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Bird monitoring helps elucidate the benefits provided by private land habitat programs.

Central Valley Wetlands Full of Life

Kim Kreitinger


Male Ruddy Duck in courtship posture. © Peter LaTourrette (www.birdphotography)

As the sun crests the craggy peaks of the Sierra Nevada range, the wetlands of the Central Valley come to life. A white-cheeked male Ruddy Duck resumes his quest to find a mate. In the dawning light, he gesticulates to nearby females by repeatedly pumping his head, accentuating his brilliant blue bill. As if mocking this gesture of courtship, a Pied-billed Grebe maniacally cackles from the cover of cattails. Undeterred, the male Ruddy Duck continues to strut across his wetland dominion, with his short, spiky tail pointed skyward. At the shallow edge of the pond, an American Avocet scythes the water with its recurved bill, collecting unsuspecting invertebrates. Its mate sits nearby on an exposed island, incubating four spotted eggs.
Pied-billed Grebe with young. © Peter LaTourrette

During this first full season of PRBO surveys of breeding birds in Central Valley wetlands, it is my mission to document the diversity of birdlife. As part of a cooperative project called Assessment and Monitoring on Private Lands (AMPL), my coworker, Katie Fehring, and I visit private lands enrolled in one or more state and federal programs for improved wildlife habitat.

To cover a variety of sites, our travels take us as far north as Glenn County and south to Tulare County, always on the valley floor. This region of California has experienced drastic habitat loss over the past century. Fortunately, many private landowners throughout the region are embracing the goals of the private land habitat programs and striving to make changes that benefit wildlife. HTML Element for a left-aligned sidebar.

Bird monitoring at project sites helps to elucidate the benefits these programs provide. We survey each site twice a month, recording species observed, numbers of individuals, and any evidence of breeding. Our comprehensive wetland counts chronicle the passage of migrants and the trials of resident breeding birds. Our first visit to a site might disclose the location of a nest, and subsequent visits reveal the success of the clutch. Our point counts in riparian restoration areas may expose the struggle between native cavity-nesters, such as Ash-throated Flycatchers, and non-native usurpers, such as European Starlings. Point count surveys in the restored grasslands may divulge an unexpected secret-perhaps a pioneer colonizer to the region, such as Grasshopper Sparrow. Each day in the field provides new discoveries.

This breeding season has been productive. Pied-billed Grebe parents are giving their striped-faced brood diving lessons; half-grown Avocet young are vigorously imitating their parents' foraging style; and a female Ruddy Duck and her brood of nine ducklings skitter to the center of the pond where a white-cheeked male awaits.