Wednesday, December 14, 2016

A California "Snow" Storm: A Winter Miracle in the Great Valley

People don't usually hear a great many good reasons to visit Modesto and environs. Forbes and others often put our Great Valley towns on the "worst places to live", but I think they really miss something when they do this sort of "expose". We grow most of the nation's food supply for one thing, so folks could be a little more appreciative of what we do. But it's really something else that few people are aware of, even those of us who live here. It's the magic of the season, the fact that we are a winter wonderland. The "snow" has nothing to do with precipitation, though, it has to do with millions of refugees from the snowbound northlands. They are Snow Geese. And Ross's Geese. And White-fronted and Aleutian Cackling geese. And thousands of Sandhill Cranes as well. In winter, the Great Valley becomes an American version of Africa's Serengeti Plain.
Snow Goose at the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge

Hundreds of years ago, before the European invasion, the valley was home to tens of millions of migratory birds, but with settlement and development, 95% of their original grassland and river flood plain home disappeared. The birds could have been wiped out entirely, but a few visionary people worked to preserve a bit of the original valley habitat in an effort to save as many birds as possible. The result was a string of federal, state and non-profit run wildlife refuges that form a pathway down the 400 mile length of the valley. The birds will take refuge from October to March, when they begin making their way back north for breeding in the Arctic.
Aleutian Cackllng Goose (Branta hutchinsii) at the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge. Several decades ago, there were only 600 of them left. Today there are around 200,000 because of conservation efforts in both Alaska and at the San Joaquin refuge (their primary winter home)
A great many people right here in the Modesto area are unaware of the Christmastime miracle that takes place each year. It's not hard to see incredible things just a short drive out of town. Only eight miles west of the biggest shopping mall in the region, on Beckwith Road, the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge offers a viewing platform where one can see tens of thousands of migratory geese all at once. The best times are early in the morning and in the afternoon close to sundown. I took the video below at about 4:15 this afternoon during a short break from final exams at the college. Even with the YouTube compression, you can see tens of thousands of geese taking wing. You can hear the cacophony, but there is nothing like seeing and hearing it in person. The ground literally vibrates as the birds take to the air.

The spectacle is amazing, If you live here and you've never seen it, check it out right now! If you are from the Bay Area and are rushing to the Sierras for a ski day, take a short detour. It's worth your time. And if you are a birder, we are a winter paradise. More than 300 bird species have been documented in our area, and many of them can be seen during the winter season when the pickings are poor in other places (a lot of those disappearing birds come here!).


Hollis said...

Wow! what do all those geese eat?

Garry Hayes said...

The geese were a problem in the old days because they would get into the agricultural fields, so some of the refuges actually grow fields of corn and wheat and cut the stalks so the corn cobs will be on the ground and in the open so the geese can eat and still watch for predators. You can see the corn stalks in the background of the first picture.

Hollis said...