Bird population soars as waterfowl habitat fully floods
By JULIANA BARBASSA
Associated Press Writer
DELANO, Calif. (AP) — Record numbers of ducks, ibises, egrets and other
waterfowl are wintering in a wildlife refuge in the southern San Joaquin
Valley, thriving in restored wetlands that have been fully flooded for the
first time since creation of the refuge four decades ago.
Covering the Kern National Wildlife Refuge’s 6,500 acres of wetlands in
water after decades of only having enough resources to water a third of
the area has turned the marsh into “an oasis in the desert,” said Ducks
Unlimited biologist Chris Hildebrandt.
A federal act passed in 1992 and gradually implemented over the last
decade has mandated that Central Valley refuges receive a reliable supply
of water. To the wildlife at Kern — a wetlands refuge created without its
own water supply in the middle of thirsty grape and cotton farms — the
Central Valley Project Improvement Act has made all the difference.
Thick green tufts of bulrushes, wild millet and other native grasses dot
the lush marshland, providing food and shelter for familiar birds like
mallard ducks, the little white-billed black coots and the common
moorehen, but also attracting more than 6,000 white-faced ibises, a bird
hardly seen in the Central Valley 10 years ago, and birds that are rare in
the area, like tri-colored blackbirds. Clusters of cottonwood trees are
weighed down by dozens of great blue herons in their nests. The majestic
bird lives on the frogs and fish it catches in the surrounding marsh.
“If you worked at it, you could spot 150 species out here in a day,” said
refuge manager David Hardt.
The refuge now gets its water through canals, but it was once part of the
Tulare lake basin, a vast marshland complex made up of shallow pools and
rivulets covering nearly 800,000 acres. Until the 1850s, it was the most
important wetlands west of the Mississippi, and served the migrating birds
that traveled north and south along the Pacific Flyway.
By 1950, a century of draining the swamp and replacing it with the neat
rows of carrots, citrus or grapes had turned a duck’s paradise into some
of the world’s most productive farmland, generating more than $2.5 billion
dollars per year in Kern County alone. But the enterprise left migratory
birds without a winter home or a place to feed and rest.
The plowed soil, cleared of weeds and oozing muck, doesn’t give birds the
seeds and the juicy insect larvae they live on while they build their
winter nests and wait for their offspring to hatch in the spring.
The 10,618-acre refuge was created in 1960 to bring back to life a portion
of that lost ecosystem. It also includes natural Valley grasslands that
are home to endangered mammals like the San Joaquin kit fox and the Tipton
But at its inception, the Kern refuge didn’t have enough water and
conveyance facilities to flood the wetland habitat, and had to rely on
well water at a prohibitive cost. For decades, Hardt said, the refuge
could pay up to $250,000 for water, and flood only 2,200 acres.
In 1992, a federal act — the Central Valley Project Improvement Act —
directed the Bureau of Reclamation to secure a reliable water source and
build waterways to supply eight federal refuges like Kern and five state
wildlife areas and duck clubs within Merced County.
The act, which Hildebrandt calls “the greatest thing to happen to Central
Valley wetlands in 200 years” was to be implemented in increments, with
each year bringing a little more water to the habitats.
Although all of the refuge’s units have been flooded this year, using up
25,000 acre-feet of water, it will take some time for the newly watered
areas to grow the types of marsh grasses that waterfowl appreciate, like
the red-stemmed Ammania and the swamp timothy that choke up the
longer-standing wetlands, said Hardt. But the transition will be faster
with some help from refuge workers.
“We try to manage this place like a farm, except we encourage the weedy
plants most farmers hate, like the water grass that creates problems in an
irrigation ditch,” Hardt said. “For us, it’s water fowl food.”
This year, the partnership finally ensured enough water to flood Kern’s
entire habitat, with some districts, like the Buena Vista Water Storage
District and the Westside Mutual Water district, selling as much as 10,000
acre-feet of water to the refuge.
“Kern had the greatest deficit, they had the least reliable water supply
of the 13 beneficiaries of the act,” said Dave Paullin, the U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service refuge supervisor for California. “It was in the worst
shape, so it had the greatest potential to show benefits. The change has
been very dramatic.”
The Bureau of Reclamation pays the market price for the water, which comes
from water districts that have more than they need. The funds for the
purchase come from the bureau and from other water consumers, who pay a
surcharge on their purchase.
“We can’t live without agriculture, but a lot of us can’t live without
this either,” said Hardt, watching a peregrine falcon.
Kern refuge is 18 miles west of Delano, and visitors can take a 6.5
self-guided tour to spot some of the hundreds of birds it houses. Water
fowl is best observed October through March, though songbirds start coming
into the refuge in March and remain through the summer. Half of the refuge
is also open for waterfowl hunting October through January.
On the Net:
Patricia J. Devereux
News editor, The Nevada Appeal
(775) 881-1224, 629-9369