors, Aleutian Cackling Goose (Branta hutchinsii), and Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis).
The Cackling Geese were once thought to be a small subspecies of the Canada Goose, but DNA analysis indicates they are a separate species. They breed in Arctic environments, then migrate to the United States for the winter. They have a wide range in the American Midwest, but tend to be concentrated into just a few refuges in California's Central Valley. The San Joaquin National Wildlife Refuge is one of them. During the summer, the refuge managers grow crops of corn, and selectively cut the stalks during the winter so the birds can have a secure food source throughout the winter months. The birds were rather agitated when I was there Tuesday because tractors were mowing part of the pasture. I'm guessing there were around a thousand near the viewing platform.
There were hundreds of Sandhill Cranes at the refuge as well, but they were far away from the viewing platform. We saw them at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge during our visit a couple of weeks ago. They were far away, but their calls carried a great distance. They are gorgeous elegant birds. In a few months, as the corn starts to run a bit short, they'll be hanging out much closer to the road.
Look for occasional reports in coming months. I try to get out there at least once a week.

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