Nothing like a flyoff at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge

Seeing one of California's great natural wonders is a reminder of how cooperation creates great conservation victories.

Audubon California's Janine Kraus caught this massive flyoff of ducks and geese at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge at the same time the author of this piece was there. Mostly Snow Geese and White-fronted Geese, with some pintails.

Yesterday I had the privilege of going to the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge for the first time to see the fly-off at sunset. Perhaps you’ve seen that. Or maybe to Staten Island for the Sandhill Cranes. If not, you should go. It’s one of the most amazing natural sights you’ll ever see.

California once had tens of millions of ducks and geese migrate and overwinter in Central Valley wetlands. Now 95% of those wetlands are gone. The remaining wetland habitat is on the few small refuges and surrounding duck clubs for hunting. But those wetlands alone wouldn’t provide enough food to support the few million waterfowl that still come here for the winter. So each evening after sun-down, hundreds of thousands of ducks and geese fly off from the refuge’s sanctuary into the surrounding rice fields (where water is left post-harvest for environmental benefits) to eat all night long. Then, just before sunrise, the birds return to the safety of the sanctuary.

This is an amazingly beautiful illustration of how conservationists and farmers can partner to support a significant population of migrating birds each winter. As long as enough people and groups can come together to provide water and habitat, and as long as the other links in the chain of the Pacific Flyway are not broken, the birds can adapt.

To me, witnessing the sight and sounds of the fly-off was inspiring. I have been able to visit many beautiful places in California with Audubon and in my personal life, but this experience tops my list.

There are still challenges, to be sure. The Central Valley refuges have never been allocated their full supply of water as promised by Congress 24 years ago. Congress could change the law and take even the bare minimum water allocations away. But I am hopeful that the support of so many people who live, work and recreate in our state will tell the rest of the country how important it is to keep places like these alive. Because if we break this link, where will the birds go? How many will be left?

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