PRBO Conservation Science
Quarterly Journal of PRBO Conservation Science, Number 152, Spring 2008: Public-Private Partnerships for Conservation

Public-Private Partnerships for Conservation


Documenting the Value of Central Valley Lands to Wildlife

Avian Monitoring on Private Lands

Ryan DiGaudio and Catherine Hickey

Finding Common Ground
CEO's Column
Avian Monitoring on Private Lands
Natural Resources Conservation Service
Informed Decision Making
Pocket Guides to Birds
California Bird Species of Special Concern
Long-billed Curlew Studies
Safe Harbor for Landowners
Recent Highlights from PRBO
Join the Tern Society
Bird-A-Thon 2008

Yellow Warbler. Photo © Tom Grey /
Finding a Yellow Warbler nest—a seemingly insignificant fist-sized ball of downy material—on a private property in the San Joaquin Valley, in 2007, was actually a landmark for conservation success in California's Central Valley. This bright native songbird, now all too rare in the region, is one of the 21 "special status" species (see note at left) detected to date in PRBO's Avian Monitoring on Private Lands program. As a partner in public-private collaborations to "bring back the birds" in California, PRBO has monitored some 10,000 acres across nearly 70 properties in the Central Valley. As these partnerships continue to succeed, the acronym for our program—AMPL—may turn out to be wonderfully accurate.

PRBO initiated AMPL in 2004, in collaboration with key federal and state agencies. We document the biological outcomes of private-lands habitat programs (listed at left) that aim to reverse downward trends for wildlife populations. Our primary role is to provide and interpret the science required to evaluate and improve such programs. Already we are showing that they provide effective ways to achieve conservation objectives for riparian, native grassland, and wetland habitats.

In addition to attempting to improve the functioning of the Central Valley's natural ecosystems, we need to work within managed landscapes to recreate important habitat. Wildlife is known to benefit from some management practices used by the farming, ranching, and duck-hunting communities, all of which have long histories of land stewardship in the Central Valley.
In wetland habitat owned and managed by a duck club, Ryan DiGaudio checks a pond's depth. PRBO photo.

"Duck clubs," for instance, now provide the majority of wetland habitat in the valley. Despite a historic focus on managing wetlands for waterfowl, the duck-hunting community is becoming increasingly supportive of non-game species. One function of the federal and state private-lands habitat programs is to help landowners and managers obtain the essential ingredient for wetlands: water. Without these programs, many of the duck clubs' wetlands would go dry during the critical nesting season, when water is most limited (especially in the southern portion of the valley).

Post-harvest flooded croplands are another example of how managed landscapes can provide important habitat for migratory birds. Central Valley private-lands habitat programs work closely with the agricultural community. Farmers throughout the southern San Joaquin Valley traditionally used post-harvest flooding to eradicate damaging root fungi and to increase soil moisture. This practice benefited both farmers and wetland-dependent birds. Flooded croplands provide an important "surrogate" wetland habitat for migrating birds, especially during the fall migratory period (late summer and early fall), when many of the region's managed wetlands become dry. Unfortunately, the rising cost of water has made this practice increasingly difficult for farmers to maintain. The California Department of Fish and Game's Landowner Incentive Program, however, helps offset these costs.

Results have been dramatic, as demonstrated by findings from our AMPL program. Shorebirds and waterfowl by the tens of thousands use flooded croplands during fall migration: our highest count was in a 320-acre field that held over 40,000 birds, 99% of which were shorebirds! PRBO biologists surveying flooded croplands are often greeted with expansive carpets of birds covering entire fields—vast flocks of ducks drifting across the open water and armadas of sandpipers and dowitchers foraging in unison across the exposed mudflats. Periodically, birds will be interrupted by a hunting Peregrine or Prairie Falcon, causing the masses to take flight in a synchronized cloud of beating wings.

Numbers this large and flocks this dynamic can be a challenge to count! But the work is satisfying—as is finding a native songbird nesting in restored riparian habitat. We are measuring real conservation successes that result from our partners' critical programs.

Also gratifying are the relationships we have built through the AMPL project. The program managers and landowners we meet are some of the most committed people in the conservation of California's migratory birds (one is profiled below). Throughout the Central Valley's land management and agricultural communities, there are countless others with a passion for and dedication to bird conservation. Ultimately, this is what will make private-lands conservation programs a true success.
Left to right: Francis Burgess, Catherine Hickey, and Ryan DiGaudio. Photo by Francis Burgess.

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