Monday, March 3, 2014

The Other California: The Wetlands of the San Joaquin Valley, Actually Wet.

It's been a miserable year, one of the worst on record. For the last year much of California, including my home in the Great Valley, has received an amount of rain more appropriate to Death Valley than to one of the most fertile agricultural regions on the planet. It's been dry and dusty, and the farms in the valley have been surviving off of storage in the irrigation reservoirs, but after three dry years in a row, the reservoirs are on empty.
A Black-necked Stilt

In a valley where farming is king and 95% of the landscape is totally devoted to agricultural development, wildlife concerns take a back seat, especially when water runs short. The valley once hosted millions and millions of migratory birds, but during the development of the farmlands, lakes and marshes were drained and plowed, and what few birds persisted got themselves driven off or shot for consuming crops when natural forage was no longer available.
No, it's not drunk, and it's not falling over. A split second later it was airborne.

It would be nice to think that wildlife refuges were established to stabilize and preserve the original environment of the valley, but in some cases the motives were less noble: some, like the Merced National Wildlife Refuge where we visited yesterday, were designed to distract the birds from nearby farmlands where they were causing crop damage. And of course many refuges were designed to make it easier to "hunt" and shoot the birds. Whatever the original motive, their form and function has evolved. As we have come to understand the intricate nature of the migratory bird ecosystem, management of the refuges has begun to promote a stable winter home for numerous species. In some cases they have become spectacularly successful: the Merced Refuge protects 60,000 geese and 20,000 Sandhill Cranes. The refuges are managed as a complex ecosystem, with protection extended to the many other birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish and invertebrates.
A Black-necked Stilt and a Killdeer forage on the refuge road.

Our previous visits to the refuges (which we pretty much discovered only this year after living around here for a quarter of a century) have been dry times. Some of the fields were flooded but so little water was available. The drought has not broken, but we've finally received some rain, and on Sunday we paid a visit during a rainstorm. The birds seemed pleased, and the noise was almost deafening at times. It was delightful.

The Black-necked Stilts (Himantopus mexicanus) were especially common, and cooperated nicely with our efforts to get pictures, so they are the stars of today's post. "Stilt" is an appropriate enough name; their legs are ridiculously long, allowing them to wade in deeper water than some other birds.

There is only one Ibis in the American West, the White-faced Ibis (Plegadis chihi). We saw it for the first time on our last trip here, and were pleased to see it again. According to some of my guides, the bird is in decline California, primarily because of the need for large marsh areas for breeding. Those have been sorely lacking in these dry years.

They have one of the stranger looking beaks I've seen. They are obviously good for foraging deep in the mud.

Their feathers have a beautiful iridescence (that was not real obvious on this cloudy day).

The edge of the refuge include a few trees, still lacking their leaves. We were watching for raptors, but were thrilled to see a huge Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) staring at us. Actually the stare was mildly disconcerting. The curve of their brows suggests malevolence, even though none presumably exists (I hope; given that birds are the only remaining dinosaurs in the world, I shiver to think of that stare coming from a creature fifteen feet tall).

I saw a fencepost off in the distance, but realized after a moment that it was actually a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) standing very still. Another bird who cooperated nicely as we snapped a few pictures.

It is such an elegant looking bird!

We couldn't get very close to the vast flocks of Ross' Geese, Snow Geese and Sandhill Cranes, but we could see thousands of them off in the distance. The picture below is just part of the main grouping of Sandhill Cranes. The managers grow several hundred acres of corn on the refuge to feed the birds and give them full stomachs for the long flight north to their breeding grounds.

We stayed until the sun disappeared below the horizon in a beautiful sunset. This is the Great Valley at its best; I have been guilty of thinking of my home grounds as boring, bereft of geological interest and lacking much of anything resembling a natural environment that recalls the days following the last ice ages when wooly mammoths and dire wolves roamed the prairies, along with horses, camels, elk, bison, antelope, and saber-tooth cats. But here in the setting sun, with the cacophony of hundreds of thousands of birds, I felt a sense of how it once was before we "improved" the land.

The western sky was graced with a beautiful thin crescent moon.

The "Other California" is my long-neglected blog series on the places in my beautiful state that are often missed  by travelers from outside the region, especially those that tell a geological story. Toyota stole my idea, actually. I've never seen a tour bus full of foreign tourists stop at any of these refuges, but I imagine the sight of tens of thousands of geese soaring into the sky would be a sight that would impress any California visitor. And in the American West, the story of such a flat place, full of wetlands and marshes, is truly unusual, considering the geological violence that has occurred throughout the region, raising vast mountain ranges and high plateaus. The diversity of our landscapes, and the wide diversity of our native species is truly stunning.

Note: The San Joaquin Valley noted in the title is the name given the southern half of the Great Valley, from about Stockton to Bakersfield.

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