Report from The Nature Conservancy’s BirdReturns Program
BirdReturns delivered 779 acres of additional habitat in its Spring 2017 Program thanks to generous support this year from the California Ricelands Waterbird Foundation. The Nature Conservancy is grateful for the important partnership with the rice industry and the significant role the Rice Commission continues to play in facilitating this successful program.
The Foundation’s investments funded additional contracts with rice farmers for shallow flooding and waterbird-friendly management practices at a time of year when pop-up wetland habitat can provide huge benefits for migrating shorebirds. Similar to practices implemented in NRCS’ WHEP program, growers were required to manage post-harvest vegetation and straw to achieve minimal standing stubble and matted vegetation, and to till fields to expose bare soil and incorporate remaining vegetation into the soil. Participants were also required to achieve depths of less than 4 inches of water on their fields by February 15, 2017, and maintain shallow depths throughout the contract period, with depths of 1-3 inches and mudflat-like conditions preferred.
The Foundation’s support funded seven of the 14 contracts that were part of the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP). Thus, the Foundation successfully leveraged their investment by securing 1-to-1 matching NRCS funds via RCPP. The contracts represent a nice mix between short- and long-term contracts, providing four 4-week enrollments, two six-week enrollments, and one 8-week enrollment for a total of 779 acres. The 8-week habitat was maintained into April, a time when shorebird habitat is typically scarce, and the habitat value is highest.
*Bid 17-SR-022 was originally contracted for 8 weeks, but the farm was inaccessible during extreme rains in late winter. The bid was delayed until March 15 and continued to April 14, providing habitat after the rains when it was most needed during spring migration.
BENEFITS TO BIRDS
The Foundation’s investment in BirdReturns primarily benefited shorebirds migrating through the Central Valley. In the late winter shorebirds are abundant in rice country, and there is relatively scarce suitable habitat for resting and feeding. The pop-up wetlands created on these rice fields provided additional high-quality habitat at a critical time during spring migration. Target species include the long-billed dowitcher, least sandpiper, dunlin, greater yellowlegs, curlew, plover, black-necked stilts, white-faced ibis, and American avocet. Other species benefiting from BirdReturns habitat include greater and lesser sandhill crane and numerous goose and duck species. Since the beginning of BirdReturns in 2014, Conservancy scientists have conducted over 13,000 bird counts on BirdReturns fields, and counted over 1.5 million birds during that time. We monitored bird response at all seven sites during the enrolled weeks, and continued to monitor following the enrolled treatment period as long as water or bird presence was recorded.