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Posts Tagged ‘Waterfowl’

A couple of days ago, I awoke to a beautiful and foggy day in the central valley of California. Thick valley fog lay low, shrouding buildings and trees and blanketing the marshes and agricultural fields around Davis. As I was walking across campus on my way to teach Vertebrate Anatomy, I heard a sound above me that I do not hear on campus very often at all. It was the sound of geese flying high overhead. They came into view through the fog; a flock of about 200 Snow Geese wheeling and drifting through the fog. They wavered back and forth for a minute and then drifted out of my view back into the fog. A few minutes later, a smaller group flew past, and a bit after that, a flock of about 30 Northern Pintail flew by. All these waterfowl seemed to be a bit disoriented by the low, thick fog. They, presumably, were trying to find wetlands in which to settle for the day, but instead of spotting suitable habitat from high up and far away as they would on a clear day, they had to move around low and slow almost by feel trying to find a good place to rest. In their search, they took a wrong turn and ended up over the town and university of Davis which is not really the best waterfowl habitat. It was a fun treat for me to see and hear these birds, and I hope they figure out that heading a bit to the east and landing the Yolo Bypass is really a much better place to hang out. Good luck to them!

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A friend invited me to join him duck hunting this past weekend on the Sutter National Wildlife Refuge.  I have never hunted the Sutter Refuge, and was excited to explore some new ground.  Leaving West Sacramento at 2:30 am , I drove up to meet him.  In the darkness of early morning, long before dawn, we walked out into the marshes to find a place that would hopefully be very attractive to ducks.  We found a small island, scattered our duck decoys in the water around us, and nestled in to wait for dawn.  As the sky lightened, the birds started moving.  We had a few groups of ducks fly by, but the really impressive flocks were the White-faced Ibis!  Thousands of them flew over is that morning.  Big flock after bigger flock swept over us all heading to the south.  It was a very impressive show.  We also saw Ring-necked Duck, Northern Shoveler, Greater White-fronted Goose, Mallard, Bufflehead, Double-crested Cormorant, Belted Kingfisher, Black Phoebe, White-crowned Sparrow, Turkey Vulture, Savannah Sparrow, Lark Sparrow (my first of the fall), American Coot, Snow Goose, American Wigeon, Red-tailed Hawk, Sharp-shinned Hawk,  Northern Harrier, White-tailed Kite, Red-winged Blackbird, Marsh Wren, Great Horned Owl, Great Blue Heron, Snowy Egret, Great Egret, Tundra Swan, and Yellow-rumped Warbler.  By the end of the morning, my friend had shot a male Mallard, but that was the only bird of the day.  As I sat there, not shooting any birds, I was struck again by how many species benefit for these refuges.  While a large portion of their funding comes from the sale of hunting licenses and permits, hundreds of non-game species use the habitats that are preserved withing their boundaries.

The Sharp-shinned Hawk was an especially exciting encounter.  She (it was an adult female) was hunting the marshes as we were.  She was flying low to the ground or across the surface of the water, moving from stand of tule to brush covered island in the hope of startling some prey out of cover.  It was really amazing to watch how she used tall stands of plants as cover.  She would fly low towards one such stand and then, at the last possible moment, fly up and over it and drop down onto the other side.  One of the islands she decided to explore was the one we were sitting on.  She flew directly at me, and just saw me at the last second when she was only a few feet away.  She was rather surprised to see someone crouching in the plant cover, and flared up and over me to hunt elsewhere.  What great look!

On the walk out, I found a large growth of Oyster Mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus) growing on a dead and fallen cottonwood tree.  I gathered some of them and brought them home, so at least I did not return completely empty handed.  These were the first mushrooms that I have collected this fall, and I am hoping that they signal that it is now wet enough to bring out many more.  The mushrooms ended up being part of dinner stir-fried with a little garlic, and also lunch the next day added to polenta (which was awesome).  Finding these mushrooms really drove home the point for me that it is not even just game bird species and non-game bird species that benefit from the National Wildlife Refuge system, but whole ecosystems filled with plant, animal, fungi, Bacteria and Archean species.  Thousands and thousands of them living their intricate lives so close to our own.

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With duck season about to start, I thought it would be a good time discuss duck stamps.  Duck stamps, officially called Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamps, are basically a federal permit allowing the holder to go hunting for ducks, geese, and a few other species.  They were authorized under the Migratory Bird Conservation Act of 1929 to generate funds (a duck stamp costs $15 US) for the acquisition and preservation of wetlands and waterfowl habitat.  Since wetlands are among the most heavily impacted habitats with less than 10% of historic wetland area remaining today.

Hunters actually have to pay a fair bit to go into the marshes to hunt.  The cost of hunting licenses, access permits, state permits, and federal permits (like the duck stamp) all add up.  On top of those fees, every gun and box of ammunition have an extra tax added to their price.  This tax was established by the Pittman-Robertson Act in 1937.  The Pittman-Robertson Act is officially the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act, and the revenue generated from this tax is earmarked for habitat rehabilitation and wildlife conservation.  In comparison, birders have to pay very little to enjoy the same wild areas.  Now, hunting has a much more direct impact on the ecosystem than birding, so it makes sense that it should have a higher cost.  But that having been said, birding is not without its own impacts.  The construction of auto tour routes, the air pollution from hundreds of vehicles each year, and the noise and habitat disturbance from the people themselves all impact the birds and their environment to a greater or lesser degree.  So, perhaps it makes sense that birders should pay a bit more too.  Imagine what could happen if there was a tax added to the price of binoculars and bird seed that went straight to the USF&WS or the EPA that could only be used to protect the environment.  Buying a duck stamp could be just such a step.

To buy a duck stamp, you don’t have to be a hunter.  Anyone can buy a stamp and in so doing contribute to the efforts of the USF&WS to protect our wild lands.  A few birders already buy a duck stamp every year.  If all the birders who go out and enjoy seeing flocks of 100,000 Snow Geese in the wetlands throughout the U.S. purchased a duck stamp, it would be a major boon to the funding of wildlife conservation in this country.

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I went birding at the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Refuge, yesterday morning.  It was lovely to watch the refuge wake up in the morning to a beautiful sunrise over the Sierra.  Got lost of close and excellent looks a bunch of Ciconiiforms: Green Heron, Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, White-faced Ibis, Black-crowned Night-Heron, American Bittern.  Also watched a Barn Owl hunting over the marsh just went I arrived.  It was soon replaced by Northern Harriers and White-tailed Kites quartering above the cattails and tules and rice paddies.  It has often been observed that no two species can occupy the same ecological niche in the same place at the same time.  The Harrier, Kite and Owl all are hunting for the same basic prey, but they are active at different times.  This is an example of temporal partitioning.  The water level at the refuge is still being kept pretty low, but in areas that did have standing water I found Mallards, Gadwalls, Black-necked Stilts, Marsh Wrens, Pied-billed Grebe, and Double-crested Cormorant.  Lots of Black Phoebes and Savannah Sparrows, and a few Red-tailed Hawks, were also present.  An early migrant that was exciting to find was a group of about a dozen Northern Pintail!  Northern Pintail are one of the earliest migrating species of waterfowl, so this is just the start of the massive migration of ducks and geese that will be arriving in central California in the next few months.  Two species that I found that I do not get to see often were a couple of small groups of Horned Larks foraging on the roads and three Yellow-headed Blackbirds (two males, one female) mixed in a group of Red-winged Blackbirds.  Both beautiful species.  All in all, it was a really wonderful, relaxing and refreshing morning.

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