Posts Tagged ‘National Wildlife Refuge’

A couple of weeks ago, I went out to the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area to see if I could spot the Marsh Sandpiper that had been hanging around for about a week before. Marsh Sandpipers breed in central Asia and migrate south to India and Africa, so finding one in central California is a rarity, indeed.

It was a lovely morning in the marshes of the bypass. I arrived at Parking Lot C around 5:45, well before it got light. I could hear Barn Owls over the open fields and American Bitterns in the tules and cattails. As dawn slowly began to spread her rose-red fingers across the sky, I began to be able to make out shapes in the marshland around me. At first, they were indistinct sandpiper and duck shapes, but as the light grew, they slowly morphed into Greater Yellowlegs and Gadwalls. These were soon joined by American Avocets and Cinnamon Teal, Black-necked Stilts and Mallards, Killdeer and American Coots. These birds were joined by a half dozen Long-billed Dowitchers, a Semipalmated Plover, and a lovely mixed flock of Least Sandpipers and Dunlin, the later sporting their breeding plumage replete with black belly patches. As I stood and watched the shallow water less than 20 feet in front of me fill with birds, I noticed a sandpiper that looked distinctly different from the rest. It was closest in shape and size to the Greater Yellowlegs but it was somewhat smaller, much lighter in color, and had a delicately refined and slender black bill.

Marsh Sandpiper by Douglas HerrIt was the Marsh Sandpiper!

A large, white pickup truck pulled into the parking lot. A figure stepped out and as he walked towards me, donning binoculars, the man asked, “Is it here?” There was no need to specify what “it” was. I happily told him yes, and that it was actually right in front of us. He told me that he had just driven all the way from San Bernardino in southern California to see the bird and was then going to be driving back down to be back home that evening!

I stayed for another 20 min or so, watching the Marsh Sandpiper forage and come and go along with the other birds. Having that many species of sandpiper right in front of me would have been a wonderfully special morning even without the Marsh Sandpiper. It is amazing to see biodiversity so obviously demonstrated. That many species coexisting translates into that many niches and that many food supplies, and the ripple effects continue.

On my way driving out of the bypass I passed a stream of vehicles on their way in. Many drivers gave me questioning thumbs up which I enthusiastically returned. Many others were focused on getting to their destination, and the bird they hoped they would find there. Hunkering low over their steering wheels, their eyes fixed on the road, I knew they were in for a treat.

It was fun watching all those birders coming in to see the Marsh, but I knew that I had gotten something special. I had been lucky enough to encounter the bird myself instead of having it handed to me by someone else. I had also been lucky enough to see the bird all alone for a while, not standing amongst a group.

This was one of those birding experiences that stay with me for a long time. I was walking on air all that day, and for several days after. It was one of those experiences in birding that explain why people will drive 400 miles each way to see a bird, and even now, recalling that morning in the marsh with the Marsh makes me smile.

Marsh Sandpipier by Gary Nunn

Marsh Sandpiper (Photo by Gary Nunn).

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As the takeover of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge drags on, more and more movements are starting in opposition to the armed terrorists who have been holding Malheur hostage since January 2nd. These efforts are still small, but they are growing. From boycotts of the business who are supporting the terrorists to demonstrations that are being organized in and around Burns, OR. to this petition to the federal government calling for the arrest of the terrorists. This petition also calls for the containment of the terrorists, which is something I am amazed has not happened already. It seem the first place to start in the handling of a group of armed individuals who takeover a federal building is to make sure they cannot come and go as they please, and that others cannot join them (both things that are currently going on in Malheur).

I would also add that writing to your elected officials would not be inappropriate. Tell them that not only do you not support the ridiculous self-styled ‘militia,’ but that you are in favor of a much more active opposition to them.

#SupportMalheur #RestorMalheur

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I have been reading more about the standoff still underway at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and also been watching some videos online.

This was a big mistake.

The more I read and watch the angrier I get. A particular turning point for me was when I read this article which is in part how the ridiculous self-styled ‘militia’ (which is an insult to to therm militia, by the way) has been treating the employees of Malheur NWR, who’s desks the ‘militia’ members are now sitting at. This situation started as stupid, rapidly became wrong, and has now fully transitioned into insulting!


I am now going to go and watch rain drops falling and songbirds singing for a while.

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I am sure that you have all heard by now that a few days ago a group of armed, domestic terrorists calling themselves ‘militia’ took over the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Oregon. They are doing this to protest what they see as government overreach. There are lot of reasons why I am both personally and professionally opposed to this group and their actions. But that is not what I want to discuss here right now. Instead, I want to focus on something else. The birding community.

Birders, as a whole, are wonderful, amazing, crazy people! They love the birds they see, and by extension, the rest of the natural world. They spend millions of dollars and thousands of hours each year buying equipment to go out birding, and then spend millions more dollars and thousands more hours actually looking for birds. And I am one of them. It often sounds odd when I tell people about birding or that I am a birder. I can see the looks on their faces. Their expressions say to me; ‘huh’ or ‘weird’ or ‘geek’ or ‘whatever.’ But the facts of the matter remain. Birding is one of the fastest growing activities in the country, no estimated at something 40 million people nation-wide. There are hundreds of books, magazines, newspaper articles, blogs, websites, discussion groups, and community events that focus on birds, and hundreds more each year. There are many towns that derive a large part of there annual revenue from birders, birding tours, and birding festivals. This is not a small group of fringe individuals. This is a well organized, passionate, and massive movement of people.

And that is why the people who have taken over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge are not going to get very far. The online reaction to the Malheur situation in the birding community has been fierce! Here is an article featuring one birder’s letter on the subject. Here is one from The Portland Audubon Society. And here is the Facebook page for Restore Malheur, a group that has long had a focus on habitat restoration in the refuge and is now one of the central points for information and coordinating efforts to help. Finally, here is a wonderful article that appeared in the New York Times, and if you don’t read any of the other links I just posted, read this one.

Since Malheur is a National Wildlife Refuge, the protesters who have taken over the Malheur headquarters are denying the rights of all Americans to access and enjoy a part of the country that already belongs to them. And birders will be among the most vocal in telling these terrorists that denying rights to all Americans and endangering our natural heritage will not be taken lightly.


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The idea of a wetland that can move from place to place is an odd one, but in many ways it is not a new one. Basically, a walking wetland is when someone floods a piece of land and lets a wetland grow there for a while. Then, after some pre-determined amount of time has passed, that piece of land is drained and a different piece of land is flooded. A wetland is then allowed to grown on the new piece and, viola, the wetland has walked!

This technique is a lot like crop rotation schemes that have been around for just about as long as agriculture. Letting land lay fallow lets that land recharge some of its nutrients and so be more fertile the next time a crop is grown on it. Walking wetlands are just another type of rotations, but this rotation is to cover the land with shallow water. Not much water is needed to make this work. Generally, about 4 inches is the average depth! Letting the land be flooded in those 4 inches for from 1 to 4 years lets amazing things happen!

Walking Wetland 01

First year walking wetland in the Klamath Basin.

For one, a lovely wetland springs up quite quickly. In the first year, the area is generally covered in grasses and other fairly short plants that only raise above the water a relatively short distance and that grow in a fairly open pattern with lots of space for shorebirds to walk around and forage. In the second year, tules and cattails grow up. This form tall and dense stands. The small open patches are preferred by a wide range of duck species though the shorebirds don’t tend to like this habitat as much. In subsequent years, some habitat modification, such as mowing, is generally needed to keep the tules and cattails at a level that still allows for birds and other wildlife species to access the wetland. Otherwise the stands of tules and cattails grow so dense that only a few species will utilize them.

Another amazing thing is that some crop pathogens that live in the soil drown. Many pathogenic microbes cannot survive a year or two of being submerged. Impressively, many beneficial soil microbes actually can survive this long underwater, so when the land is drained, the good microbes are still present and many of the bad ones are gone! This has an economic benefit because growers then need to buy less pesticides. This has an environmental benefit because grower need to apply less pesticides.

A third amazing thing is that all the birds that come and use the wetland leave their waste behind! Bird guano is fantastic fertilizer, and having a few thousand ducks, geese, and shorebirds wandering around can result in the grower needing to buy and apply less fertilizer and also lead to a boost in crop production!

Walking Wetland 02

An older walking wetland in the Klamath Basin.

Along the Pacific Flyway, walking wetlands have been really pioneered in the Klamath National Wildlife Refuge along the California-Oregon boarder, which is home to the first officially titled Walking Wetlands Program. It has since also been adopted in the Skagit Valley in northern Washington state. Additionally, several groups in central California, including the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Conservancy where I work, are looking at using walking wetlands in the California Delta.

For better or for worse, setting aside habitat exclusively for wildlife use is not going to be able to secure enough land to protect that majority of species. Instead, finding ways for agriculture and wildlife to both succeed is the only way that longer-term conservation is going to be successful, and walking wetlands are a terrific example of what that can look like.

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Today is National Public Lands Day!  What’s that you say?  You did not even know that there was such as thing?  Well, you are not alone.  It dose not get a lot of attention, but it should get more!  National Public Lands Day (NPLD) was started in 1994 as a day on which people could go out into public lands and help to keep them public and beautiful.  It is the largest single-day effort to help our open spaces, and it is all volunteer based.  It is a day for the public to learn about the environment and to volunteer to help land managers care for the environment.

When it began, there were only three sites that participated with a total of about 700 volunteers.  This year marks the 20th anniversary of NPLD.  Over those 20 years, the event has grown to include 2,206 sites and over 175,000 volunteers!  Those volunteers have cleared and improved thousands of miles of  trails, removed tens of thousands of pounds of invasive plants, planted hundreds of thousands of native trees and shrubs, and hauled away hundreds of tons of litter.  Involvement in NPLD can be highly organized with sites registering particular events and individuals signing up to attend those events, or highly unorganized like my own efforts today.  This year was the first year that I participated in NPLD.  I spent the morning at the Sacramento Bypass Wildlife Area picking up trash.  The Sacramento Bypass is a Type C Area managed by the California Department of Fish & Wildlife.  Type C Areas get very little management attention and so are often very much in need of some tender loving care.  My morning was a lovely one spent wandering around open grasslands, picking up trash, and enjoying some casual birding.

So, what did you do for NPLD?  If you missed it this year, mark your calendar for the last Saturday in September, 2014, and get out to some public lands near you and lend a helping hand!

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Yesterday morning I got up early and drove over to the Sacramento Bypass Wildlife Area to do some birding.  It was a lovely, and fairly cool, morning with a beautiful light layer of valley fog nestled over the low, wet areas.  I spent a couple of hours simply roaming around following whatever seemed interesting.  My very first sighting was a Swainson’s Hawk sitting in a tree right above me and calling.  It took off and flew in front of me as it crossed the bypass to begin its day.  Just a little farther along was a Lark Sparrow foraging in the open grassy area.  These large and dramatically patterned sparrows are a favorite of mine, so a day that started with finding one was sure be delightful no matter what else I found.  As I walked past the tule wetland a group of 5 Wood Ducks (1 male and 4 females) lifted off giving their whistling call, and I saw a Great Blue Heron hunting along one edge.  I stopped for a little while and watched the heron catching crayfish, of which there were apparently many!  It was impressive to watch this bird swallow the crayfish alive, claws and all.  What stops the crayfish from damaging the birds esophagus and stomach?  Something must because the heron caught and ate four over the course of about ten minutes.  Successful morning!  Another cool predator/prey interaction was a Brewer’s Blackbird that had its bill stuffed with dragonflies it had caught.  It must have had at least five dragonflies in its bill stacked like a puffin lines up anchovies.  I am not even sure how a Brewer’s Blackbird, not the most aerially adept bird, goes about catching dragonflies!  I stopped between two large cottonwood trees at the edge of the north channel for a while and listened and watched.  A family of Spotted Towhees came by working their way through the bushes and calling to one another.  the group was comprised of an adult male, and adult female, and two hatch year birds.  The young birds were doing little other than following their parents movements and begging whenever one of the adults found something worth eating.  Cute family!  As  I walked back to the car, with the sun light slanting through the trees, I got to see and hear numerous Common Yellowthroats as I passed from territory to territory.  They can be so densely packed into and area, it is rather amazing.  So, it was a lovely morning, and I am especially glad to have gotten out birding since it has been quite a while for me.

Here is the full species list for the morning.

Great Egret, Great Blue Heron, Green Heron, White-faced Ibis, Mallard, Wood Duck, Turkey Vulture, Northern Harrier, White-tailed Kite, Swainson’s Hawk, Ring-necked Pheasant, Killdeer, Mourning Dove, Rock Pigeon, Anna’s Hummingbird, Belted Kingfisher, Downy Woodpecker, Black Phoebe, Western Kingbird, Western Scrub Jay, American Crow, Tree Swallow, Barn Swallow, Bushtit, House Wren, American Robin, Northern Mockingbird, European Starling, Common Yellowthroat, Spotted Towhee, California Towhee, Lark Sparrow, Song Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, Red-winged Blackbird, Brewer’s Blackbird, and House Finch.

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This past weekend a friend, my wife, our 7 week old daughter, and I went birding in the Sacramento Bypass Wildlife Area.  It was a beautiful day with bright sunshine and just a little coolness in the air.  The Cattails (Typha spp.) in the central portion of the bypass were letting go of their fluffy seeds and the Mugwort (Artemisia spp.) were just starting to send up their spring growth, resprouting from their roots.  As we walked along the northern channel among the willows and oaks and cottonwoods I heard a flock of Bushtits.  Wanting get a look at them, and not wanting to miss any other birds foraging with them, I found the little flock of about 6 birds and started to sift my way through the group.  But, I stopped in my tracks when I got the first bird in my binoculars.  It was a small bird with a bright yellow belly.  At first my mind jumped to male Lesser Goldfinch, but it just as quickly rejected that option.  The bird I was looking at had a long tail and no dark patch on the forehead.  It looked like a Bushtit, but it was really, really yellow!  Is it a Yellow Warbler?  No.  Is it an Oragne-crowned Warbler?  No.  American Goldfinch?  No.  And then I see another one, and another, and another.  They are acting like Bushtits.  They sound like Bushtits.  But the whole flock is comprised of birds that are bright yellow!  Finally, I realize what is going on.  They are indeed Bushtits and they are foraging in a willow tree that is in full bloom.  Every time one of the birds jumps to a new twig to search for insects it is dowsed by the bright yellow pollen from the willow.  Since Bushtits are very active foragers and often hang upside down to find the insects they eat, even the bellies of these birds were coated in pollen.  They looked amazing!  Bright yellow Bushtits!  The flock finished searching through the willow tree and moved on to a nearby oak where they stood out even more.  Just goes to show you that when you see something odd, there is often a perfectly sensible explanation, just not one that anyone would guess.

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A friend invited me to join him duck hunting this past weekend on the Sutter National Wildlife Refuge.  I have never hunted the Sutter Refuge, and was excited to explore some new ground.  Leaving West Sacramento at 2:30 am , I drove up to meet him.  In the darkness of early morning, long before dawn, we walked out into the marshes to find a place that would hopefully be very attractive to ducks.  We found a small island, scattered our duck decoys in the water around us, and nestled in to wait for dawn.  As the sky lightened, the birds started moving.  We had a few groups of ducks fly by, but the really impressive flocks were the White-faced Ibis!  Thousands of them flew over is that morning.  Big flock after bigger flock swept over us all heading to the south.  It was a very impressive show.  We also saw Ring-necked Duck, Northern Shoveler, Greater White-fronted Goose, Mallard, Bufflehead, Double-crested Cormorant, Belted Kingfisher, Black Phoebe, White-crowned Sparrow, Turkey Vulture, Savannah Sparrow, Lark Sparrow (my first of the fall), American Coot, Snow Goose, American Wigeon, Red-tailed Hawk, Sharp-shinned Hawk,  Northern Harrier, White-tailed Kite, Red-winged Blackbird, Marsh Wren, Great Horned Owl, Great Blue Heron, Snowy Egret, Great Egret, Tundra Swan, and Yellow-rumped Warbler.  By the end of the morning, my friend had shot a male Mallard, but that was the only bird of the day.  As I sat there, not shooting any birds, I was struck again by how many species benefit for these refuges.  While a large portion of their funding comes from the sale of hunting licenses and permits, hundreds of non-game species use the habitats that are preserved withing their boundaries.

The Sharp-shinned Hawk was an especially exciting encounter.  She (it was an adult female) was hunting the marshes as we were.  She was flying low to the ground or across the surface of the water, moving from stand of tule to brush covered island in the hope of startling some prey out of cover.  It was really amazing to watch how she used tall stands of plants as cover.  She would fly low towards one such stand and then, at the last possible moment, fly up and over it and drop down onto the other side.  One of the islands she decided to explore was the one we were sitting on.  She flew directly at me, and just saw me at the last second when she was only a few feet away.  She was rather surprised to see someone crouching in the plant cover, and flared up and over me to hunt elsewhere.  What great look!

On the walk out, I found a large growth of Oyster Mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus) growing on a dead and fallen cottonwood tree.  I gathered some of them and brought them home, so at least I did not return completely empty handed.  These were the first mushrooms that I have collected this fall, and I am hoping that they signal that it is now wet enough to bring out many more.  The mushrooms ended up being part of dinner stir-fried with a little garlic, and also lunch the next day added to polenta (which was awesome).  Finding these mushrooms really drove home the point for me that it is not even just game bird species and non-game bird species that benefit from the National Wildlife Refuge system, but whole ecosystems filled with plant, animal, fungi, Bacteria and Archean species.  Thousands and thousands of them living their intricate lives so close to our own.

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With duck season about to start, I thought it would be a good time discuss duck stamps.  Duck stamps, officially called Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamps, are basically a federal permit allowing the holder to go hunting for ducks, geese, and a few other species.  They were authorized under the Migratory Bird Conservation Act of 1929 to generate funds (a duck stamp costs $15 US) for the acquisition and preservation of wetlands and waterfowl habitat.  Since wetlands are among the most heavily impacted habitats with less than 10% of historic wetland area remaining today.

Hunters actually have to pay a fair bit to go into the marshes to hunt.  The cost of hunting licenses, access permits, state permits, and federal permits (like the duck stamp) all add up.  On top of those fees, every gun and box of ammunition have an extra tax added to their price.  This tax was established by the Pittman-Robertson Act in 1937.  The Pittman-Robertson Act is officially the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act, and the revenue generated from this tax is earmarked for habitat rehabilitation and wildlife conservation.  In comparison, birders have to pay very little to enjoy the same wild areas.  Now, hunting has a much more direct impact on the ecosystem than birding, so it makes sense that it should have a higher cost.  But that having been said, birding is not without its own impacts.  The construction of auto tour routes, the air pollution from hundreds of vehicles each year, and the noise and habitat disturbance from the people themselves all impact the birds and their environment to a greater or lesser degree.  So, perhaps it makes sense that birders should pay a bit more too.  Imagine what could happen if there was a tax added to the price of binoculars and bird seed that went straight to the USF&WS or the EPA that could only be used to protect the environment.  Buying a duck stamp could be just such a step.

To buy a duck stamp, you don’t have to be a hunter.  Anyone can buy a stamp and in so doing contribute to the efforts of the USF&WS to protect our wild lands.  A few birders already buy a duck stamp every year.  If all the birders who go out and enjoy seeing flocks of 100,000 Snow Geese in the wetlands throughout the U.S. purchased a duck stamp, it would be a major boon to the funding of wildlife conservation in this country.

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