|Field biologist Alicia Young surveys a flooded field on private land in remote northeastern California. Photo by Pablo Herrera.|
Midway through my count of American Coot babies (I'm up to 165), a loud keek-keek! noise draws my attention away from the scope. In the red algae-carpeted water channel to my left I catch a glimpse of an adult Virginia Rail as it disappears into tall tules—followed closely by two jet-black chicks, pumping their small, down-covered wings as they run. I then catch some movement to my right: emerging from the vegetation on the levee, a darkly spotted, buff-colored fuzz-ball on stilts ventures into view and then, just as quickly, is herded to camouflaged safety by its parent, a male Wilson's Phalarope.
|Sandhill Cranes congregate in a flooded field. Photo by Ryan DiGaudio.|
Perhaps the most amazing aspect of this cornucopia of birdlife is that it's occurring on privately owned lands. While PRBO has been conducting avian monitoring on private lands in the Central Valley for the past five years, this is the initial year of data collection in the northeast-corner region of California—Siskiyou, Modoc, Lassen, and Shasta counties. (Private land conservation partnerships in the Central Valley are the topic of PRBO's spring 2008 Observer.)
As a PRBO biologist, I am conducting bird surveys on farms and ranchlands that are enrolled in the Wetlands Reserve Program, a Farm Bill-funded conservation easement program administered by the United States Department of Agriculture–Natural Resources Conservation Service. Scientific information about the bird use of these conservation easements not only can help guide future management, restoration, and enhancement activities; it also provides a biodiversity "portfolio" of what each easement is conserving, further building the case that successful government-private conservation partnerships are creating healthy and productive wildlife habitat in the midst of active farms and ranches.
My surveys for the day complete, I drive State Highway 299 toward home. Ahead of me, a vehicle is stopped in the middle of the road, and when I get closer the cause becomes clear. Standing at the edge of a partially flooded agricultural field off to the left, a pair of adult Sandhill Cranes is warily eyeing the road. I slow to a stop and watch in awe as the two elegant cranes, in a sudden burst of flapping wings and loping legs, take off across the two-lane highway. Unexpectedly, their rust-colored offspring emerges from the alfalfa field and dashes frantically after its parents. With the threatened birds out of immediate harm's way, traffic resumes.
As I slowly pass the family of cranes, already foraging in another flooded field, I can't help but smile at the sight of a sign atop a metal post: "Wetland Reserve Program Conservation Easement Boundary." Protected private lands can generate income for landowners while simultaneously providing much-needed habitat for birds and other wildlife.