The Northward Migration

By Luke Matthews

Here in the Sacramento Valley we all look forward to the fall migration, with millions of waterbirds, raptors, and songbirds moving south into and through California for the winter. Now, after enjoying the presence of these birds for almost six months, many of them are preparing to depart.

As winter turns to spring, many flooded rice fields and wetlands in the Valley are beginning to dry out, with this most of the non-resident waterbirds start their northward migration to the breeding grounds. While you can still see large groups of Snow Geese, Northern Pintail, and Sandhill Cranes, their numbers will start to dwindle until they are eventually all gone. During this period, if you are lucky, you might witness some interesting pre-migration behavior. For example, just last week I witnessed hundreds of Sandhill Cranes swarming into a large flock. This extremely vocal flock of cranes circled in a seemingly disorganized group while other birds flew up and join them. After circling for nearly half an hour the flock broke into smaller groups, assembled into V-formations and began flying Northward. This is just one of the types of pre-migratory behaviors one can witness this time of year.

While many of the wintering birds will soon be gone, there are other birds that will migrate through. In fact, a variety of the shorebird species that wintered down in Central and South America will be traveling back up through our region well into April as they make the long journey north. If you are able to find areas that are flooded in March and April you are almost guaranteed to see some of these birds. Finally, as the season continues and turns from spring to summer, breeding and nesting activities will begin with our resident birds. The birds that commonly nest in flooded rice fields include Black Turns, American Avocets, Black-Necked Stilts and American Bitterns. Additionally, if there is upland habitat nearby, we will also see nesting Mallards, Gadwall, Cinnamon Teal, Northern Harriers, Ring-necked Pheasant, Blackbirds and more!

Luke Matthews is the Wildlife Programs Manager for the California Rice Commission