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Mid-Valley rice fields and birds coexist
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Black-necked stilts peer out from bright blades of green, hunkering low to avoid detection, and a American bittern tilts its beak skyward, showing off brown camouflaged stripes on its sides.
Fluffy baby killdeer scurry near the roadsides as their nearby mothers flap their wings to create a diversion. It's the chicks that attract the most excitement from passersby.
"Aww, so precious," cooed Monica Iglecia, a shorebird conservation biologist with Audubon California. "That's exciting when you see chicks because you know the nesting efforts are working." Out for a drive in rice fields near Williams on Wednesday, Iglecia, waterbird ecologist Khara Strum with PRBO Conservation Science and Colusa rice grower Don Bransford talk about the effectiveness of projects to enhance habitat and shorebird populations along the Pacific Flyway — practices they hope will catch on.
"It's taking time and its taking a few bold pioneering farmers to work with us," Iglecia said. "To see the excitement and interest from farmers is what we are hoping for."
After more than a year of discussions about what would and would not work in the fields, Bransford was among a group of farmers who started a pilot project for improvements.
Some, such as flattening levees and intential winter flooding were possible and minimally impactful, while the concept of prolonging flooding into late spring was impossible because the fields need to dry for planting preparation.
"We were trying to impart knowledge about what the birds need and get information from the farmers on what the rice needs," Strum said.
The project through the Natural Resources Conservation Service program and other conservation groups has since expanded. More than 230 farmers from Yuba-Sutter, Colusa, Glenn, Sacramento and Yolo counties are enrolled in the Waterbird Habitat Enhancement Program, and about $4 million in incentives has been awarded to growers to manage their properties in ways that will benefit birds.
Bransford has flattened levees to create flat nesting surfaces and built 800-square-foot dirt islands in the center of fields for nesting habitat. Water depths vary to benefit the spectrum of short- to tall-legged birds and instead of killing or cutting grass and weeds that border each field, he lets the vegetation grow wild and tall for habitat.
When asked why, Bransford's answer is simple: "I like what I see."
A rice farmer for more than three decades, he drives with binoculars and a camera on his console, and bird identification books in the door pocket. His eyes are frequently scanning for spottings, whether the bald eagle he caught glimpse of last year or a rare all-white leucistic burrowing owl that he first mistook for a golfball.
"I love birds, so I'll do anything to help that population. Rice can coexist with birds and wildlife" he said. "It doesn't hurt my farming operations, and if it helps the habitat, all the better."
While one of the initial participants, Bransford did not receive any of the incentives.
Through the cost-share program, Natural Resources Conservation pays part of the expense of improvements and the farmer funds the rest.
Some farmers have already begun implementing practices while others will start by staggering the drying of fields this winter.
The relationship is mutually beneficial.
The 500,000 acres of rice fields in the Sacramento Valley serve as surrogate wetlands that have otherwise disappeared from California, and in exchange, the birds aid in decomposition of rice straw.
During the course of a year, more than 300,000 shorebirds pass through, whether on short migrations from the Bay Area or longer hauls to Alaska.
"This is a win-win, for rice growers, birds, everyone," Strum said.
"And it's fun," Bransford added.