Snow geese fill the valley with wonder and mystery

Snow geese at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge last week.

Snow geese at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge last week.


An immature red-shouldered hawk at the refuge. Photo by Carol Voyles.

An immature red-shouldered hawk at the refuge. Photo by Carol Voyles.


A male pheasant in all its glory. Photo by Carol Voyles.

A male pheasant looks for a meal.

Photo by Carol Voyles.



Snow geese taking it easy.

Snow geese taking it easy.


I don’t travel far without my portable GPS device and printouts of map directions. Snow geese fly from the Arctic regions of Canada, Alaska and Siberia without such help and find their way to the wetlands, grasslands and flooded rice fields of the Sacramento Valley. This is a good time of the year to see thousands of these visitors, which have wingspans in the five-foot range.

I like to partake in the mystery of migration and marvel at the wonders of nature. It restores my spirits, which were down last week as I reflected on drivers who sideswipe your car for no reason. My wife and I and two friends headed up Interstate 5 Friday to the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, about 80 miles north of the city of Sacramento.  The 10,819-acre refuge, part of a network of viewing areas in the north valley, is loaded with migratory snow geese and ducks as well as several hundred other species of avian life.

Witnessing vast flocks of exotic creatures taking flight against the backdrop of the Sutter Buttes and Mount Lassen certainly beats dealing with insurance companies and auto body shops. We walked a meandering two-mile trail through marshes and riparian areas, then drove a six-mile road loop that includes an excellent observation platform. A visitor center provided a good selection of books and informational material.

I learned, for example, that the geese making the longest trip to California along the Pacific Flyway begin their journey on Wrangel Island, off the coast of Russia. The trip from their spring and summer nesting sites is almost 3,000 miles and is marked by rapid flights between various points and long stopovers. They stay in the Central Valley from November into March. The geese live about 20 years and often have long-term mating partners.  Different populations of snow geese migrate along East Coast and Midwest flyways. How and why snow geese came to perform such incredible feats are questions buried deep in evolutionary history.

As a longtime resident of the Sacramento Valley, I have seen much of the area farmland converted to development. On the other hand, it has been encouraging to see rice farmers shift from burning their fields after harvest to flooding them as a way to remove rice stubble. The change has been beneficial to both migratory birds and resident species. One hopes this practice will continue despite the prolonged drought.

For my next outing, I’ll head toward the farmland and marshes south of the capital to see the stately sandhill cranes in all their glory. Living along the Pacific Flyway brightens up the Sacramento winter.




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Everything was going fine until the accident

My 2014 Mustang in happier times.

My 2014 Mustang in happier times.

“Count your blessings,” my wife said.

I did a quick inventory and came up with a half-dozen things. They didn’t make me feel better.

“I’m going to indulge my discontent for a while,” I said.

My wife shrugged and said that was fine. She returned to her book.

I felt something between low-grade anger and strong irritation. I didn’t want to punch out the jerk who had sideswiped my 2014 Mustang Tuesday morning. I just wanted to shake him hard and demand to know what the heck was wrong with him. How could he and his huge Toyota Tundra have drifted from the middle lane into the right lane when I and my Mustang, with less than 12,000 miles on it, were there?

Actually, I already had that answer. “Sorry, I wasn’t thinking. I’m really sorry,” said the thin, bearded fellow in his late 20s as soon as he got out of his manly pickup in midtown Sacramento. Unfortunately, I didn’t record that admission of fault on my smartphone because I didn’t have the device with me. Nor did I have my reading glasses, which made deciphering the print on his license and insurance documents a chore.

Hey, I was just running a few errands. I wasn’t anticipating a shake-up in my well-ordered universe. I walked out the door, got in my car, drove a mile to the hardware store, picked up four furnace filters and headed west on busy I Street toward my next destination. Approaching 16th Street, I was startled by loud scraping noises right next to me and a sensation my car was being shoved toward the curb. I feared smashing into a light pole on the sidewalk.

I pulled over to get my bearings, then turned and stopped on less crowded 16th Street. I half-expected to see the big pickup zoom off because what kind of nut sideswipes you for no reason? Instead, the fellow drove past me and parked. When he got out, I was relieved to see he wasn’t a biceps-bulging biker dude. He apologized right away and asked how I was feeling. I checked my car and saw scrapes and paint damage on much of the driver’s side.

We went through the paper exchange. He said his family had an auto body shape and would be willing to fix my car at no cost. That would spare him insurance problems, he said, but he certainly could understand if I preferred to work through my own insurer. I wrote down his phone number and said I would think about it.

When I called my insurance company, the representative took my information and set up an appointment with a Sacramento body shop. He reminded me I had a $500 deductible. It was possible I could get reimbursed by the other driver’s insurance company, he said. Yeah, sure, I thought.

I called the phone number the other driver had given me. It was a state agency. No one knew the fellow I was trying to reach. His address in Roseville checked out, at least by the unusual family name. I decided not to bother with any cut-rate repair shop.

This morning, an estimator at the Sacramento body shop said I would need to wait until Monday for a full estimate. He pointed out a couple of dents. The paint work would take more than a week, he said. Had I thought about a rental car?

I’m thankful I have collision insurance. My $500 deductible is looking like a drop in the bucket.

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Maximizing prices at Kings arena puts squeeze on fans

big bucksThe Sacramento Kings lose a lot on the basketball court, but the team is an NBA leader in “dynamic pricing” of tickets. If that doesn’t fill you with pride, maybe it shouldn’t. Another term for the practice could be called “price gouging.”

I didn’t see “price gouging” mentioned in the enthusiastic front-page story in Sunday’s Sacramento Bee. Instead, I was told “the Kings are among the savviest practitioners anywhere” in the increasingly sophisticated business of sports and entertainment ticket pricing.

Rather than assign a single price point to a section of the new Golden 1 Center, the Kings have “sliced and diced their seating chart more precisely than ever, creating a blizzard of options for fans,” the story said. “Prices are no longer static; like a hotel chain or airline, the Kings employ ‘dynamic pricing’ models that react in real time to supply and demand.”

Consider the pricing for an election night game between the Kings and the low-flying New Orleans Pelicans. Fans who bought eighth-row seats behind the basket a week before the game paid $154, plus taxes and fees, the story said. A day before the game, the base price was $163. For the hoi polloi, a cluster of seats in the middle of the upper bowl dropped in price from $62 to $48 in this time period.

If these prices don’t make you blink, how about $550 for lower-bowl seats Jan. 8 when the Kings take on the star-studded Golden State Warriors? That’s the price the Kings were asking last week for seats a few rows off the court, the Bee said.

As a sports fan, I can’t say I was shocked by these prices, which help pay the multimillion-dollar salaries of players and enrich the Kings’ owners. However, as a middle-class taxpayer in the city of Sacramento, I recognize that I am footing part of the bill for the new $557 million arena. So are thousands of local low-income taxpayers. The debt service on the city’s $272.9 million arena contribution comes to $18 million annually for 35 years.

Instead of giving taxpayers a break, the Kings are gouging middle-class fans and closing the door on low-income folks. It’s certainly ironic that basketball, a game with deep roots in poor neighborhoods and city playgrounds, should become an elitist spectator activity. Fans pay prices that make lovers of classical music, opera and theater look like plebians. Prime orchestra-row seats for an upcoming Sacramento Philharmonic concert at the Sacramento Community Center Theater are priced at $50 apiece. Seats in the back rows go for $28.

I would like to see the City Council put pressure on the Kings to reduce overall ticket prices. Why should the new arena be a playground for the affluent? How about “dynamic pricing” based on annual personal income? Or by ZIP code? How about filling up the city’s luxury suite every game night with kids from public schools in poor neighborhoods? If not, perhaps fans should think about a boycott of the arena until fairness for all is ensured.

In the meantime, there’s a lot of good basketball available at modest cost. For example, if you want exciting basketball with 100 percent effort from all players, go see the Sacramento State women’s team. I saw the team defeat a strong squad from Long Island-based Hofstra University on Saturday by a score of 97-85. The Hornet women made 16 of 33 three-point shots while playing their typical racehorse-style game. They play Stanislaus State Tuesday evening at home. The game at The Nest begins at 7:05. General admission is $10. Seniors and youths get in for $5.

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Some Thanksgivings better than others

Upbeat spirits before my first birthday.

Upbeat spirits before my first birthday.

Whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul, I account it high time to reflect on Thanksgivings past. They were happy holidays when I was a kid. We had big family meals with up to 25 people at the house in Queens. Even oddball uncles and aunts were invited to attend.

Aunt Emma and Uncle Bill, he of the big cigars and a propensity for telling silly jokes, would make their annual appearance. Aunt May would ensure that Uncle Raymond was sober and properly attired so he could sit on the porch and smoke cigarettes. I would say hello and he would respond with a slight, sad smile. I don’t think I ever heard him speak, but by that time in his life he had lost his wife and only daughter to illness.  

Aunt May would join my mother and sisters in the kitchen to help prepare all the dishes that would be served in the dining room and at the kids’ table in the living room. At mealtime, I could escape the notice of my father by sitting somewhere other than at his right-hand side. I would usually take a seat opposite the big wall mirror and make funny faces without fear of getting whacked on the knuckles with a teaspoon. Animated conversation and laughter were heard at the dinner table. Such a treat!

My mother and I were always singled out for special attention because our shared Nov. 22 birthday fell close to the holiday. In fact, I came into the world on Thanksgiving night in 1945, which also happened to be my mother’s 40th birthday. I’m sure I was quite a present, weighing in at 10 pounds, 5 ounces.

When I was born, the dark shadow of World War II had finally lifted from the United States. The country was embarking on a period of remarkable growth, optimism and world leadership. In looking back on my youth, I am surprised how little I heard about the most devastating war in human history. Coaches and teachers who had fought in it told no war stories. The Holocaust was rarely mentioned. The dropping of the atomic bomb was presented as a necessary final step to save soldiers’ lives.

I rode the currents of American optimism until my 18th birthday – Nov. 22, 1963. I was a freshman at Harvard when President John Kennedy was assassinated that day. It seemed incomprehensible the bright flame of Camelot could be extinguished so suddenly. The three days of official mourning that followed ensured a melancholy Thanksgiving.

The assassination of JFK didn’t usher in the Vietnam War and all the death and suffering that war brought to my generation. It just seems that way in retrospect. The United States could have taken a different path, could have extricated itself from JFK’s limited involvement in Vietnam’s affairs. But the fear of monolithic communism had been stoked for years, coupled with disdain and distrust for people we didn’t understand.

It’s been a dark November this year. Here’s hoping for a happy Thanksgiving.

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Confrontation between CSUS professors was shoddy performance

Given all the hostility in the air, I find news accounts of a classroom confrontation last month at California State University, Sacramento, disturbing. Academia should be a place where reason trumps emotion. Instead, there was an unseemly showdown between two adjunct professors in the Division of Criminal Justice department, followed by public silence from university administrators.

According to a Sacramento Bee story, professor Jimmy Martinez, a former Sacramento County deputy sheriff, told his undergraduate Criminal Justice I class that defense attorneys frequently lie on behalf of usually guilty criminal defendants. Reacting to this, professor Julie Mumma, a Sacramento criminal defense lawyer, marched her students into Martinez’s class and demanded a debate, which she got.

Mumma “hijacked my class,” Martinez told the Bee.

“I’m tired of his fiery rhetoric,” Mumma said. “I’m not opposed to conservative ideas, but I want to hear those ideas challenged, debated and discussed.”

The Bee, as well as a story in the school newspaper, The State Hornet, referred to a long history of personal antagonism and philosophical differences between the two professors.

Martinez’s succinct appraisal of defense lawyers came from his personal experience, he said, and his take on Alan Dershowitz’s book “The Best Defense.”

“The vast majority (of his clients) were guilty and he still got them off,” Martinez said. “The criminal justice system leans heavily toward the rights of the accused and the victims take a back seat.”

Having spent several years as a cops-and-courts reporter in my younger days, I can say with confidence that Martinez’s purported  representation of defense lawyers and the legal system in which they work is shallow and distorted. I have a feeling he doesn’t accuse prosecutors and law-enforcement witnesses of lying if and when he lectures on their roles.

As for  Mumma, a CSUS and McGeorge School of Law graduate,  I find her classroom takeover unprofessional. Neither her students nor Martinez’s are paying tuition for her theatrics or her intolerance of a colleague’s approach to education. If she wants to challenge his competence as an educator, she should work through the system set up for that purpose.

Given all the discord in our society’s criminal-justice system, educators need to present students with a balanced, realistic and evenhanded view of how the process works. We don’t need professors using their positions of trust and authority to push their political opinions on students.

I haven’t seen any public reaction from CSUS administrators on this mess. Why the silence?

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