Up The Road: Winter Birds

Dec 27, 2017

We look to the center this week, California’s great Central Valley, where hundreds of thousands of waterfowl, shorebirds, and even songbirds stop to rest and eat on their way south for the winter. After summer’s breeding and chick-rearing season in and near the Arctic, migrants stream south via the continent’s Pacific Flyway, most becoming Californians for at least a short while. Which is why bird events such as January’s Snow Goose Festival of the Pacific Flyway are so immensely popular. How many people get to witness this great migration, year after year, up close and personal? Not many. What a privilege to be right here, year after year.

These feathered migrants need water—lots of it, to gather and drink and bathe, safe from predators but without spreading disease—and food, too, such as leftover rice from the fall harvest. Coming down into the valley from its eastern foothills after a good rain, it’s easy to imagine the scene spreading out before you as primeval, so much water, sloshing off to every horizon. This must be how it’s always been.

It’s all so beautiful you need to pull over and stop, to drink in that watercolor view, that shining freshwater sea all but lapping at the Sutter Buttes. It all looks changeless, yet appearances can deceive. Change has been relentless. Some 95% of the valley’s heartland wildlife habitat is gone for good, historic central wetlands drained and transformed into some of the world’s deepest, most fertile farmland. Now we fight to preserve that fairly new farmland from suburban sprawl and other development, to save rare human habitat.

Change may be constant, but even change can change direction—something to think about while waiting for the birds that still come. Change can give rather than take. Change can get creative.

For example: What if we could start reversing the precipitous decline of waterfowl and shorebird populations by rapidly expanding available habitat? Providing space for migrating birds and other wildlife while also acknowledging human need for both land and water—that’s a change that requires serious creativity. When you look out into the north valley’s rice fields in winter, that’s exactly what you’re seeing, and have been seeing since Fall 2014, during the worst years of California’s most recent multi-year drought.

Writer Gustave Axelson calls it Moneyball for Shorebirds. This creative combination of citizen science, real-time crowd-sourced data, and cost-effective conservation is officially known as Project BirdReturns, a collaboration among The Nature Conservancy, the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology, NASA, and countless amateur birders willing to bird longer and harder to give our feathered friends a wing up. Central is Ebird, a free smart phone and tablet app that allows birders to instantly upload their bird observations to a central database. —including unusual sightings, or birds spotted in places or at times that aren’t typical. That data is checked against NASA satellite maps of surface water availability, to see where more water will be needed.

This abundance of real-time “big data,” telling us where various species of birds are and when, allows conservationists to know exactly what habitat they’ll need—and for exactly how long. (Ducks are largely gone by the end of January, but shorebird migrations don’t peak until February and March.) As for acquiring that essential habitat: Why not encourage The Nature Conservancy, Ducks Unlimited, and other groups to lease fallow farm land and water directly from farmers, for only as long as both are needed, during winter migration? And in the process provide farmers with an off-season project and a little extra income? That’s exactly what Project BirdReturns has done—allowing farmers to bid on providing habitat conservation services for birds.

Conservationists have already bought critical habitat and conservation easements, permanent “anchor sites” to give wildlife a toehold in their historic habitats. Very expensive. Turns out leasing the rest of the needed land attracts up to ten times more birds yet gets the job done at less than 1% of the cost of buying. And farmers are happy too.

Moneyball indeed.