Science for a Blue Planet

Featuring cutting-edge work, discoveries, and challenges of our scientists, our partners, and the larger conservation science community.

Through the Eyes of a Dowitcher

Have you ever tried to see the world through someone else’s eyes? You’d see different challenges, different advantages, and more than likely, you’d learn valuable lessons. Lessons that might help you coexist with greater ease, understanding and benefit.

Imagine you are a Long-billed Dowitcher, a medium-sized sandpiper that weighs about as much as an apple. For such a small animal, you cover a lot of distance. Every fall for nearly 4 million years, your kind has traveled over one thousand miles from your summer breeding grounds in the grassy wet meadows of the high Arctic to your winter home in California’s wetlands. Every spring, you’ve journeyed back north again. In order to survive and thrive you need a vast network of wetlands to provide food and safety. You also need to live in a large group of other birds like you to help you find the best wetlands with the best food and avoid predators. That’s just how you evolved.

For the past couple hundred years your fate has been inextricably linked to the human perspective. At times that did not mesh well with your needs. Luckily for you, people are now making more of an effort to see the world through your eyes.

Life Before and after the Gold Rush

Every winter until the mid-1800s your kind thrived in the vast network of wetlands in California’s Central Valley that once covered around 4 million of the Valley’s 13 million acres. Once you arrived there to rest and feed, there was no need to travel very far. But after the boom of the Gold Rush, humans began converting those wetland habitats to farmlands, and it became a lot harder to find a good place to spend the winter. To make things worse, people began hunting your kind for food! Needless to say, this was a tough time for a dowitcher. The flock was shrinking, making it a lot tougher to find a good meal or protection from hungry raptors (and it was a good day if you didn’t have to dodge a bullet!).

Today, although you are working with about 10% of the wetland habitat that your pre-Gold Rush ancestors enjoyed, you have a few big things in your favor. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act protects you from hunting. People are realizing the value of wetlands for wildlife and water storage. Strong, new partnerships between conservation groups and farmers are providing and protecting wetland habitat through wildlife-friendly farming practices. Things are looking up.

A Partnership with a Perspective

Blake Barbaree, Point Blue Shorebird Ecologist with the Migratory Bird Conservation Partnership
Blake Barbaree, Point Blue Shorebird Ecologist with the Migratory Bird Conservation Partnership, Photo: Suzie Winquist/Point Blue

Blake Barbaree and his colleagues, in particular, have got your back. Blake is a shorebird ecologist with the Migratory Bird Conservation Partnership, a collaborative effort between Audubon California, The Nature Conservancy and Point Blue Conservation Science. Over the past three winters, Blake has been studying when, where and why shorebirds like you move around in the Central Valley. His ultimate goal is to improve habitat management practices. One exciting aspect of Blake’s work is taking flight to track you.

“There is no better way to think like a shorebird than to fly the same routes that they do between wetlands,” says Barbaree. “The perspective I gain up there is so valuable, not to mention exhilarating.”

Once in the air, Blake uses special antennas attached to the small plane he is in to locate you and the other birds he has tagged, on the ground, with tiny radio transmitters.

According to Blake’s discoveries so far, you and your friends responded very differently to the way water was managed in his two Central Valley study areas: the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys.

Blake Barbaree, Point Blue Ecologist, ready for take off.
Blake Barbaree, Point Blue Ecologist, ready for take off, Photo: Lishka Arata/Point Blue

Water — a Key Shared Resource

In the Sacramento Valley, the northernmost portion of the Central Valley, water can cover vast amounts of the landscape during winter because of a mix of wetlands and rice fields. The widespread flooding of rice fields for decomposition during winter attracts you and tens of thousands of other shorebirds along with several million other waterbirds. When spring approaches, things change rapidly. Water is removed from rice fields and most wetlands during February and March and the landscape becomes a patchwork of wet and dry land. Some birds stay where wetlands remain, but most disperse to find more reliable wetland habitat, often a significant distance away.

Aerial view of Sacramento Valley. Left: winter flooding. Right: early spring patchiness.
Aerial view of Sacramento Valley. Left: winter flooding. Right: early spring patchiness. Photos: Blake Barbaree/Point Blue

In contrast, shorebirds like you moved from place to place much less in the San Joaquin Valley. That’s because of the Grasslands Ecological Area — 160,000 acres of privately, state and federally-owned land and the largest remaining contiguous wetland complex in the Central Valley. It acts as a stable habitat island, according to Blake’s study. You and your fellow Long-billed Dowitchers arrived in the winter and basically remained there until it was time to migrate back north in the spring.

Grasslands Ecological Area, San Joaquin Valley.
Grasslands Ecological Area, San Joaquin Valley, Photo: Blake Barbaree/Point Blue

“We know there are costs of moving long distances,” Blake says. “At the end of their winter stay in California, shorebirds should be staying put and fattening up in order to have the highest chance of surviving their flight to the tundra and successfully breeding to carry on their species.”

The challenge is how do people manage water on the landscape in a way that allows shorebirds like you to stay put and fatten up?

Farmers must draw down water to plant their annual crops that support the state’s economy. Around 97% of California’s rice production occurs in the Sacramento Valley, supplying the country with almost all of its sushi rice, and California’s economy with about $5 billion and 25,000 jobs annually. This is where thinking like a shorebird helps conservationists and farmers come together to find solutions to keep shorebird habitat and farming in the Sacramento Valley.

A Dynamic Mindset

Blake and his team have a few ideas about solutions, and they involve ensuring a mix of simulated and natural wetlands. One idea, already being implemented with success, is to give farmers incentives to keep some water on the land into spring in a process called ‘variable draw down’. This simulates wetland habitat within rice-growing areas so shorebirds like you don’t have to travel long distances to have a place to feed and store fat for your migration. Another strategy is to dedicate some conservation dollars to create or maintain natural wetlands in the Sacramento Valley, or to support some other important places for shorebirds like you, such as the Grassland Ecological Area, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, Suisun Marsh, and the San Francisco Bay.

“We know that methods like variable draw-down of water from rice fields can be successful, but we can take it further by considering space and time on a larger scale — by thinking like a shorebird,” says Blake, “If you create it, they will come, assuming you put it in the right place at the right time.”

Shorebirds have responded emphatically to farmers drawing down water gradually on rice fields.
Shorebirds have responded emphatically to farmers drawing down water gradually on rice fields in the Sacramento Valley. Photo: Blake Barbaree/Point Blue

It ultimately comes down to shared resources. Adopting this dynamic mindset will help people and shorebirds continue to reap the benefits of the wetlands we share into the future.

As a Long-billed Dowitcher — a migratory shorebird that winters in California — you are well-equipped to use available habitat. You have a long, straight bill that you probe into the mud like a sewing machine needle for worms and mud bugs, using the tactile receptors at the tip to locate your prey. You have long, yellowish legs with long toes that allow you to walk on top of mud and in shallow water to find your food. Your plumage changes from a marbled reddish brown in the spring and summer to a greyish brown in the fall and winter. A whitish rump and back flashes when you fly.

Dowitcher Flock in Flight, Photo: Cory Gregory
Dowitcher Flock in Flight, Photo: Cory Gregory

Your species has experienced vast changes — doing its best each year to adapt to what it came upon during seasonal travels between the high Arctic and California. Hopefully, with more people like Blake Barbaree looking at the world through your eyes, conservationists and farmers together will find ways to manage crops and wildlife habitat so you can survive and thrive for another 4 million years.

Further Reading:

Waterbird Habitat Enhancement Program Overview, Bird-friendly farming in California rice fields

Reiter ME, Wolder MA, Isola JE, Jongsomjit D, Hickey CM, Carpenter M, Silveira JG. 2015. Local and landscape habitat associations of shorebirds in wetlands of the Sacramento Valley of California. Journal of Fish and Wildlife Management 6(1):29–43; e1944-687X. doi: 10.3996/012014-JFWM-003

Hidden Nightlife by Blake Barbaree

History of Wetlands in the Conterminous United States, By Thomas E. Dahl, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Gregory J. Allord, U.S. Geological Survey

California Wetland Information on California State Government page

Functions and Value of Wetlands by the United States Environmental Protection Agency

More information on the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918

LightHawk, a company that donates flights to elevate conservation, used to do the flight surveys mentioned in this article


Opinions expressed in Science for a Blue Planet posts do not necessarily reflect the views of Point Blue Conservation Science or the many partners involved in guiding conservation in California’s Central Valley.