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Help TNC by eBirding in California’s Central Valley

Least Sandpiper. One of many species of shorebirds wintering in the Central Valley. Photograph by Brian Sullivan.
Least Sandpiper. One of many species of shorebirds wintering in the Central Valley. Photograph by Brian Sullivan.

BirdReturns – a pilot shorebird habitat enhancement program of The Nature Conservancy and the California Rice Commission

The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and the California Rice Commission are working with rice farmers to provide habitat for migrating and wintering shorebirds in the Sacramento Valley in February and March 2014. This pilot program, called ‘BirdReturns’ provides farmers with incentives for maintaining flooded fields with 2”-4” of water for shorebirds. Over 40 rice farms are participating and providing nearly 10,000 acres of habitat for shorebirds. We are asking eBirders to help by providing shorebird checklists from publicly-accessible areas in the Sacramento Valley during and after this time period. eBird data from the surrounding areas can help us understand and improve the impact of habitat enhancement programs like BirdReturns.

Program Background

Migratory Waterbirds of the Central Valley

California’s Central Valley hosts millions of ducks, geese, swans and shorebirds each winter as a critical link in the Pacific Flyway. Their trek takes them from lands with virtually pristine conditions, down to California, where less than 5 percent of the historic wetland habitat remains. Despite habitat loss, California’s Central Valley still supports 60 percent of the ducks and geese, and 30 percent of the shorebirds on the entire Pacific Flyway. Serving as a critical wintering spot, California is the linchpin of the Pacific Flyway.

With 95% of the wetlands habitat that they rely upon now destroyed, TNC’s goal is to ensure that sufficient habitat is available in the Central Valley each winter. This goal is based on the needs of 65 bird species, more than 40 percent of which are species of concern and conservation priorities. Because only 250,000 acres of wildlife refuges and managed wetlands exist in the valley, the majority of our habitat goals must come from bird-friendly farmlands. TNC is working to create this habitat through diverse methods of engagement, including bird-compatible farming.

BirdReturns pilot program

The BirdReturns pilot features an innovative application of a proven market tool to accomplish large-scale habitat delivery on private lands. Through a bidding process, TNC selected participants based on cost and habitat quality. Selected farmers will be creating habitat conditions on their fields to support shorebirds during a critical period of migration when habitat is scarce.

TNC’s pilot program is informed by previous work demonstrating the value of bird-friendly farming to birds and rice farmers. Partners in prior efforts include the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the California Rice Commission, Audubon California, Point Blue Conservation Science and TNC.

Ricelands provide essential migratory bird habitat

While the number of birds on the flyway has sharply declined, globally significant concentrations of waterbirds endure because birds have adapted to use farmlands to supplement their limited natural habitat. Because bird-friendly farmlands are threatened by a multitude of development and land-use pressures, we are working with farmers to align their interests in a long-term agricultural future with TNC’s interest in providing wintering grounds for migratory birds.

Many rice growers are already excellent stewards of the land, providing some the most important and highest quality surrogate wetland habitat for birds. Rice production uses many practices that support bird habitat, such as winter-flooding for decomposition. With some additional effort, the value of ricelands for migratory birds can be enhanced. TNC hopes to help incentivize these activities.

Scientific analysis shows where, when, and what habitat is needed

Shorebirds typically depend on shallower water than waterfowl and other waterbirds, between 2 and 4 inches in depth, relying on areas of open, flooded and relatively unvegetated ground. Shorebirds have high annual and seasonal variability. As a group they also depend on a range of shallow water depths capable of supporting different kinds of shorebirds that vary in size and thus use different water depths for feeding on the abundant insects and other invertebrates that emerge from flooded soil. The number and types of shorebirds in a given area is influenced by proximity to existing habitat provided by wetlands, seasonally flooded agricultural areas, and wildlife refuges. With partners, TNC is developing models using information on seasonal shorebird distributions, crops and surface water availability to predict shorebird responses to habitat enhancement and to show where, when and what habitat is needed.

Piloting efforts to bring private funds to incentivize habitat in ricelands

TNC sees an opportunity to attract private funds to further incentivize habitat creation. If successful, TNC hopes to increase the funding available to incentivize bird-friendly farming. The vision is to incentivize habitat creation on farmlands through a program that balances the need to keep farming viable with the need to support the Pacific Flyway in the Central Valley.

What eBirders can do to help

In order to build up the amount of data from the region of focus, TNC is asking eBirders to bird three regions of the Sacramento Valley intensively over the next three months. In these regions, birders are asked to use the new “TNC–Waterbird Count” protocol available under the “Other protocols” option during eBird data entry. These counts are “Stationary Counts” explicitly used for The Nature Conservancy’s waterbird surveys in California’s Central Valley. These counts should be at least 5 min duration where all species are recorded and counted in an unlimited radius around the count location. Exact location selection is up to the observer, but see here for TNC regions of special focus. To add value to your data for this effort, please consider conducting another Stationary Count 1 mile from the current location in any safe cardinal direction. This “paired” count will help determine what birds are in the surrounding area, and help create a series of bird counts that are less location biased. If you do conduct a paired count, please put “Paired Count” in the checklist comments field during data entry. For more about TNC’s BirdReturns project click here.

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The Nature Conservancy

The Nature Conservancy is the world’s largest, private conservation organization. TNC’s mission is to conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends. Established in 1951, TNC has contributed significantly to public lands, including national and state parks, as well as protected productive farmlands and ranches through conservation easements across California. In addition, TNC has invested in efforts to align actions by private individuals and companies, such as farmers, fisherman and energy developers, to sustainably produce the food and fuel people depend upon in a way that benefits nature. TNC is a nonprofit, science-based organization.