Winter On The Pacific Flyway

California’s Sacramento Valley is a major destination for migrating birds from Alaska to Patagonia. These local insights will help you plan your visit.

As summer turns to fall and the days get shorter and cooler, the change of season triggers one of nature’s remarkable journeys, as various avian species begin a southern migration to warmer climates in search of more abundant food supplies. The Pacific Flyway is one of the major north-south routes for migratory birds in America, extending from Alaska to Patagonia. Every year, birds travel some or all of this route in both spring and fall, making their way from northern breeding grounds to the warmer southern areas, where they’ll spend their winter.

Sandhill cranes in early morning light on the Pacific Flyway

A pair of sandhill cranes in early-morning light prior to flying out from their overnight roosting site. The morning fog thinned enough to allow the sun to breakthrough and highlight the cranes with a soft diffused light.

The Sacramento Valley in California is situated along the Pacific Flyway. It serves not only as a crucial stopover point but also as a home to approximately 75 species that end their arduous journey here to spend the winter. About 45 percent of the Pacific Flyway’s waterfowl winter in the valley, making it an important temporary home for ducks, geese and swans. Although waterfowl are plentiful, songbirds, shorebirds such as sandpipers, plovers, curlews and godwits, and sandhill cranes are among the other species that use the pathway. A number of these also reside in the valley over the winter.

While much of the birds’ natural habitat has been significantly impacted by development, a number of local refuges encompass protected areas during the fall and winter months. These protected wetlands provide year-round habitat for resident species but also serve during the winter as roosting and loafing grounds where migratory visitors can rest and sleep relatively undisturbed. These refuges are complemented by the efforts of local landowners who flood large agricultural fields to provide additional crucial habitat. The vast fields of harvested corn, rice and grains also serve as a critical food source for the wintering birdlife.

The Pacific Flyway: Where To Go Near Sacramento

The sandhill cranes, geese and tundra swans usually make their return to the area obvious. Though you’ll be lucky to spot cranes overhead because they’ll be mere specks in the sky, you can’t mistake their noisy cries or the distinctive honking and V-shaped flocks of swans and geese, which are usually observed in early October.

If you’re interested in birdwatching or photographing the area’s migratory visitors, good places to start are the local refuges. They’re located around the Sacramento area and include Colusa National Wildlife Refuge, Gray Lodge Wildlife Area, Sutter NWR, Delevan NWR and Sacramento NWR in the north; the Yolo Bypass to the west; and Stone Lakes NWR, Cosumnes River Preserve and Woodbridge Ecological Reserve to the south.

Snow geese on the Pacific Flyway

A number of incoming snow geese in the early-morning light, joining an ever-growing gaggle of different geese species feeding in the field.

The refuges are a good starting point, but the ducks, geese, cranes and swans also tend to spend a lot of time in agricultural fields, feeding on leftover grain from the fall harvests. Locating birds in these fields can prove to be challenging. You can log many miles driving the area’s back roads trying to find the latest feeding sites, which change frequently. I suggest checking the internet, local area news stations or the local Audubon Society for recent sightings.

Local Knowledge

Since I live in West Sacramento, I spend most of my time photographing south of Sacramento simply because it’s only a 20-minute drive from my home to the Cosumnes River and Woodbridge Ecological Reserve. Other areas on Staten and Tyler Islands provide equal or even better opportunities for viewing and photographing the stately sandhill cranes, tundra swans and geese, thanks to the local farmers who voluntarily flood their fallow fields over the winter.

One of the most consistent areas for viewing is N. Staten Island Road, southeast of Walnut Grove. The fields where the sandhill cranes roost and feed vary each winter, but you can usually find them somewhere along this stretch of road. The road runs south off the Walnut Grove Thornton Road and turns into a dirt road after a few miles, so be aware that the road can become muddy this time of year.

The area is prone to fog, and even if I leave my house under clear skies, I may find a pea soup fog when arriving at the N. Staten Island Road turnoff. The fog can totally rule out any chance of photography, but if there’s a slight breeze and the fog thins enough to let the sun through, it can provide a range of wonderful light from diffused to dramatic. I recommend waiting until well after sunrise before you call it quits.

Photograph of sandhill cranes migrating on the Pacific Flyway

A number of sandhill cranes preparing themselves for the morning fly out from their overnight roosting area. The predawn light provided a remarkable purple/pinkish color to the scene.
Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM at 365mm. Exposure: 1 sec., ƒ/10, ISO 100, EV -2 1/3.

Best Times & Subjects For Photography

While I prefer to photograph the area at sunrise, this really does depend on what fields are flooded, where the cranes are roosting, and what type of images you want to take. I find the early-morning hours provide a peaceful and relaxing experience since I’m often the only human witness to the new day. However, that peacefulness doesn’t last long once the cranes and other waterfowl start their morning routines. I suggest that once you have located the cranes’ roosting areas, you should shoot at both sunrise and sunset to get a variety of images.

The diversity of avian subjects is plentiful, but the sandhill cranes tend to take center stage. They’re social birds that form pair bonds for life, and their elaborate vocalization and dance routines are quite entertaining. A bonded pair will engage in “unison calling” by standing close together and calling in a synchronized and complex duet, with the female making two calls to the male’s one. Their seemingly choreographed, complex dance routines are usually performed as part of courtship rituals. However, it’s clear that dancing plays an important role in everyday routines that reinforce pair bonding, express excitement or frustration, release pent-up energy, or are simply just for fun. Sandhill cranes are considered the most accomplished dancers in the animal kingdom (other than people), and witnessing them perform will bring a smile to your face and fill up a memory card quickly.

The area’s other inhabitants shouldn’t be ignored. Geese are present in astounding numbers, and if you’re lucky enough to witness a thousand-plus geese taking flight at once, you won’t soon forget the sound. The tundra swans also provide photographic opportunities, and while they’re very graceful flying and swimming, that’s not the case when they’re landing or taking off. You’ll also see numerous shorebirds and raptors along with opportunistic coyotes. The coyotes are usually wary because they’re unwelcomed visitors on the farmlands.

Telephoto Or Wide Angle?

Snow geese taking flight on the Pacific Flyway

A wide shot of a large flock of snow geese taking flight in late-morning light from a flooded cornfield.

While I predominately use a 100-400mm telephoto lens, you have the opportunity to utilize a wide-angle lens when the conditions warrant the choice or you’re simply trying to capture an entire gaggle of geese that number in the thousands. A wide-angle view lets you showcase birds in their natural surrounding and, with the right lighting conditions, can produce striking images. A fair amount of background clutter can be present, so be mindful of this when composing your images and selecting your depth of field.

Long Exposures. Really.

Some of the best light can be pre-dawn and post-dusk. This creates challenges when trying to capture dramatic light while keeping exposure times short enough for relatively sharp birdlife images. After much disappointment and frustration one morning with these images while trying to capture an incredible display of purple predawn light, I dialed down the ISO setting and created a few long-exposure images. This let me focus on capturing the incredible light while treating the cranes as a secondary part of the overall landscape. The resulting images captured the beautiful light conditions, and while some of the cranes were noticeably ghosted, the effect complemented the overall image. This lesson has allowed me to embrace longer exposure times if I want to focus on light conditions and treat the birdlife as a more secondary consideration. I have taken exposures at lower ISO settings up to five minutes long with good results.

Taking Flight

You’ll have ample opportunities to capture the cranes, geese and swans flying in and out of their roosting and feeding sites. The camera settings required can vary dramatically depending on your subject’s position relative to the sun and horizon. Typically, in the morning light, shooting away from the sun and/or below the horizon requires slower shutter speeds and good panning technique. Shooting toward the sun results in higher shutter speeds but will predominately capture silhouettes. You can experiment here until you decide what works best for your camera and lens setup.

Image of sandhill cranes on the Pacific Flyway

Sandhill cranes flying out from their overnight roosting area to forage in the nearby fields.

Observing Behavior

Because bird foraging areas tend to change daily, driving around is usually the best way to locate cranes, swans and geese. Some don’t move far from their roosting areas, so a drive further down N. Staten Island Road usually locates constructions of cranes or huge gaggles of geese that are feeding close enough to the road to let you capture good images. The tundra swans tend to feed in the flooded fields and are generally in the same area. It’s usually worthwhile to drive over to Woodbridge Road, Tyler Island and Desmond Road near the Cosumnes River Preserve to check things out.

Waiting to photograph crane behavior while they’re foraging in the fields is an exercise in patience or torture, depending on how you see it. Cranes will have their heads down for what may seem like hours while they’re feeding. You may lose concentration or decide to check something unimportant on your phone or camera, only to look up to see a pair of cranes busting out a dance move. A quick scrambling to locate the pair in the viewfinder and focus the camera usually comes too late, as they have settled back down and are feeding again. Why did I need to look at my stupid phone or camera, anyway?

I have also noticed that cranes seem to take pleasure in performing their choreographed dance as your car approaches, but they stop immediately when you slow down and point your camera in their direction. They seem to take pleasure in tormenting me by then becoming intent on rummaging through the remnants of the harvest for hours on end. A suggestion based on observation is to position your car to observe and photograph the cranes and hope another poor soul drives up. As the cranes start their dance moves, the other driver will get to observe you taking wonderful images of crane behavior, only to cease all movement once the other driver slows to a stop.

Etiquette

Be mindful that the roads are public thoroughfares and can be the only access in and out of local farms. When driving and photographing from the road, pull off to the side and don’t block traffic.

There are numerous signs that are posted in the area informing us that we’re on private land and in a sensitive wildlife area. Be respectful of the land and wildlife that the signs protect, and don’t ignore them just to obtain images.

One last thing—probably more a pet peeve; if you’re photographing at sunrise, please turn off your lights once you have stopped or parked your car. A “deer in the headlights” feeling isn’t a pleasant one.

A flock of geese on the Pacific Flyway

A flock of geese flying silhouetted against the stormy morning light.

An Inspiring Balance

I initially wanted to photograph the local birdlife over the winter to improve my photography skills and camera knowledge. I’ve since learned the importance of this area to the migratory birds of the Pacific Flyway and how local private landowners are changing their farming techniques to be profitable agricultural farms over the summer and then transition to crucial wildlife habitat over the winter. While we’re still ultimately responsible for the impact on the birds’ habitat, I feel this story is worth sharing to show that we can adapt to achieve a more balanced existence with nature—a lesson that could be learned across the world.


See more of Garry Everett’s work at gelandscapephoto.com.