Birdwatch News Archive
This incubating American Avocet in dunes at Morro Bay, California, may soon be spoilt for choice for nesting sites in the state, if the rice farmers' incentive works as hoped. Photo: Kevin Cole (commons.wikimedia.org).
Rice farmers boost waders
Posted on: 04 Jul 2012
A new incentive scheme in California could see rice farmers replacing much of the wetland waterbird habitat that has been drained over the last few decades.
The hundreds of vast, flooded rice paddies that cover miles of interior northern California may seem like an unlikely haven for waders, but changes occurring in the state's 'rice country' may help improve the outlook for dozens of species in decline in recent decades.
So far, more than 165 rice farmers have signed up for an incentive program that will build a system of islands and other habitat improvements in their paddies, and provide birds like the avocet a place to rest, feed and breed throughout the year. The incentive, funded by $2 million from the US Natural Resources Conservation Service, helps defray the costs of building the islands or of equipment needed to make levees and other infrastructure more amenable as habitat.
California's rice farms lie in a region where about 95 per cent of the native wetlands that once provided habitat for migratory and water birds have disappeared. The state's rice paddies, which produce much of the sushi rice consumed in the United States, take up more than a half million acres in the Sacramento Valley while protected wetlands cover a little more than 77,000 acres.
Even with shrinking wetlands, the valley that stretches for about 160 miles from the state capital of Sacramento north to Redding is a part-time home to Cinnamon Teal, dowitchers, Dunlin, Black-necked Stilts and dozens of other migratory waterbirds. The birds face many perils, not least the effects of climate change, which is expected to reduce the Sierra Nevada snowpack and the amount of water feeding the remaining wetlands, said Khara Strum, a water bird ecologist with PRBO Conservation Science.
As natural bird habitat dwindles, California's Sacramento Valley falls under the Pacific Flyway, a major route for migratory birds that stretches from Alaska to Patagonia. Biologists see a significant opportunity in adding to and improving habitat on the only other wetlands that proliferate there: rice farms.
As the rust-orange head of an American Avocet darts back and forth watching for predators, its black-and-white body plops on top of a nest that lies on an earth levee in a California rice paddy. "It's a full clutch of four eggs," said Monica Iglecia, a shorebird biologist with Audubon California, looking through her binoculars. "This is why we do this work. It's exciting to see."
Beyond building islands and other new habitat, the farmers are changing the way they manage the water they use to flood the paddies. In late winter, many farmers drain the fields to begin the growing cycle anew, resulting in the sudden disappearance each year of thousands of acres of wetland habitat for the birds. Farmers have agreed to begin gradually draining their fields, leaving some partially flooded for birds that like to feed and rest in shallow, muddy areas, and keeping water in the fields longer for different species that like different water heights. To get the incentive funds, the farmers apply to the conservation service, which sends a representative out for a field visit to discuss the project and rank the application. Generally, the incentive program covers about half the costs the farmer will incur.
As with many such undertakings, it remains to be seen whether the plan will work, and Audubon's Iglecia said it is still too early to tell if the birds will take a liking to the islands. But there are promising signs, she said, like the avocet and other bird nests that have been cropping up on the rice paddy levees.
It will take at least two years of gathering data for scientists to ascertain whether they are on to something, but they are grateful to the farmers for allowing the experiment, which covers a fraction of the state's rice paddies, to occur at all.
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