The Science of Sustainability

During Drought, Pop-Up Wetlands Give Birds a Break

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Migratory birds stop at flooded rice fields at the Cosumnes River Preserve. (Photo: Nancy Crowley/The Nature Conservancy)

Migratory birds stop at flooded rice fields at the Cosumnes River Preserve in the Central Valley. (Photo: Nancy Crowley/The Nature Conservancy)

California’s severe drought is taking a toll on wildlife around the state. Millions of birds migrate through this time of year, but the waterways and wetlands they rely on are largely dry.

In the Sacramento Valley, one environmental group is working with farmers and citizen scientists to provide some help by creating temporary “pop-up” wetlands.

Winter is always a busy bird season at Douglas Thomas’s rice farm in Olivehurst, California, about 40 miles north of Sacramento.

“Those fields behind there will fill with geese,” he says. “It’s just so loud. You can’t sleep at night. The first couple nights are pretty rough and I’m actually cussing them even though I love them.”

On a recent winter morning, Thomas watches as a young bald eagle dives at some 3,000 snow geese floating in the rice fields.

“As soon as they start getting here, this is what I sit and do,” he says “I keep my binoculars in my truck.”

The orange areas show where migratory birds are likely to be on March 17 in the Central Valley, based  on citizen science observations from eBird. The blue shows available waterways and wetlands. Scientists used a series of these maps to look for areas where wetlands are lacking. (Source: Cornell eBird, Point Blue Conservation Science, The Nature Conservancy)

The orange areas show where migratory birds are likely to be on March 17 in the Central Valley, based on citizen science data from eBird. The blue shows available water. Scientists used a series of these maps to look for areas where wetlands are lacking. (Source: Cornell eBird, Point Blue Conservation Science, The Nature Conservancy)

The birds come here because Thomas keeps his rice fields flooded in December and January. The water decomposes the rice straw leftover from last year’s harvest.

Normally, at the end of January, “we would let our water go and start trying to dry our fields out because the lake that’s in front of us has to be dry enough to drive a tractor in it and then we’ve got to seed it,” he says

But not this year. Thomas is leaving water on his fields a little longer as part of an experimental project with The Nature Conservancy, designed to provide extra habitat for the birds when they need it most.

Thomas’s farm is in the middle of the Pacific Flyway, a vast migration route that stretches from the Arctic to South America. The Central Valley is a key pit stop for millions of birds along the way.

“California is really the linchpin of the Pacific Flyway,” says Nature Conservancy scientist Mark Reynolds.

“Many of these species breed in the high Arctic and are coming down to spend the wintertime in southern latitudes.”

Some birds, like snow geese, spend the winter in California. Others only stop briefly before continuing hundreds of miles south.

“It’s like stopping on a road trip so anywhere that they can find habitat and find things to eat to put on fat for their journey, they’ll stop,” he says.

But wetlands aren’t as abundant as they once were. Ninety percent of the Central Valley’s historic wetlands have been filled in and dry years like this one make it even tougher.

"California is really the linchpin of the Pacific Flyway"

“Many of these water bird species on the flyway have had long-term declining population trends,” Reynolds says.

Reynolds wanted to know where and when the birds need wetlands, so he turned to an app called e-Bird. Birders have used it to report tens of thousands of bird sightings, creating a detailed data set.

“What it gives us that we’ve not really had before is for many, many species, we now can look week-by-week at arrival patterns in California,” Reynolds says.

In places that lack wetlands, the Nature Conservancy asked rice farmers to put up bids, pricing out how much it would cost to keep their fields flooded.

The group is paying farmers to create about 10,000 acres of these temporary wetlands in February and March. The bidding process is secret, but bids came in both above and below $45 per acre, the payments some farmers get from federal conservation programs.

Rice farmer Douglas Thomas watches thousands of snow geese take flight. (Lauren Sommer/KQED)

Rice farmer Douglas Thomas watches thousands of snow geese take flight. (Lauren Sommer/KQED)

Thomas says his cost is largely labor. “It’ll push back our planting cycle,” he says. “We can’t get into our fields earlier. So we’re putting harder, longer hours on our tractor and our crew. We’re taking a greater risk doing this.”

Thomas will keep two-to-four inches of water on his fields for four weeks. The water level is tailored for shorebirds, like long-billed dowitchers, sandpipers, and godwits.

Nature Conservancy economist Eric Hallstein says the payments help offset the farmers’ risks and are a cost-effective way to create habitat.

“The traditional model in conservation – it’s actually to permanently buy a piece of property or an easement,” Hallstein says. “It’s very expensive, prohibitively expensive. And also, we don’t want to displace farmers from that property.”

Douglas Thomas sees a more personal upside. “Northern pintail is my favorite bird,” he says. “It’s such a graceful, amazing creature. And that we’re part of that annual cycle, that’s a neat, special thing.”

By April, his fields will be dry and the birds will be on their way back north.

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Category: Biodiversity, Climate, Environment, Radio

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About the Author ()

Lauren is a radio reporter covering environment, water, and energy for KQED Science. As part of her day job, she has scaled Sierra Nevada peaks, run from charging elephant seals, and desperately tried to get her sea legs - all in pursuit of good radio. Her work has appeared on Marketplace, Living on Earth, and NPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered. You can find her on Twitter at @lesommer.