Professor Leads Annual Wild Goose Chase—Literally
The phrase “wild goose chase” is widely known to mean a “chase that is futile” or “lost cause,” which makes sense for those who have ever encountered a wild goose and know that they aren’t the most willing to make new friends.
However, living in part of the Pacific Flyway bird migration path, which is one of the greatest migratory pathways in the world, residents in Chico and the surrounding areas get the opportunity to track down thousands of wild snow geese every year during an annual winter namesake festival called—you guessed it—the Snow Goose Festival.
With a multitude of events and activities, including birding field trips and workshops, the festival strives to reveal the magnificent spectacle of surrounding nature and to increase public awareness, understanding, appreciation, and conservation of the incredible wildlife and related habitats of the Northern Sacramento Valley.
In the middle of it all, you can often find Jay Bogiatto. The biology professor and long-time serious birder has led a rigorous, all-day birding field trip 17 years out of the festival’s current 18-year run, and expects this year’s trip to be packed with sightings of a wide variety of waterfowl, raptors, and many other wetland species—and of course snow geese. The number of geese sightings could be upwards of 50,000–60,000 just in that one day, which Bogiatto (MS, Biology, ’86) said isn’t actually as impressive as it sounds.
“Tens of thousands is not at all uncommon,” he said. “It seems like a lot until you see a whole rice field [of geese] lift up and fly around. Then you realize the potential magnitude.”
Bogiatto’s custom-designed, rain-or-shine outing, “Valley Wetlands and Wintering Waterbirds—for the Serious Birder,” includes all of his favorite birding spots and emphasizes how humans are affecting the different kinds of birds and wetland habitats in the Central Valley. However, it is not meant for the casual birdwatcher or those wanting an easy educational experience. Bogiatto emphasizes the word “serious,” referring to intermediate and advanced birders who know what to expect.
“[It’s] for people who know what birds they are seeing,” he said. “The idea is that the group is familiar with the rigors of birding. We’re not really spending an inordinate amount of time teaching people how to identify birds—we’re logging them in.”
While Bogiatto will be keeping an eye out for the Eurasian wigeon, a bird he’s been researching and shows up during the winter months, he’s more interested in the actual number of birds the group can find.
“Our goal is always to see a hundred different species of birds,” he said. “Usually we make it.”
Bogiatto’s trip begins on the viewing platform at Llano Seco Wildlife Refuge, then participants will work their way down to the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, Thermalito Afterbay, and the Feather River before driving back on Cottonwood Road—which is a drive through “really cool” grassland habitats that tend to have large concentrations of birds of prey in winter, he said.
During the trip, Bogiatto tries to focus on waterfowl, like snow geese and sandhill cranes, since they are likely to be in the area, but the truth is that you never know what could randomly fly into town. And perhaps those looking for “life birds,” a bird that one has yet to see, will finally get their chance to log it this year.
“A rare bird could show up,” Bogiatto said about the possibilities that could arise at any time. “You got all these birders on these field trips, and they could just pick out something that’s really weird, and the next thing you know, you got people flying out to see it.”
Even though birding beginners, such as curious-but-inexperienced Chico State students, may not get the most out of Bogiatto’s field trip until they’ve logged a considerable amount of birds and hours, he makes sure to bring his knowledge and vernacular of the sport into the classroom because he knows it will greatly aid those who wish to pursue bird-related careers such as ornithology, which is one of the courses he teaches along with the subjects of mammalogy, advanced zoology, and waterfowl biology.
“You have to be familiar with optics and the identification of birds,” Bogiatto said. “You can’t expect to get a job working with birds unless you can identify birds. It’s the most important thing that [agencies] are looking for. And you have to be able to collect and analyze data dealing with birds scientifically.”
Bogiatto encourages those who are at all interested in the sport to just go for it because you never know where it may lead you, he said. As he likes to note, not all wild goose chases are futile endeavors.
For those wanting to explore the world of birding for the first time, Bogiatto shares some beginner tips:
- Buy decent binoculars and scopes
- Ask a lot of questions
- Wear the right clothes for the situation
- Hang out with birders
- Be competitive
- Keep bird lists
- Have a great time!
The 18th Annual Snow Goose Festival, which Bogiatto calls “the best snow goose festival in the Western US,” started Wednesday and runs from January 25–29. Bogiatto’s field trip takes place on Saturday, January 28, beginning at 6:30 a.m. and ending at 4:30 p.m., just before the evening’s banquet.