It’s a miraculous journey done every year. An estimated 1.2 million snow geese are part of the annual Pacific Flyway migration, traveling thousands of miles as they head south for the fall and winter.
Fortunately, the Sacramento Valley provides just what is needed for these boisterous birds to rest and refuel. Rice fields provide more than 60 percent of the fall and winter diet for these hearty travelers, as well as the flocks of migrating ducks.
“The Sacramento Valley, I don’t think you can overstate how important it is, especially for wintering waterfowl,” remarked Mike Casazza, Research Wildlife Biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Western Ecological Research Center. “We’re in a Mediterranean climate here, so they’re not facing climatic extremes. These birds, they’re primarily coming from the northern latitudes. They come down here, to spend the winter. The environment here is just ideal. They can relax in a rice field. There’s food here for them.”
Snow Geese share local rice fields and adjacent wetlands with many other bird species, and it can be a balancing act to make sure the finite habitat can best support this diverse ecosystem.
Andrea Mott, Biological Science Technician with the U.S. Geological Survey, is among those studying geese populations, including snow geese, to see how their growing population impacts other waterfowl species in our area.
To do that, she and colleagues have placed GPS/GSM collars on about geese, which allows them to continual monitor their migration via their computers. Currently, about 100 geese are being studied. This allows researchers to better understand where they are moving around the valley and the fields they are using. They have transmitters on ducks as well, so areas of overlap can be studied and analyzed.
“Technology has come really far in the last several years,” Mott said. “It used to be that we put a transmitter on and we had to be within a mile or so of the bird to hear a beeping to understand where it is. With these, once we put them on the goose, they have solar panels so they recharge and keep the battery up. It literally just transmits its locations through cell phone towers and then sends it to my computer. Then, I can look on my computer from my desk and see where all of my geese are.”
The monitoring system provides a location of each goose every 15 minutes. The data is saved and offloads every 24-hours, showing where all of the geese have been.
This information helps researchers better track the goose migrations and much more – including how high they are flying and “accelerometer data” – showing the movement of the goose; whether it’s flying, sleeping, eating or walking.
Mott said the Geological Survey work is made possible through a collaborative effort, including the California Department of Water Resources, Ducks Unlimited, California Waterfowl, and U.C. Davis, along with many others.
The goose tracking information will be reviewed and critically analyzed before any future steps are made to make sure the Sacramento Valley best serves the entire array of migrating wildlife each fall and winter.
Mike Casazza: The Sacramento Valley, I don’t think you can overstate how important it is, especially for wintering waterfowl.
Jim Morris: Mike Casazza, Research Wildlife Biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey on the importance of rice fields for wildlife, including more than a million snow geese, an iconic and boisterous bird in our region.
Mike Casazza: We’re in a Mediterranean climate here, so they’re not facing climatic extremes. These birds they come primarily from the Northern latitudes and come down here to spend the winter. And the environment here is just ideal because they can relax in a rice field, there’s food there for them.
Jim Morris: Maintaining that habitat is important, and you’re about to find out how researchers work to keep balance in this diverse ecosystem. Welcome to Ingrained, The California Rice Podcast. I’m your host, Jim Morris. Proud to have worked with California farmers and ranchers for 30 years helping tell their stories. Winter in Sacramento Valley rice country is a great time. The harvest is done and these rice fields have a tremendous value as wildlife habitat for millions of birds that are making their annual Pacific flyway migration. I’m visiting with Andrea Mott, Biological Science Technician with the U.S. Geological Survey. Andrea, you are working to try to help maintain this healthy population. What are some of the areas that you’re working in?
Andrea Mott: I’m just looking at snow goose populations and just seeing how the healthy, or maybe a little too healthy population, may affect other waterfowl species that also winter in the Valley.
Jim Morris: It does appear that we have a very healthy snow goose population. Some of that is good, some might be challenging, but generally speaking how has that population been in recent years?
It’s kind of increasing exponentially, so every year we’re seeing more and more snow geese calling the Sacramento Valley their wintering grounds.
Jim Morris: Why is it important to track their population? I believe it has something to do with the other wildlife that depend on the rice fields and making sure there’s a good balance.
Andrea Mott: There’s a ton of overlap in habitat between snow geese, other species of geese, and then ducks and swans as well. So they all depend on the rice and the rice fields that the Valley has. There’s a ton of overlap, so we’re just monitoring to see if too many geese may end up being detrimental for waterfowl populations, ducks specifically.
Jim Morris: How do you do that? How are you able to track geese?
Andrea Mott: We put out GPS/GSM collars on these geese and we can monitor them from our computers. So, I can essentially see where they’re moving around the Valley, what fields they’re using, and then we also have a bunch of ducks transmittered, so we can see where major areas of overlap are and go from there.
Jim Morris: How do you get the transmitters on the geese?
Andrea Mott: We have to trap them. We use rocket nets where we set them up in an area where a bunch of geese are hanging out and we essentially just shoot these nets over a flock of geese, and it just traps them. We go pick them up really quick, and put them in crates, band them, and throw a collar on them.
Jim Morris: How many geese are you tracking at any given time?
Andrea Mott: We have about a hundred active right now. They’re not all in California. Some of them went to the Central Flyway, which is kind of the mid-continent, like the Dakotas, Kansas, Nebraska, and that area. It’s a collar that goes on the neck of the goose. So yeah, technology has come really far in the last several years. It used to be that we put a transmitter on and we’d have to be within a mile or so of this bird to hear a beeping, to understand where it is. Where these, we can put them on the goose. They have solar panels, so they recharge and keep the battery up. It literally just transmits its locations through cell phone towers and then sends it to my computer, and I can just look on my computer from my desk and see where all my geese are.
Jim Morris: How often can you track the birds, and why is it valuable to know where they are?
Andrea Mott: We have the collars set to take a point, or like a GPS a spot, every 15 minutes. Then it saves up that data and then offloads it every 24 hours. So, I get a day’s worth of data every 24 hours on where all of the geese have been. It’s just really important to see what they’re doing, where they’re going. Like, we’ve been able to look at crazy migrations that they’ve been doing like flyway switching. You know, sometimes they’ll stay in California one winter and decide they want to go to Nebraska another winter. We can see all of this stuff from these collars.
Jim Morris: I’m picking California for my winter as opposed to Nebraska, but that’s just me. If you have your laptop open, and what is on the screen that we’re looking at?
Andrea Mott: This is the website that all of the GPS points get uploaded to. So, here we’re looking at a snow goose that was collared up on the North Slope of Alaska. It is a male, and he’s back here in the Valley. We can see here, this yellow line is just kind of where he’s been in the last couple days. So yeah, he’s in a rice field around here, currently.
Jim Morris: Tell me a little bit about some of the travels he’s made, if you don’t mind.
Andrea Mott: Yeah. He’s just kind of bopping around the Valley. You know, I’d have to look at it a little closer, but most geese spend time in the rice eating and then spend time on refuge areas to sleep, and loaf, and that kind of thing.
Jim Morris: So some of that is predictable. Like you say, they come here, they need to rest and refuel, but it is interesting that within that group I imagine there can be some variables. So, one of the reasons why it’s important to track it through the computer. Correct?
Andrea Mott: Sometimes a goose will just get a wild hare and just go fly off into some weird spot, and that’s a cool thing to see. And we get geese that end up in places that we didn’t expect them to be. Like I have one of our snow geese is in Mexico right now.
Jim Morris: Besides your ability to track their journey, do the collars help in any other way? Do you receive any other data through them?
Andrea Mott: They don’t just give us GPS points. They also can give us elevation data, like how high they’re flying. They can tell us temperature, outside temperature, and then we have accelerometer data, which I mean I know doesn’t mean a lot to many people. But essentially, it’s the movement of the goose. So, a lot of times we can see, based on this graph, if it’s flying, sleeping, eating, walking. We can see what it’s doing based on the data that these collars can take.
Jim Morris: A lot of the conservation work I see in the Sacramento Valley, there are partnerships that are important to get successful results. Is that the same case for the work that you do with the USGS?
Andrea Mott: Absolutely. This is a major project. Lots of collaboration from Department of Water Resources, Ducks Unlimited, California Waterfowl Association, so it’s a ton of people that are helping. It’s not just USGS.
Jim Morris: Have you traveled and done work like this elsewhere?
Andrea Mott: I was really lucky and I got to go to Alaska in summer 2019. It was their molting grounds. So for about a four-week period snow geese and all geese can’t fly because they molt all of their flight feathers. So we just corral them into a catch pen, and band them, and I was able to put collars on them up there in Alaska.
Jim Morris: I’m glad you went in the summer. I’m reasonably well-traveled, but I’ve never been to Alaska, but I’m fascinated by it. So, where in Alaska were you, how long did you stay, and what are some of your observations about that area?
Andrea Mott: I went all the way up to the North Slope, which is the furthest north part of Alaska. There’s a ton of snow goose colonies up there. I was up there for about a week or so.
Jim Morris: I’d love to know a little more about the landscape. It sounds really interesting.
Andrea Mott: It’s tundra, so it’s not like the mountainous landscape that a lot of people picture Alaska. It’s pretty flat, a lot of little seasonal ponds and stuff, which is super important to all of the birds that nest up there. But yeah, I essentially flew into the biggest major town and then we took a helicopter out to a river delta where we camped for about a week. Yeah, we had to have polar bear fences up just in case a polar bear came into camp, which it didn’t thankfully.
Jim Morris: Oh, yeah.
Andrea Mott: But yeah, it was pretty crazy.
Jim Morris: Any interesting things that you saw or ate while you were there? I mean did you have a caribou burger or anything?
Andrea Mott: No. No caribou burgers. We essentially just had to bring some food out with us. But everything was just very different than everything down here. I saw so many birds on their breeding grounds that I’ve never seen. Like I’ve never seen baby specks because they’re always adult-size down here. I did see some polar bears when I was up there, so that was really cool. From a very far safe distance, thankfully.
Jim Morris: Well, that’s good.
Andrea Mott: Yeah. Yeah. So yeah, it was really, really cool.
Jim Morris: You say specks, those are a specklebelly or Pacific greater white-fronted geese. Do I have their title correctly?
Andrea Mott: Yeah. Yeah, that’s right.
Jim Morris: Tell me a little bit about some of the observations that you’ve seen since you’ve started this work, and what are some of the things also that you’ve observed and learned when you’ve been in and around the rice fields?
Andrea Mott: I’ve just noticed how much these geese actually use the rice. I am not from this area, so when I got here for the first winter I was like, “Wow. This is the most waterfowl in one area I’ve ever seen in my life. This is amazing.” And people are like, “Yeah. It’s because there’s all the rice agriculture here, and it really helps support such a large population.”
When you’re in the field and you’re looking over the data, it’s pretty cool to have that visual. Right? I mean it’s extremely foggy today, but normally seeing thousands of geese in a field, I find it pretty uplifting.
Andrea Mott: Oh yeah, for sure. I love just going out and doing field work because I get to look at all the geese and the ducks that are around and just the sheer numbers that are here.
Jim Morris: Tell me about the journey that they make, because you’ve been on different ends of the Pacific Flyway Migration, and to think about that they do it every year is unbelievable to me. Tell me about that journey.
Andrea Mott: It’s absolutely nuts how far these geese migrate every year, like thousands of miles. They’re down here, they go up to Alaska, remote parts of Canada, Russia even. And, with these collars, we’re able to actually see these migration pathways and kind of see where they’re going, if they’re taking weird different routes, or the same kind of route. So we’ve been able to really see interesting detail on their migration, their nesting grounds, and their wintering grounds.
Jim Morris: One of the things that I’ve learned with the U.S. Geological Survey, I thought years ago that it was simply just geologic-type subjects. And, in visiting with some of your colleagues on our giant gartersnake podcast, Episode 11 if you want to check that out it’s really cool, Anna Jordan and Allie Essert, Giants in the Rice Fields. Did you work on the snake project for a while too, and what were your experiences there?
Andrea Mott: Yeah. It was cool to just get outside of the bird world for a minute, so it was a cool experience. Snakes don’t scare me-
Jim Morris: Oh good.
Andrea Mott: … so that was fine. But yeah, it was neat to see the other species that really use the rice outside of the winter season.
Jim Morris: What do your friends and family think as you’re tracking geese with radio collars, and handling snakes, and everything? Are they surprised?
Andrea Mott: No. I mean my parents think this is the coolest thing they’ve ever heard. On a regular basis they tell me they can’t believe that this is my job and it’s super exciting. But yeah, a lot of my friends are like, “What is it you do again? Chasing geese around the Valley?” Like yeah, that is what I’m doing.
Jim Morris: I love that sound. It takes a while for all this data to be gathered and then decisions to be made to make sure the populations are all sound, so where are you in the process?
Andrea Mott: We spent the first couple years collecting the data, trapping the geese, and now we’re in the data analysis phase, where we’re starting to look at the big-picture questions and figure out what we want to ask with this data.
Jim Morris: How does it make you feel, knowing that you’re playing a role in hopefully having healthy populations of wildlife in rice country for a long time to come?
Andrea Mott: It’s very important to maintain these bird populations from a wildlife aspect, but also conservation hunting, and all of that. I want to be part of what preserves these animals for years to come. I love when a huge, huge flock gets up and starts swirling around, and the sun hits them just right, and just the noise, the sheer noise of how many are there. It’s just a really cool thing that I hadn’t really seen before in my life.
Jim Morris: That will wrap up this episode. Thank you to Mike Casazza and Andrea Mott with the U.S. Geological Survey for their time and insight. You can learn more about their work and listen to past episodes at podcast.calrice.org. You can also subscribe, and we appreciate your feedback. Thanks for listening.