Posted by: atowhee | December 3, 2007

Snow business along the Sacramento River

ross-and-snow.jpg Ross’s Goose (left) and Snow Goose, textbook shot by Calvin Lou

“There’s no business like snow business, like no business….”

You wanted to sing.  Or dance if you were from a culture that allows such things as dancing for joy.  My wife kept saying, “This is so wonderful to see.”  It was as thrilling as standing on a forest hillside with no human buildings, no human noise, no parking lots that are sensible.

Strung out against the pewter gray were lines of large white birds, black wing patches making a semaphore effect as they moved across the sky.  Once in a while a flock would make the classic V-formation.  Their honking calls were the only sound besides a soft rustling wind that moved through the tules and leafless trees.

Once the flying white geese were joined by their dark cousins, White-fronted Geese.  It’s the winter season at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge and this was California’s premiere concentration of Snow and Ross’s Geese.  Once on the ground or in the pools the geese segregate by color.  Impoundments with the white geese were snowdrifts, collections of every plastic bag ever handed out at Safeway, nature’s answer to a confetti shower on New year’s Eve, the makings of a trillion goose down pillows.  At a distance it was surely snow banked up against the dried green lines of tules.  For what else could be so purely white?  Not milk, not the white hot flame, not any cloud I’ve ever seen, not foam on a stream, not thistle down nor sheep’s wool nor even the fluff that blows along fencerows of a cotton field.  This was the whitest of whites.  And the numbers, to our city-benumbed eyes, were staggering.  We can remark on the density of birds when we encounter a hundred Canada Geese on a golf course.  These were birds in their thousands. When they rose in large numbers the sky turned from a washed out blue-gray to a pulsating white. Yet, so impoverished is our Earth in this age.

See what Adolphus Heermann* wrote in the mid-19th Century when he visited California’s Central Valley: “these birds often cover so densely with their masses the plains in the vicinity of the marshes as to give the ground the appearance of being clothed in snow.”

Men with guns could not resist.  Writing seventy years later William Dawson in The Birds of California said, “It is scarcely possible to exaggerate the number which frequented this region before the advent of the white man.  It must have run into the millions, and may easily have reached the tens of millions.”

So how many?  The official tally in mid-November at all parts of the wildlife refuge in the Sacramento River Valley:  70,ooo white geese (and these are mostly Snow).

It was also heartening to see the large numbers of Pintail and other waterfowl.  Here are some of the survey’s numbers:

White-fronted Goose      36,000

Pintail                              756,000

Gadwall                            83,000 (more than Mallards!)

Wigeon                           201,000

GW Teal                         143,000

Shoveler                         103,000

Ring-necked Duck          32,000

Landbird bonus: very nice look at a Loggerhead Shrike.  Harrier, Meadowlark, Red-winged Backbirds, the usual sparrows and Red-tailed Hawks were abundant.  There may have been more Coots than Pintails, and we even saw a couple Moorhens.  Always worth a visit from October through March.  See my I-5 itinerary for details.

 *Dr. Heermann collected birds in California from 1849 into the 1850s and discovered the Heermann’s Gull named for him by John Cassin.

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