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San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary

Strategic Plan

Sea & Sage Audubon
  In Celebration of TEN Years at the SJWS
    updated Mar. 1, 2001

part 4: Duck Days of December
by Trude Hurd

As fall fades into winter, the freshwater ponds at the San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary swell with bird life underneath the overcast skies.  I call this season "the duck days of December", an adaptation from the phrase dog days of summer.  Ducks slowly trickle in from their northern breeding grounds and by December, visitors to the wildlife sanctuary can count ten or more species of geese and ducks.  This is much higher than the two or three we get in summer.

Whereas in summer we look out over the ponds and search hard to find a single duck, now we have an abundance of ducks to watch.  There's the plain Gadwall, the tiny Green-winged Teal, the dashing Bufflehead that spends more time underwater than above, and the bright Cinnamon Teal ("focus your binoculars on its eye and tell me what color it is").  Some years we get flocks of Ring-necked Ducks, Lesser Scaups and Redheads that prefer the center of the pond near the brushy islands.

My favorite duck is the elegant Pintail.  Even the female is easily identified by a long tail and delicate beak.  I love the Pintail's shape and color, how it dabbles, and its powerful lift off flight from the water.  This is the one wild duck I have eaten and yes, it was delicious! Fortunately, my college friends from Humboldt did not tell me before dinner which duck it was; I might have lost heart and not eaten that meal.

The resident Ruddy Duck is a familiar presence in the wildlife sanctuary's deep ponds.  Beginners who learn the male Ruddy as a reddish duck with a light blue beak are disappointed by its colors in December.  Drab brown all over, males still retain the white cheek patch. Their compact body, large bill, and stiff tail feathers easily distinguish them from their pond mates, the grebes.  During school tours, Audubon naturalists ask the students to count how long a Ruddy stays underwater; we frequently count past thirty!

Sometimes one of the sanctuary ponds is overtaken with Northern Shovelers.  Usually seen in flocks, these huge, heavy-set ducks might loaf on the mudflat, their bright white chests easily seen from a distance.  "What's that white bird?" school children ask, and I show them a picture but carefully obscure the head and sides in the photo with my hands.  Male shovelers seem to outnumber the females, and even begin forming their pair bonds in winter.Northern Shovelers swim slowly, using their large flat bills close to the water's surface to strain aquatic seeds and crustaceans.  Sometimes they paddle close together in circles, all going in the same direction, as if they are caught in the water draining out of a bathtub.  I have seen them in the barest inch of water, swinging their big bills back and forth through the muddy water, and I wondered why the comb-like edges of their bills don't get clogged.

One of the most impressive waterfowl of the marsh is the Canada Goose.  Its large size and distinctive honking ensure it will be noticed.  Historically, Canada Geese use the freshwater ponds as a safe sleeping area at night.  At dawn, they noisily fly out to nearby agricultural fields to feed during the day, then return here at dusk.  The sound of their calls and their wings flapping signify wildness,and help create a connection to nature that is much needed in our heavily populated county.

Would you like to help us count ducks in a row?  Then sign-up to help with our annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count!  Census results across the country help researchers determine population trends and which birds are in trouble.  Take your bird-watching up a level while giving something back to the birds; they deserve it!  I will be there; I hope you will, too.   Contact Curtis Johnson at for details.

 As we CELEBRATE OUR TENTH YEAR AT THE SJWS, here are the ten most abundant birds on December 7, 2000, as counted by the SJWS Bird Census Group:
Northern Shoveler (450)
Long-billed Dowitcher  (225)
American Coot  (170)
Black-necked Stilt  (170)
Green-winged Teal  (145)
Common Yellowthroat  (110)
White-crowned Sparrow  (110)
Song Sparrow  (106)
White Pelican, Double-crested Cormorant, White-throated Swift, Cedar Waxwing  (100)
Red-winged Blackbird

Sea & Sage Audubon Society
PO Box 5447 • Irvine, CA 92616 • 949-261-7963