Whistling swans use the Pacific flyway to descend into northern California

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This holiday season, you can see more than “Seven Swans Swimming” in Northern California.

Each year, more than 100,000 Tundra Swans migrate from the Arctic to winter in the flooded rice fields of northern California. And until January, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife runs weekly tours showcasing visiting swans.

“This is the largest concentration of swans on the West Coast in winter,” said Brian Gilmore, a CDFW science assistant who helped start the tours a decade ago. “You can’t find swans anywhere else in this area.”

The swans arrive in the fields in early November after several weeks of flight, having traveled more than 3,000 miles from Alaska and northern Canada to spend the winter in the rice fields.

They migrate via the Pacific Flyway, one of the four major bird migration routes in North America stretching from Alaska and Canada to California, Nevada and areas further south.

As food and water sources freeze in the north, more than a billion birds roam the avian highway across the sky to warmer winter grounds. More than 70 percent of these birds pass through the Central Valley of California.

But 90 percent of California’s wetlands, critical habitat for waterfowl, have been lost, mostly to development.

About 20 years ago, Californian farmers and wildlife groups discovered a way to recreate wetlands.

Whistling swans are seen in a flooded paddy field near Yuba City and Marysville, Calif., November 12, 2021.

California is the second largest producer of rice in the United States and historically rice farmers burned their fields after harvest to break up any remaining stubble from their crops. But the burning led to unsafe air quality in the valley, and in 1994 the state legislature banned the burning of rice paddies.

Now the farmers clear the fields and flood them in the fall and winter. The fields also provide habitat for migrating birds, which leave behind fertilizer for the following year’s harvest.

The flooding mimics what the Central Valley once looked like, when wetlands were prolific in the state.

Piping Swans prefer flooded rice fields because they mimic the flat, treeless nesting grounds they are used to in Alaska, according to Gilmore.

Gilmore read tales of early California explorers wading through tule grass and wetlands with so many geese and ducks flying above their heads that they darkened the sky, creating a deafening noise.

“You don’t see that anymore,” he said. “Wetlands and refuges are very important for all waterfowl. “

Now, standing in the middle of the rice fields, the water is pouring out in all directions as far as the eye can see. The houses are sitting on rises of earth, a few inches from the floods with the fields.

And birds are everywhere. Floating in the fields. High in the air. Rustling in the trees and grass.

A lone tundra swan is seen surrounded near a flooded paddy field outside of Yuba City and Marysville, Calif., November 12, 2021.

Particularly noteworthy are the tundra swans, measuring four feet tall with a wingspan of five and a half.

Other migratory birds that can be seen in the fields include white-faced ibis, bald eagles, American kestrels, and Northern harriers. Some have set up their winter houses in the fields while others will continue further south.

But for the swans, the rice fields are the end of their journey.

“It’s migration,” Gilmore said. “It’s driven by food and habitat. “

Until January, swans will feed on aquatic invertebrates and leftover grain in the fields.

A whistling swan spreads its wings in a flooded paddy field near Yuba City and Marysville, Calif., November 12, 2021.

And at the end of January, they will start their long journey back north again. Adults will return to their remote breeding grounds while juveniles will stop in Canadian lakes to meet their mates.

Want to see the swans yourself? The next tour dates are:

  • November 27
  • December 4, 11 and 18
  • January 1 and 8

Tours are offered at 9:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. each date in the Marysville area, approximately a two-hour drive from downtown Reno. Pre-registration is required by contacting Genelle Treaster, CDFW North Central Region, at genelle.treaster@wildlife.ca.gov.

Can’t you cross the hill? Consider heading to Swan Lake in Washoe County, a 100 to 1,000 acre wetland (depending on drought conditions) where over 150 species of birds have been recorded, including whistling swans.

Amy Alonzo covers the Outdoors, Recreation, and Environment for Nevada and Lake Tahoe. Contact her at aalonzo@gannett.com. Here’s how you can support continuous coverage and local journalism.

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