Science for a Blue Planet

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Watching Change: Shuford Receives Science Excellence Award

The comeback of the White-faced Ibis. The shift from burning rice fields to flooding them. Black terns breeding in the Tulare Basin after a decade-long absence. Dave Shuford has witnessed a few things in his time as an avian ecologist in California.

“It’s interesting to see a species have a population boom,” Shuford says. “White-faced Ibis have flourished since the 1980s, especially in Central Valley rice fields.”

White-faced ibis. Photo: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
White-faced ibis. Photo: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

This is just one small example of bird survey results from Shuford, who has studied shorebirds and colonial waterbirds throughout California with Point Blue Conservation Science since the early 1980s. (He began volunteering as an intern with Point Blue, then Point Reyes Bird Observatory, in 1975.)

This also is only a peek into why Shuford recently received the 2014 Science Excellence Award from the Central Valley Joint Venture, a coalition of 21 state and federal agencies and organizations working over the past two decades to provide habitat for resident and migratory birds in the Central Valley.

“Dave is one of the foremost avian ecologists in California and I continually learn from him,” says Catherine Hickey, Point Blue’s Conservation Director for the Pacific Coast and Central Valley. “Dave’s ambitious work assessing shorebird and waterbird distribution, abundance and habitat use throughout the Central Valley and Pacific Flyway forms the basis of the Central Valley Joint Venture’s population and habitat objectives, and investments.”

For several decades, Shuford has led aerial and ground bird surveys with the goal of “trying to count everything on all flooded habitat.” He has spent countless days studying birds up close and monitoring their habitat needs. He has written extensively on waterbirds (he authored the BCR 32 Waterbird Conservation Plan, which covers the Central Valley and much of the coast of California), provided technical advice for numerous conservation projects and served as a spokesman to the media, including a recent public radio news story about the effects of California’s ongoing drought on birds.

Through this time and hard work, Shuford has seen changes on the landscape firsthand.

“One of the biggest shifts I’ve seen is rice farmers throughout the Sacramento Valley flooding their rice fields,” he says. “At one time we were doing surveys while they were still burning the fields. Now, they’re flooding huge areas at the right time and providing bird habitat.”

Shuford also has documented weather fluctuations and the effects on birds. He says he found it amazing to see all the birds coming back to the Tulare Basin, at the southern end of the Central Valley, following the El Niño winter of 1997-98. The Tulare Lake complex was the largest wetland system west of the Mississippi River 200 years ago.

“There were so many shorebirds,” he says. “Black Terns were actually breeding there after at least a decade absence. I got a feel for what it must’ve been like in the old days.”

By contrast, Shuford watched the drought in the Central Valley detrimentally affect many of the waterbirds during 2009-2012. He says only half of the Black Terns came back and Caspian Terns didn’t breed at all.

Dave Shuford, avian ecologist for Point Blue.
Dave Shuford, avian ecologist for Point Blue.

When funding is available, Shuford says it’s important to conduct surveys every year to understand population trends, habitat-use patterns and the potential effects of climate change on waterbirds. And he says he hopes to continue this work well into the future.

In the meantime, while his colleagues are recognizing his contributions to bird science and conservation, Shuford makes it clear that much of his work reflects the support and collaboration of many others, particularly fellow ecologists Gary Page and Catherine Hickey of Point Blue. The award is really a group award, he says.


Main Photo: Shuford (right) is presented the Science Excellence Award by Mike Dunphy (left), coordinator for the Central Valley Joint Venture, and John Carlon (middle), president of River Partners and Central Valley Joint Venture board member.

Agriculture is Very Important to Long-Billed Curlews in California’s Central Valley, by Dave Shuford, published in Western Birds.

The Marin County Breeding Bird Atlas, book by Dave Shuford.