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.