Friday, January 21, 2011

White swans in the Sacramento Valley

Driving the backroads of the Sacramento Valley, you soon realize you're in rice growing country. Giant red tractors and combines dot the fields which look kind of like boggy lawns: long, green grassy stalks rise from flooded fields. But while they look like monocultures, these fields are alive with wildlife. Crawfish, frogs, mollusks, and other critters thrive in the muddy waters, while hawks, egrets, blue herons, geese, and ducks fly above and winter in the marshlands.

My friend and I picked a sunny afternoon to crisscross the backroads and look for the most majestic denizen of all: tudra swans. Some 70,000 swans migrate through the Central Valley from spring and summer breeding grounds in the far north (from Alaska to the Arctic). With its honking call, long, graceful neck, and black bill, the tundra is unmistakable. At our first stop, pulled off the roadside along a ricefield, we find no swans, but an army of blackbirds perched on the power lines overhead. We pause to scan a few redwing and Brewer's blackbirds before the army spooks. They scatter up into the sky by the hundreds; the scene looks just as if someone sneezed into a bowl of black pepper.

After a few more miles, we hit the Mother Lode of bird-dom: a pond filled to bursting with white-fronted geese (which my friends says the hunters call 'specks', for their speckled appearance), snow geese, and various ducks. "Now, how are we supposed to find white swans amongst thousands of white geese?" I wonder. We set up the spotting scope and scan the pond; all the while, skeins of gees are flying in overhead, coming in to land on the pond. It's so noisy I can hardly hear myself think for all the cackling.

Eventually, we spot a handful of swans, gliding off by themselves among some reeds. They're unmistakable: a pure, snowy white, heads held high, looking for all the world as if they're miffed at having to share the pond with commoners like Canada geese. With a wingspan of up to 77 inches, they're bigger than most of the birds here, which also makes them easier to spot.

I think they're romantic birds, not only for their grace and beauty, but for their loyalty. Like most swans, tundras pair up for life, monogamous until one partner dies. If the cruelties of life in the wild takes one partner before the other, the surviving bird often will not mate again for some years, or even for its entire life. Their journey from the north is arduous and life in the Arctic is hard, but here in the Sacramento rice fields they find a relatively warm, well-earned respite, a kind of Palm Springs vacation for swans.

We watch them glide silently off into the reeds, and hope we'll see them safely return next year.

Details: Not a skilled birder? No worries. The California Department of Fish and Game offers tundra swan tours in the Marysville area the second and third Saturdays of the month through February. They're free, but you must book ahead. Click above or call 916/358-2852.

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