Experience Bird Watching On The Pacific Flyway

Duck Duck Goose…

If you’ve traveled between Highway 20 in Grass Valley and Highway 70 in Oroville by way of the Woodruff/Matthews Road exit in winter, you may have noticed thousands of waterfowl hanging out in the rice paddies. Just like the people nicknamed “snowbirds” for emigrating down to their second homes in Arizona or Florida for the winter months, the real snowbirds use their wings to ride the Pacific Flyway, or the “highway in the sky,” to spend the cold season in Northern California. 

This annual migration caught the attention of Gray Lodge Wildlife Area volunteer Jennifer Patten, who guides bird tours on the 9,100-acre property in Gridley. After attending birding events in other parts of the United States, Patten realized there was something worth celebrating right here in Northern California. 

“The Pacific Flyway is an ancient migration path that birds have done for thousands of years. We started to have  the idea of sharing the story of how they came here, and it’s a story of our agriculture,” Patten says about launching the Snow Goose Festival, now going into its 21st year. From October through March, thousands of ducks, geese, cranes and swans migrate down to this area, then go back to their breeding grounds in Alaska in the spring. The birds love this area because in the fall and winter, local farmers harvest the rice fields and then flood the plains, leaving behind leftover grain and invertebrates for birds to munch on until the weather warms up. The farmers enjoy having the birds there because in return, they fertilize the fields with their discarded meals. 

Between 140 and 160 species migrate to the Sacramento Valley in the winter, including tundra swans (big white birds with black beaks), the Cinnamon Teal (duck) and the American wigeon. 

“In winter, they all will join forces and live together in harmony. They’re all pretty social; the ducks often mix with each other. But it all changes in the spring when it gets closer to mating season and the males get more aggressive. There are a lot of different scenarios between species and their breeding habits,” Patten says. 

Upwards of 20,000 birds travel together in gigantic flocks, which is generally rare to see as 1.5 million birds take over the skies and ponds during the winter in Northern California. It’s not just waterfowl that successfully migrate year after year, either; hummingbirds also travel thousands of miles per year to find warmer weather. 

“Birds are incredibly resilient because they have to survive in the elements,” says Patten. 

It’s also a time when the raptors are active in Northern California as well to prey on the ducks. 

“There are hundreds of bald eagles in this area,” Patten says, along with a solid number of rough-legged hawks. 

However, while the birds are quite active in the winter months, observing them during the Snow Goose Festival at the end of January is the best way to get the full experience. 

“I’m very proud of this festival. We’ve introduced and educated thousands of people on how to maintain a healthy habitat for the birds, and we even educate youth on the resident birds that they can see in their own backyard. There’s a pure joy of learning and seeing the birds – it opens up a whole new world,” says Patten. 

When asked about her own favorite bird, Patten says with a laugh, “I have a new favorite bird every time I go birding. Every bird is so fabulous.” She enjoys the snow geese for their white plumage, black-tipped wings and orange-pink bill. 

“Seeing them feed together, fly together in the wetlands against the mountains, it’s just striking to see,” Patten adds.


Birders and nature enthusiasts of all ages are invited to attend the 21st Snow Goose Festival of the Pacific Flyway, an action-packed event that celebrates the millions of waterfowl and thousands of raptors migrating along the Pacific Flyway that call the Northern Sacramento Valley their home during the winter. 

The festival also gives the community an opportunity to rediscover the abundant treasures the North State has to offer all year round, from food and wine to art and music.  

Attendees can choose from more than 70 field trips, exploring habitats that include rivers and wetlands, sweeping plains and grasslands, rolling foothills, sheltered canyons and mountain peaks. In addition to numerous bird-watching field trips for waterfowl, raptors and songbirds, the festival offers guided tours of a nature preserve, visits to local vineyards and scenic hikes of the Sutter Buttes in search of lofty views and resident wildlife. 

Workshops are aimed at a wide variety of interests and ability levels, including nature photography, bird carving, how to record nature sounds and how to identify backyard birds. Free nature activities and live raptors are offered for youth.

The Gathering of Wings Banquet features keynote speaker Karen Amstutz, a Yosemite park ranger, naturalist and guide. A silent auction is planned. 

An exhibit presented by the Museum of Northern California Art features artists whose subjects include wildlife and habitat along the Pacific Flyway. •

21st Snow Goose Festival of the Pacific Flyway

January 22-26 • Various locations in Chico(530) 592-9092 •

About Kayla Anderson

Kayla is a freelance writer, marketer and action sports enthusiast who grew up wake-boarding on Lake Shasta and learning to ski at Mt. Lassen. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Chico State University and loves to visit her parents in Redding.

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