Swan power: Officials in Marysville, Yuba City hope elegant waterfowl draw tourists

Each fall for millenia, tundra swans have arrived by the thousands to spend winters on Sacramento Valley wetlands and rice fields. They travel thousands of miles along the Pacific Flyway from their summer breeding grounds in the Alaskan and Canadian Arctic.

Now, the cities of Marysville and Yuba City are laying ambitious plans to honor the majestic snow-white bird with an annual festival.

On Nov. 9 and 10, the two cities straddling the Feather River will join forces to launch the California Swan Festival. One goal is to celebrate these iconic waterfowl, which have held a place for centuries in the human imagination as a symbol of beauty, love and commitment.

But leaders in the two cities also hope the festival will put them on the map with tourists.

“Obviously, the Yuba-Sutter region is probably not thought of in many ways as a tourism destination,” said Darin Gale, Yuba City’s economic development manager. “However, we do have a lot of assets that people do come and travel for. One of the key ones is waterfowl.”

The Sacramento Valley is already known as a top destination for winter bird-watchers. But festival supporters believe that putting the noble swan out front on the marquee will help make Yuba City and Marysville a hub for wildlife viewing.

The region surrounding the two cities is a spectacular setting to view swans, thanks to the scenic backdrop of the Sutter Buttes. In winter, vast numbers of swans can be seen wheeling over wetlands and flooded rice fields that surround the tiny mountain range, forming jaw-dropping clouds of flapping white wings.

“Swans have the draw of getting people’s attention, to see something they don’t typically see close to home,” said Bruce Forman, interpretive services supervisor at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. “The swans are kind of the poster child, but this festival is about all kinds of wildlife in the region there.”

Forman first approached area leaders seven years ago about starting the festival. The timing wasn’t right for local officials then. But a year ago, the Yuba City Council agreed to give the Yuba-Sutter Chamber of Commerce $210,000 over three years for tourism initiatives, with the swan festival as a major focus.

The chamber serves both cities and has taken the lead on organizing the festival, with help from the Audubon Society, California Waterfowl Association and Ducks Unlimited. Yuba County is donating the use of a large building to serve as the host site, dubbed “Swan Central,” at 720 Yuba St. in Marysville. The city of Marysville donated staff time to prepare the building.

“It has the potential to be a huge event,” said Kristy Santucci, the chamber’s CEO. “We’re really encompassing everything recreationally that we have to offer in this area.”

The event builds on an established interest in swans, thanks to swan tours offered in the area for several years by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. Those tours already draw hundreds of visitors to the area and typically fill fast. They begin this year on Nov. 16 and run through January.

For an inaugural event, the festival includes an impressive selection of tours and educational programs. Thirty tours are planned, from swan viewing on private farms and national wildlife refuges, to hikes in the Sutter Buttes and Sierra foothills. Visitors can also tour imposing area water facilities, including Oroville and New Bullards Bar dams.

Other unusual venues include Beale Air Force Base and the Marysville Wastewater Treatment Plant, each a special bird-watching venue of a different sort. The Swan Central festival headquarters will host informational booths, activities for children and nature presentations, from photography techniques to discussions of rare species such as ringtail cats and California’s first wild wolf in 90 years.

The event joins a growing roster of successful birding events in the Central Valley that includes Lodi’s Sandhill Crane Festival, on Nov. 1-3, and Chico’s Snow Goose Festival, on Jan. 23-26. These have proven to be a boon to their local economies during months that are typically slow.

Ken Nieland, president of the Lodi Sandhill Crane Association, said that after 17 years, the event now can be counted on to sell out hotel rooms and fill restaurants in little Lodi. Only the tours cost money – as with the swan festival – so Nieland could not offer hard attendance numbers. But he said it reliably draws “a couple thousand” people every year, mostly from the Bay Area.

The crane festival also forged a partnership with Lodi’s wine-making industry, and birding enthusiasts often add wine-tasting to their trip.

“We’ve kind of grown up together,” he said. “It’s a nice audience for all those hospitality entities and also for the wineries and antique shops. All day long people are asking ‘what’s a good place for lunch, what’s a good place for dinner’. There is definitely an economic impact.”

Gale said there is similar potential for partnership with the olive oil and rice producing farms in the Yuba City-Marysville region. These are an important part of the “Farm-to-Fork” local food movement that the city of Sacramento has championed, he said.

“The swans absolutely rely on the farms, and it’s a key part of the ecosystem,” he said. “I hope people realize it’s a key part of that circle of life that’s right here in the Sacramento region.”