Arundo Control Results in Terrific Wildlife Habitat

This invasive plant is focus of Delta Conservancy program.

Arundo monoculture along a levee bank offers little wildlife benefit

The Solano Resource Conservation District is working with private landowners in the Cache Slough area to control Arundo. Arundo is a non-native plant introduced to stabilize levees. It provides D+ habitat, so the Delta Conservancy applied for a grant with the Department of Water Resources to work on eradicating non-aquatic invasive plants. The Solano RCD was given funds to work with local private farmers and ranchers to replace Arundo with a complex of native plants along irrigation canals.

In situations where the adjacent land is used for grazing livestock it also requires an investment in fencing and watering troughs to move intensive animal use off the area. This improves the health of the livestock and limits direct access to the ditches to only pulse grazing. The RCD has been working for 4 years now with a few cooperating landowners.The Arundo still wants to come back, so there are no quick fixes. It reminded me of my never ending battle with crabgrass in my garden. At the same time the native plants are getting established and doing quite well even in the drought.

Arundo replace with diversity of native plants--better for grazing and wildlife.

This conservation practice, if applied on a larger scale, could have a larger beneficial impact to the health of the sloughs and waterways in the Delta. Already you see more bird life and other critters.

These are not natural streams but they can still be managed to improve livestock health and provide wildlife benefits.

An irrigation ditch before livestock fences are built to control access.

This is a great example of how incentives for private landowners helps to offset the costs of changing how they do business. These changes are a win-win-win for everyone: better livestock, better environment, better soil and water management. And that is a win for all of us.

After fencing and restoration.

After fencing and restoration.


Wild Rice a Boon to Wildlife in Yolo Bypass

Wild rice harvestI had the good luck to tour the Yolo Bypass one morning when the farmer who has the lease on the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area was harvesting the wild rice. It is fascinating to watch as the fields are kept wet and a special harvester picks up the rice to lop off the heads.

It leaves in its wake a field with insects and crayfish exposed. The ibis and egrets enjoy a feast.

ibis and egretsThe Yolo Bypass is in the Pacific Flyway. In a few months ducks, and geese and other waterfowl will return to the 16,800 acres of the Yolo Basin Wildlife Area to feed and breed over winter. The wildlife area is a short distance from Davis and West Sacramento, and yet when I stood there with the Causeway within site, it felt like miles away from civilization.

The Wildlife Area offers designed wetlands with plants that provide food for waterfowl. Another section is leased to farmers who raise rice–both white and wild–that provides an income to the Wildlife Area and leaves behind a lot of rice grains for the birds.

Giant Garter Snake habitat could be quite extensive with good management practice like only mowing half the ditch.

Giant Garter Snake habitat could be quite extensive with good management practice like only mowing half the ditch.

Rice farmers also provide other habitat benefits. Some stage the draining of their fields to provide shorebird habitat. Others mow just one side of the ditch to benefit giant garter snakes.

The Yolo Basin Foundation provides tours of the Wildlife Area to over 4,000 school children a year and special events, such as bat tours and bird watching walks. You can also access the Wildlife Area during daylight hours. Start at Parking Lot A at the exit closest to the Causeway and drive up and over the levee. No dogs or bicycles allowed.

Sandhill Cranes Return to Central Valley

Sandhill Crane Conference

Sandhill Crane Conference

The greater and lesser Sandhill Cranes are flying into the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys for the winter. To kick off the birdwatching season for cranes, the Sandhill Crane Festival is November 7-9 in Lodi. There are numerous birdwatching excursions as part of the conference.

The Sandhill Cranes are going to be in NorCal through February and you can plan your own independent birdwatching trip.

Here are a couple of opportunities in the Delta you may want to pursue:

Cal Fish and Wildlife Sandhill Crane Wetland Tours of Woodbridge Ecological Preserve

Cosumnes River Preserve viewing sites (map) includes Staten Island

These birds are really cool and you can see them from the road with just your eyes or a regular pair of binoculars. The best time is at sunset when they fly back to their nesting areas.

Big Break Regional Shoreline in Oakley


Big Break Visitors' Center

Big Break Visitors’ Center

The Big Break Regional Shoreline has a beautiful visitors center that offers exhibits, meeting space and space for an science education program. A short walk from the visitor center is a 1,200 square foot interactive map of the Delta (on the ground) that demonstrates water flow through the region.

It is part of the East Bay Regional Park District (most impressive park system in the state!).  The park has the facilities to enjoy a picnic, fish from the pier, launch a kayak or canoe, or birdwatch.

Next to the town of Oakley on the shores of the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta, on Highway 4 near 160, near Antioch and Rio Vista.

Brilliant Bypass Flood Strategy

The planners that coped with floods in the early 1900s almost despaired from the frequent winter inundations in the Sacramento Valley.  Then they began set aside swaths of land for a flood bypass system that has since averted many a disaster.  The Sutter Bypass, while technically not in the Delta, is a flood bypass for the Feather River just above where it joins the Sacramento River.  The Sutter Bypass is just north of the Fremont Weir and Yolo Bypass and so is interconnected (a kind of cousin) to the water wheelhouse we call the Delta.

A wild stretch in Bypass between rice fields and Feather River.

A wild stretch in Bypass between rice fields and Feather River.

It is a wilder, wetter, more remote place than the Yolo Bypass.  There is no Highway 80 or Interstate 5 bisecting it. The Sutter National Wildlife Refuge is in the middle with rice fields and other farmland on either side. All along the Feather River is a stand of trees and native grass that is home to deer, coyotes and mountain lions.

Along Highway 113 in November--wherever there is water there are lots of birds

Along Highway 113 in November–outside the Bypass the farms have clean edges–still good for birds but not as wild as the Sutter Bypass

I was lucky to get a tour from a farm manager today (with keys to the gates) and see this relatively remote place. Wherever the rice was flooded for waterfowl there were flocks of swans and geese and other birds. We saw one coyote, four different kinds of hawks, buzzards, and deer.

The Central Valley Flood Control Board is discussing plans to expand the bypass system and it is controversial. Whenever a public agency talks about condemning aspects of private property rights–in this case, the ability to develop the land for something other than row or field crops or waterfowl habitat–there is a hew and cry.  Even in 1910, I bet there were more than a few angry letters to editor about the proposed bypass systems.  Now the wisdom of the system is so obvious.

The Sutter bypass will fill with cottonwoods without cultivated agriculture.

The Sutter bypass will fill with cottonwoods without cultivated agriculture.

It is best to plan for it before urban encroachment makes it political or economically unpalatable.  Natomas used to serve in much the same way as the Yolo Bypass. West Sacramento and Davis are hugging the Yolo Bypass.

It is relatively easy to connect fish from the Feather River to the Bypass for floodplain habitat in winter.

It is relatively easy to connect fish from the Feather River to the Bypass for floodplain habitat in winter.

In the aftermath of superstorm Sandy, New York and New Jersey are looking at the bypass systems in the Netherlands. They could also look to California. What would they find? Land that serves multiple beneficial purposes and one heck of a buffer from extreme weather.

Central Valley Birders Flock to Symposium

Birders from Eureka to Los Angeles are gathered this weekend for the Central Valley Birding Symposium.  Over 300 avid birders are gathered for workshops, field trips and shopping at the Stockton Hilton Hotel. It is fun to meet passionate people. One man told me all about his interest in the largest owl in North America–the great grey owl–and his efforts to conserve it. Another birder told me of his travels; he has already seen 9 species of penguin!

The largest owl in North America reaches 30 inches tall and lives in the Cascade range.

The largest owl in North America reaches 30 inches tall and lives in the Cascade range.

Today, November 23rd, there are workshops on:

“No Birdbrains Here: The Latest on Learning, Instinct and Intelligence in Birds”

“Migration Patterns of Northern Saw-whet Owls near Forest Ranch, California”

A small owl species found in California.

A small owl species found in California.

Tomorrow November 24th, the workshops include:

“Seeing Rare Birds in California: Why our state list is the largest in the US at 652 species and you can help find more”

“Flycatcher ID Workshop”

Daily registration is $50 for adults.  There is a Birder’s Market and Art Display on the second floor with 28 exhibitors.  Everything from jewelry, photography, books, binoculars to bird related travel, and art.  I learned about an app related to the Sibley bird book that covers all of North America, features bird calls, and has a feature that allows you to compare two birds side by side.  The application in the Google Store is called Sibley birds of North America ($19.99).

Sandhill Cranes Returning to Delta

Sandhill Cranes


The lesser sandhill crane and the greater sandhill crane winter from September to February in the Central Valley from Chico to Pixley.  The greatest concentrations of cranes are in the central east Delta (around the Cosumnes Preserve), the Merced Grasslands and Pixley regions, and the Chico-Marysville area.

They are one of the oldest living bird species, and eat insects, small animals and grains. The cranes have adapted to modern agriculture as their natural habitat has diminished and now show a strong preference for cornfields and other agricultural landscapes where they can find a high concentration of food.

The cranes roost in habitat consisting of wetlands or flooded agricultural fields and prefer around 3 inches of standing water. Farmers and wetlands managers in Northern California intentionally keep some of their land flooded to attract cranes and other waterfowl.

There are a number of places where the public has access to view cranes:  the Cosumnes Preserve, Stone Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, the Isenberg Sandhill Crane Reserve, at The Nature Conservancy’s Staten Island.