Thursday, December 8, 2016

Snow Flurries in the Great Central Valley!

Flurries of Snow Geese, that is! 

Avian confetti! 
Snow Geese, Ross's Geese, Greater White-fronted Geese and Cackling Geese swirl in the air at the San Joaquin
 River National Wildlife Refuge, viewed from the platform on Beckwith Road.
That wonderful time of year is upon us, when our arctic visitors descend on the Great Central Valley, blanketing wetland refuges with our own unique version of "snow."  Snow Geese (Chen caerulescens) and similar Ross's Geese (Chen rossii) arrive by the thousands, their numbers peaking in January.  Stirred up by a perceived threat, or coming in to roost for the evening, Snow and Ross's Geese rise into the air, mixing with Cackling Geese (Branta hutchinsii) and Greater White-fronted Geese (Anser albifrons) to create a swirling mass of avian confetti, whirling above the fortunate observer and raising a din that can be heard for miles.
Central Valley "snow."
Snow Geese breed on the tundra in Canada and northern Alaska near the coast, preferring areas near ponds, marshes and streams.  According to Cornell's All About Birds, some Snow Geese that winter in the western United States breed as far away as Siberia!  The Great Central Valley has been a key overwintering ground for a number of species of waterfowl for thousands of years; as you can imagine, they have faced great threats during the past couple hundred years as the Valley was drastically altered. 
Snow [Goose] flurries at Merced National Wildlife Refuge.
Though the overwhelming majority of Central Valley habitat has been developed (something like 95%), organizations have sought to preserve habitat for waterfowl and other species through a series of National Wildlife Refuges running the length of the state.  Farmers working with the Fish and Wildlife Service grow crops such as corn and rice specifically for the birds, even flooding their fields during the winter season to provide critical habitat and support biodiversity.  Hunting Snow Geese was banned through the early and mid-1900's, allowing decreased populations to recover.  Today Snow Geese are thriving, with populations on the rise; they are one of the most abundant species of waterfowl on our continent.   
Snow Geese at Merced NWR.  Juveniles can be distinguished by their gray bodies and heads.
 If you get the chance this winter, take a trip out to visit one of our local wildlife refuges.  At the top of the list are the Merced, San Luis and San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuges in the San Joaquin Valley, along with the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge complex a little farther north, in the Sacramento Valley.  Visiting one of these amazing places is a little like stepping back in time, getting just a glimpse at what the Great Central Valley would have been like pre-development.
Snow Geese and Ross's Geese at Merced NWR. 
Rare blue morph, or "Blue Goose," in the foreground, distinguished by a dark body and white head. 

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