A Million Migratory Geese/Ducks Breathe California Camp Fire Smoke

Geese flying at California Gray Lodge Wildlife Area refuge 11-15-18

(Author’s Note: This article “A Million Migratory Geese/Ducks Breathe California Camp Fire Smoke” is about looking at migrating waterfowl in the troubled wildfire year of 2018. My main article on this subject, updated every year, is “Migrating Waterfowl Along the Glorious Pacific Flyway in California: A Winter Immersion North of Sacramento.”)

By Lee Foster

More than a million migratory geese and ducks in California’s north-of-Sacramento wildlife refuges breathed the California Camp Fire smoke around November 8, 2018. This same smoke disrupted life for humans in the San Francisco Bay Area.

I traveled north that week to renew my joy in the primordial migration of geese and ducks, now resting for the winter in the great refuges north of Sacramento. I wanted also to see how well they are doing in the smoke from the Camp Fire.

Wildlife and Humans Endured Smoke from the Camp Fire

The main photo that I processed from the trip showed the fecund beauty of geese flying at the Gray Lodge Wildlife Area, a state-managed resource. Though there is joy in the photo, the birds were flying through heavy smoke. One wonders how well they were coping with this challenge.

I did the trip with photographer colleague John Williamson in his Honda Pilot, a good vehicle for looking at the birds. You are up high in this vehicle and can look out, right and left, to see the birds. On the three great refuges, Sacramento-Colusa-Gray Lodge, you stay in your vehicle as you drive the roads around the flooded fields. The geese and ducks become accustomed to vehicles. No one gets out of their cars.  That is the protocol. The Honda Pilot put us higher for viewing and photographing than does my Honda Civic.

We had hospital surgical masks, which John had picked up. The first day was not so bad, but on the second day the wind shifted and the fire kicked up. The smoke was considerable. The Camp Fire was east and north of the refuges. The smoke tended to go southwest or west, due to topography and current wind patterns.

The migratory geese and ducks had no masks. They needed to wait it out and hope that by next week there would be rain, after about 225 days in Northern California without rain.

How Smoke from the Camp Fire Altered Life in the Bay Area

We humans waited it out also in the Bay Area, praying for rain.

Life here changed in ways more critical than anything I had experienced in my 50-plus years in California. Most people out on the streets walked around with masks, hopefully 3M N-95 masks, top of the line.

The scene looks like Beijing in one of my earlier visits to China, except that experts were now telling us that the particulate matter in our air was worse than Beijing or anywhere else in the world.

The previous night I enjoyed a swim at the Berkeley YMCA, my daily exercise. The Y enhanced my experience because the building had a filtered aircon system processing all air sucked in from the outdoors.

When I walked out on the street without a mask, I felt a little sick to my stomach.

Schools closed. Kids lived indoors at home. Families experienced stress. Major outdoor events that weekend were cancelled, such as the Big Game between Stanford and UC Berkeley.

My son Paul took his boys, Paul Jr and Charlie, to their house in Tahoe to escape the bad air.

We humans had our adaptation mechanisms and could fly away. Wildlife needed to tough it out.

Wildlife Refuges Remained Open, Better than Ever

Geese flying at California Gray Lodge Wildlife Area refuge 11-15-18
Geese flying at California Gray Lodge Wildlife Area refuge 11-15-18

The three great refuges remained open, as they should. This fire and smoke would pass, perhaps in a week.

I had never seen such abundance on the refuges, as I did that year. The numbers of white geese, the ross geese and snow geese, were higher than I recall visually from the past.

I have been going to the refuges in recent years and will likely go once a year for the rest of my life. I go to savor the joy, beauty, and wonder of this avian migration.

It is no exaggeration to say that John Williamson and I likely saw a half million geese and ducks as we drove around these three refuges that week. We watched blizzards of flying geese and ducks.

There is an alternative California, way beyond the urban areas with our 40 million humans.

Russia, Canada, and the U.S. all cooperate to assure the year-long survival needs of these flying species.

Camp Fire Toll on Humans

 The cost in human life from the Camp Fire re-wrote the story of major tragedies in California history.

85 people died in the fire, which consumed 153,000 acres, taking our 18,804 structures. The fire started on November 8, did much of its damage in the first four hours and was finally contained 17 days later when winter rains doused it. The fire centered in Paradise, an idyllic town with 27,000 residents. Most buildings burned.

My friend and colleague, Jeffrey Samorano, lost his house. He escaped, narrowly, with his life, and with his wife and two teenage daughters.

I witnessed closeup an earlier major fire, when the Oakland Hills Fire came to within a quarter mile of my house, in 1991. 25 people died. The housing loss value was about $1.5 billion.

Every loss of a single life is a great tragedy. My author friend Bill McGinnis lost his brother in that Oakland Hills fire. His brother had a hand-crafted house on a cul de sac, and he was not about to leave it, until the flames closed in and it was too late.

Enduring Beauty of the Refuges and the Countryside

Every time I visit these refuges and survey the countryside one more time, I learn much.

The refuges are well-managed. The Sacramento and Colusa Refuges are federal.  Gray Lodge is a state of CA refuge.

A stop at the elaborate Visitor Center at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge is a must. This is the best information source, with books, maps, rangers and volunteers on duty, and taxidermied specimens of the avian species on display.

Gray Lodge, by contrast, has a charming, small, home-made display of mounted birds and mammals that will inform you visually.

The public viewing deck at the entrance to the Colusa refuge is a dependable place to see the birds. You can get out of your car at this viewing deck. There may be thousands of birds in the wetlands in front of you. In the dry season, before flooding, “grit” is deposited on this field. The birds appreciate this fine gravel to help them digest food. They become aware of the grit deposit and share the news with friends.

Along the way you may meet some confirmed fans of wildlife viewing. On this trip, at the Colusa viewing deck, we happened upon the talented nature photographer, Patrick Strock. Patrick was spending 50 days in the field gathering new images. Flickr or Google him to see his captures.

Willows is the major franchise lodging/dining service provider in this area. We stayed at the dependable Holiday Inn. We ate, again for me, at the local Casa Ramos Mexican restaurant, and the experience was good.

But maybe next time I will stay in the quiet town of Colusa at an Airbnb. Colusa has a charming downtown, architecture from an earlier era, and many modest and grand Victorian homes. Colusa indicates that life, based on agricultural wealth, has flourished here for some time. The place has small-town spark. There is no Starbucks, but there is a local parallel called Caffeinated.

California’s Agricultural Wealth

The overwhelming experience on this trip is the importance of California agriculture. Migratory waterfowl depend on cooperative agricultural practices for their survival.

Rice is the big crop around the refuges. This comes as a surprise to many travelers, who are not aware that California is a major producer and exporter of rice.

In winter, the rice fields can be flooded for the benefit of the birds and the rice growers. The birds eat the dropped rice and the chaff vegetation. They also fertilize the fields.

The extent of the rich soils on flat landscapes surprises many visitors. The fields can be carefully graded for efficient flood irrigation.

The second major crop is nuts, such as almonds and walnuts. When you drive past a huge facility, such as Duncan Hill Hulling & Shelling, you begin to get a sense of this vast industry.

California now ranks as the 5th largest economy in the world (having surpassed Great Britain). Agriculture contributes to this wealth. You experience this agricultural abundance on a visit to the three great refuges.

Conclusion: You and The Birds

Hopefully, you can experience some time these three great refuges—Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, Colusa National Wildlife Refuge, and Gray Lodge Wildlife Area—without the stress of any wildfires raging to the east.

Hopefully, also, the million migratory geese and ducks in the refuges will continue to show their survival skills, requiring that they inhale smoke in some years.

If You Go:

Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge offers a Visitor Center presenting the entire regional wildlife story. See https://www.fws.gov/refuge/sacramento. Be sure to stop at this refuge.

Check out the details for Colusa National Wildlife Refuge at

Gray Lodge Wildlife Area information is at https://www.wildlife.ca.gov/Lands/Places-to-Visit/Gray-Lodge-WA.

California Watchable Wildlife is a prominent conservation organization for fans of all types of wildlife. See http://www.cawatchablewildlife.org/ and look at these three refuges among the many Viewing Sites in California described.