PRBO Conservation Science
Quarterly Journal of PRBO Conservation Science, Number 162, Fall 2010: The Water Issue


Profile of Dave Shuford

A California Naturalist

Claire Peaslee

California's Water Legacy
CEO's Column
A Shorebird Saga
Willows and Warblers
Profile of Dave Shuford
PRBO Highlights
TomKat Ranch
Len and Patti Blumn
Staff Migrations

Dave Shuford at Mono Lake, with Krakatoa in the background, circa 1983. Photo by Burr Heneman.
It was during summers under the volcano that Dave Shuford entered the world of waterbirds in California's interior. Up until 1983, as a freshman staff biologist at PRBO, Dave was immersed in studies of coastal birds at Point Reyes. Then he began directing a study begun by David Winkler of California Gulls at Mono Lake, east of the Sierra Nevada. Biologists who monitor gull colonies there stay on Krakatoa Islet, where remains of a 1950s movie-set volcano serve as a rustic field station.

"Krakatoa was a totally wild place," Dave recalls, "and the few of us living there were dwarfed by the numbers of gulls, grebes, and phalaropes on the lake."

Thus began a remarkable career, now spanning 25-plus years, studying birds of California's interior. Dave Shuford has driven through, walked within, boated across, and flown over more parts of this state than almost any other field ornithologist today. His journeys recall those of California's early naturalists. The products--publications and conservation tools--are thoroughly contemporary.

After his Mono Lake eye-opener, "Shuf's" personal geography of California birds expanded exponentially with the Pacific Flyway Project. In the late 1980s, PRBO began studying this system of wetlands between Alaska and Latin America that supports major populations of migratory shorebirds.

"Along with coordinating big survey efforts with numerous partners and volunteers," Dave says, "PRBO--Gary Page and I--did a lot of aerial surveying. That's when it dawned on me just how important the Central Valley is during fall and spring migration and in winter. We saw the connectedness of key wetlands throughout the Valley and the importance of rice fields in the Sacramento Valley, of evaporation ponds in the San Joaquin Valley, and (especially in the Grasslands Ecological Area near Los Banos) of private wetlands."

Meanwhile, colonial waterbirds of the interior also captured Dave's interest. How well were Double-crested Cormorants, American White Pelicans, California Gulls, Ring-billed Gulls, and Black Terns faring in a changing water regime? He soon learned that, for species other than ducks and geese, population data was extremely scarce. To fill the need for knowledge about waterbirds, Dave has since surveyed their colonies throughout California's remote regions.
Catherine Hickey and Dave Shuford in the office. PRBO photo.

Adding to his knowledge of the state's birdlife, Dave has charted breeding shorebirds in the Central Valley and Snowy Plovers statewide. He has surveyed birdlife at the Salton Sea and across the Klamath Basin.

His outlook today? While encouraged by new policies and practices in regions such as the Klamath and Owens Lake, Dave Shuford counsels Californians to "evaluate worst-case scenarios, because eventually they are sure to happen."

The only way to grasp the patterns we need to understand is to continue monitoring areas of concern over the long term and with some frequency. "Variability is extremely pronounced in much of California," Dave says. "A single visit to a place like the Tulare Basin (in the southern San Joaquin Valley near Bakersfield) might give you a false impression. In an exceptionally wet year, migratory birds might find excellent habitat and exploit it--even breed there--but then be absent when conditions dry out."

Add climate change to the picture, and what can we expect? "You might be able to calculate this for San Francisco Bay, sure to feel effects of sea-level rise, or the Salton Sea, clearly forecast to become warmer and drier. But the Klamath is a transition zone between areas projected to grow wetter (to the north) and drier (to the south). Anticipating future water supplies in that very important wildlife region may not really be possible."

It seems we'll need to keep people like Dave Shuford (if there are many others like him) at work in the bird-rich regions of inland California, gathering insights and data about vital wetland ecosystems.

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