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California Sketches: Winter birds are a magical partnership of wings and water

Published: Sunday, Feb. 3, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1E
Last Modified: Saturday, Jun. 14, 2014 - 7:45 pm

From the dark a startled crane rises, a specter with wings spread wide, glowing in a near-full moon rising. He is my reward for a patient afternoon watching and listening to birds.

Millions of birds – more than 200 species – traveling the Pacific Flyway from the Arctic Circle to Mexico, land in the Central Valley during winter. Wetlands restoration has reinvigorated this magnificent phenomenon after much of the birds' habitat was lost to urban development and agricultural practices.

On Staten Island in the Delta, a pair of sandhill cranes hunts, delicately picking their way through the remains of a recent harvest. Other fields are flooded, where thousands of birds float, resting. Pudgy coots feed on the shore, and in periodic panic, flee upon the water with a sound like a small tsunami. I vow to stay past dark. Out of the setting sun, vast formations of geese pass. Honking fills the air to join cries, coos, trills, quacking and the splashing of countless restless wings. With night, all that remains discernible is their cacophony.

On the Cosumnes River, at a managed wetlands preserve in Galt, a canoe glides silently beneath herons roosting stoically in the trees. This wild river is perfectly still. In nearby fields, silence is broken by the calls of sandhill cranes. I can't see them, but their sound is as distinctive as their notable flapping and leaping mating rituals.

North of Marysville, with the Sutter Buttes as backdrop, tundra swans cover a farmer's flooded rice fields, their white bodies glistening in the sun. When swans sleep, 10 percent stand guard. The sleepy ones coil into clever balls against the chilly morning.

The Valley has witnessed a return in bird populations since rice farmers responded to 1991 legislation to improve air quality. Since rice has been grown in the Valley, fields were burned after harvest, destroying bird habitat and filling the air with smoke. Flooding the fields is an effective alternative. The relationship among birds, farmers and wetlands managers provides an inspiring example that collaborative resource management can benefit polarized parties.

Near Elverta, farmer Jack DeWit and I stroll leisurely along narrow levees. It's early afternoon, and hunting has scared most of the fowl into other fields. He's a first-generation rice farmer, and like others, he burned his fields after harvest. "It cost pennies an acre and the cost of a match," he said. He's a businessman and keeps an eye on the bottom line. Now, with chopping, discing, flooding, plus the cost of water, fuel and electricity, it's $90 per acre. He wasn't complaining.

The farmer replaces the element of fire with that of water. Water suppresses weeds and diseases that would affect next year's crop. Restored wetlands and leftover rice attract millions of birds. They chew, pulverize and enhance decomposition of stubborn stubble in the heavy clay soil. They eat bugs. They rest, feed and breed, and next season they'll come back. It's a magical partnership.

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