(Above) photo credit: Holly A. Heyser
The driest year in decades has been a jolt to much of California. Challenges extend beyond cities and farms, as wildlife is impacted by a sharp drop in habitat.
One saving grace in the Sacramento Valley is the continued creativity and collaboration between rice growers and conservation groups.
Millions of ducks depend on areas rice fields and adjacent wetlands, and there is a concerted effort to help them make it through the drought.
One helpful program from the California Ricelands Waterbird Foundation in partnership with the California Rice Commission and California Waterfowl involves protecting seasonal upland nesting habitat on rice farms and tracking nesting ducks that use the fields. One of those working to help ducks is biologist Marina Guzman of California Waterfowl; who is passionate about helping wildlife.
Marina and colleagues spend many hours in the field, chronicling ducks and their nests. Small transmitters are even placed on some hens, to track their movements and behaviors. Every observation is key to building a better understanding of how to provide these beautiful birds their best chance of survival.
“We’re learning a lot,” she commented. “This study documents nesting ducks in ag, which hasn’t been done since the 90s, so getting all of the information, all of the pieces and having everyone work together will help the birds in the long run. It’s a lot of work, but it’s all worth it.”
Another key conservation partner is Ducks Unlimited. Regional Biologist Craig Garner is among those working hard to help maintain healthy duck populations. He says Sacramento Valley rice fields are critical to ducks.
“The Sacramento Valley ecosystem is extremely important for waterfowl.” Garner said. “It’s primarily important for wintering waterfowl. The ducks that migrate south to overwinter in more milder climates hang out here in the Sacramento Valley, and then return north when it’s warmer up north.”
Garner works with rice growers to improve habitat conditions on the ground, including water use efficiency – especially important when water is scarce.
A future area of concern is ensuring sufficient water in rice fields during the peak Pacific Flyway migration. After harvest shallow water helps decompose rice straw – providing vital habitat. There is a lot of discussion to try to ensure ducks and other rice field visitors will have a place to rest and refuel during their long journey later this year. December is the peak month for ducks in our region.
“The Sacramento Valley is unique for many reasons,” he remarked. “The complimentary benefits from having natural habitat and benefits provided by rice are just amazing. The agricultural community is very important for many reasons, but fall-flooded rice fields provide benefits to numerous species – not just ducks. It’s amazing to see, not only the ducks out here, but the wading birds, the amphibians and frogs – everything that uses these wetland habitats.”
Marina Guzman: We’re heading out to do some trap tries. We’re going for a Mallard and two Cinnamon’s.
Jim Morris: It’s another busy day for Marina Guzman, Biologist with California Waterfowl at Conaway Ranch, a rice farm in Yolo county. Marina and others are studying duck nests in cover crops on this rice farm and the news is not always good. Today has been a tough day, but this is key research, especially during this drought.
Marina Guzman: We found this nest about seven days ago, she’s incubating around two days, so now she should be about nine days. She still has about 20 more days ago, a little less than that, 19 more days ago. She got depredated.
Jim Morris: What got the eggs?
Marina Guzman: I’m assuming the way it’s dragged out and how the eggs are, it could be a little mammal that comes and just pokes his nose right through the egg. They’re all on the side, right? So usually avian birds, raptor birds will carry the eggs away where a mammal will come and eat it at the nest. So hopefully the hen got away. It looks like she did.
Marina Guzman: This field has about 13, 14 checks. It’s 176 acres. So it just goes on forever.
Marina Guzman: Oh no. Oh no.
Jim Morris: Too close for it to be…?
Marina Guzman: Yeah, for it to be there. We know that these fields are getting hit hard by something, and so we want to figure out whether it’s a coyote, a fox or ravens, and if it is, how can we help?
Jim Morris: Have you always been an optimist or have you learned to be one when you’re out here looking at the nests?
Marina Guzman: I started off really well, like I was like, “Yeah, all the birds are going to make it, all the ducklings are going to make it.” And then reality hits and it’s like, but you can’t give up you know. Sometimes they do make it and you get really excited, yeah, that made it, yeah. But there’s no point in giving up
Jim Morris: Welcome to Ingrained, the California Rice Podcast. I’m your host, Jim Morris, proud to have worked with California farmers and ranchers for more than 30 years to help tell their stories. And there are no two ways about it, this is a tough year. It will take ingenuity to get through. But fortunately there is plenty of that in our region. Marina Guzman is a biologist with Cal Waterfowl and Marina, before we get into the work that you’re doing in the field to help ducks, let’s talk a little bit about your background. You’re the first one in your family with a college degree. Can you tell me about that?
Marina Guzman: My family migrated from Mexico out here. I’m one of the first among with some of my cousins to be the first with a degree. I decided to go in the wildlife degree direction and then it’s turning out well for me, actually. My whole family came out and there’s a bunch of us, like 50 cousins and everything. So it was really exciting to have everyone there, especially my grandma to see her second generation to go and get a degree, you know, the reason why she came out this way, this far and worked so hard.
Jim Morris: So, tell me about what the work is that you do.
Marina Guzman: So we are doing a nesting setting, so we’re basically seeing how many nests are using cover crop fields.
Jim Morris: Tell me about working with ducks. What do you like about that? Just spending some time with you, it’s clear you have a big passion for them.
Marina Guzman: I love ducks. I’m so in tune with the nesting settings and the way mallards are using this land that I actually know where habitat or like I’ll flush a bird, right? I’ll flush a bird off a nest and to find the nest, you have to actually be like, okay, if I was a mallard, where would I hide? How much shade would I like, and what would I use? And so once you find those little key pointers, you’re able to find these nests a lot quicker.
Jim Morris: While more is learned, there are successes that more than balance the challenges seen this year. The day after my visit with Marina, they found more than 10 active duck nests at Doherty Farms in Dunnigan, and they even placed a transmitter on a mallard. So researchers are soaking up additional knowledge that will pay dividends now and into the future.
Marina Guzman: Getting all the information, all the pieces and having everyone work together will help the birds in the long run. Whether this is like a sad year, a lot of depredation, it would be better in the future.
Jim Morris: How important are rice fields to the whole equation?
Marina Guzman: I was surprised to know how many rice fields and, just having those rice fields, birds really came into to that water. They really come and look for that water. You can have the most gorgeous fields, but if there’s no water around and that’s what rice fields provide is the water. If there’s no water around, there’s no birds. So rice allows the birds to come and key in to the land, whether it be on the side, the levees, or even the field adjacent to it, or like you see now across even a road like this, they’ll travel up to three miles. We know like they’ll travel up to like a mile, mile and a half, up to three miles to get to water. So having those rice fields close to dry upland fields like this, is super important for their survival, not only when they’re laying, but once the duckling are hatched.
Marina Guzman: Ducklings, as soon as they hatch, they’re little snacks for anything that can put them in their mouth. The faster they’re able to go into water, like a rice field, they’re able to hide from predators and use that water to feed and to hide. So keeping both the ducklings and the hen safe from predators, especially since rice grows so quickly and so tall, it’s able to protect them.
Jim Morris: I’ve learned a lot in our short amount of time, driving in the ATV, including the cinnamon teals are the fastest of the ducks that you work with. So what are some facts that people may not know about the ducks that you look at?
Marina Guzman: Cinnamon teal, mallard and gadwall would lay an egg one day until their average cut size. So normally mallards we’ll do nine eggs. GAD will do 10, 11, maybe. And then cinnamon’s would do a little more than that. Then once they have their clutch size or whatever clutch size they feel comfortable with, they’ll start incubating and they’ll incubate. Cinnamon teal will incubate to 24 days and then mallard and gadwall to 26. They’ll take a nest break in the morning and a nest break at night. That usually starts around two, and then they’ll come back right before dawn to keep those eggs warm at night and then stay throughout the night.
Marina Guzman: Tell me about transmitters that are put on ducks. That’s wild.
Marina Guzman: Transmitters are always fun. If you’re doing a nesting study, like obviously you’re going to try to get some backpacks out. That’s the whole point, right? And that’s the key is having a backpack on a hen so that we can disturb her less. If once we have her in hand, we look at her, her age, we know her nest scene. And so we can put a backpack on her and then see where she goes, whether she is using this field, or is she using that field or where she’s going. And then once her ducklings hatch, we know where they take them and whether they survive or not.
Marina Guzman: So say she has nine ducklings and she goes out, takes the nine ducklings and for whatever reason, something picked them up, they didn’t like the water she’ll come back and lay again. And we’ll know where she nests already because she has a backpack. So backpacks are vital, vital, vital, vital for these projects.
Jim Morris: People may have the wrong impression of a backpack. It’s not like the one my son would wear when he goes to school that’s like 30 pounds or something. How small are these backpacks?
Marina Guzman: They are very small. The mallards, usually they take the backpack and they’re just off, this does not bother me, I don’t mind having this on me. And Gaddy’s same thing. They’ll just take the backpack and take off. So we always look for that, when we put a backpack on her, how well they’re flying when they leave; it’s suited nice so we have no future problems and then we can continue to get information for that hen for years, hopefully if she stays in the sun, because it’s solar powered, those backpacks are solar powered.
Jim Morris: The drought will pass, we’ll get to a better spot, and thanks to work that you’re doing and others, these beautiful birds will still be here. So what joy do you have in all of this?
Marina Guzman: Oh, it’s so much fun. I mean, people always tell me like, “Oh, you get paid to do this.” And sometimes I forget that because I do get paid to do this, and it’s a blast. I come out here every day with a positive attitude. I look forward to seeing these mallards, seeing how they’re doing and how far along their nesting comes and whether they do walk away with ducklings, that’s important to me. I want them to walk away with ducklings, that’s the key is to have these nets hatch. Just being grateful to be out here and having fun, especially with good coworkers and good teammates that’s what makes it everything. It’s being able to get the data we get and then having a good time, having everyone in a good attitude.
Jim Morris: You have to be honest, have you ever dreamed about ducks?
Marina Guzman: No, I don’t think so.
Jim Morris: You surprised me.
Marina Guzman: I mean, I go to bed thinking about my nest cards and I wake up thinking about my nest cards all day. That’s literally the only thing. But no, usually during the field season, if I hit that pillow, lights out. I’m so tired after just running around, trying to catch these birds. A lot of people don’t think how much work I am putting into these fields. It’s a lot of work. It’s a lot of work to try to catch these hens, but it’s all worth it.
Jim Morris: I’m at the Norton Family Rice Farm, which is just about 10 miles from the State Capitol, visiting with Craig Garner, Regional Biologist with Ducks Unlimited. Craig, thanks for your time. Tell me a little bit about your background and the work that you do in the Sacramento valley.
Craig Garner: I’m originally from South Carolina, I’m a Clemson graduate. After graduation I moved west and started working for Ducks Unlimited. I started working for them at a Western regional office in 2006. I did a short time working around the Great Salt Lake, about four years working for Ducks Unlimited. I moved back to California in 2012, and I’ve been here ever since then.
Jim Morris: How does the Sacramento Valley ecosystem compare to the others that you’ve seen?
Craig Garner: The Sacramento Valley ecosystem is extremely important for waterfowl and there are numerous areas around the country that are important for waterfowl.
Craig Garner: The Sacramento Valley is primarily important for wintering waterfowl, the ducks that migrate south over winter and more milder climates, they hang out here in Sacramento Valley and then return north when it’s warmer up north. The Great Salt Lake is primarily a migration habitat, so as the birds are migrating south, they need places to stop and refuel and rest. Areas like the Great Salt Lake and other migration habitat areas provide food resources while they’re migrating to the wintering areas.
Jim Morris: As a regional biologist, what are some of the projects that you have, and also Ducks Unlimited to try to maintain this duck population, particularly in a year like this it’s really challenging with the drought.
Craig Garner: So my responsibilities are delivering DU’s conservation mission in the Sacramento Valley. Simply that means working with private and public landowners to improve habitat conditions on the ground.
Craig Garner: We do a lot of habitat improvement projects, which includes improving water use efficiency. When you don’t have much water, you want to use that water in the most efficient manner as possible. We do earth work projects, install infrastructures to help fill wetlands, drain them quickly if you need to get the water on and off fast, and use your water in the best way possible.
Jim Morris: How cooperative are the growers that you’re working with on these steps?
Craig Garner: The growers are very receptive to that. Water is the most important thing to wetlands and rice. If without water, you don’t have wetlands or rice habitat. So being able to use water is very important. In years like now when you don’t have much water, it’s even more important.
Jim Morris: As we look towards the fall and winter, that is a critical time with millions of ducks coming through here, what are your concerns about the state that we’re at right now? I know we want it to improve, but it’s a little bit daunting to think about the Pacific Flyway migration in a dry year.
Craig Garner: On an average year, the Sacramento Valley supports approximately three to 4 million waterfowl. These are ducks, and another three to four million geese. We primarily support those from managed wetlands and fall flooded rice fields. There’s about just under 70,000 public and private managed wetlands in the Sacramento Valley in a normal year and about 350,000 acres of fall flooded rice lands in an average year. With that amount of habitat, we can support that population, no problem. Now, if those acres decrease to a certain level, then it becomes more challenging to support those high numbers of water fowl and geese for the entire winter that they’re down here.
Jim Morris: Will there be an effort in the coming months, depending on how the weather shakes out to make sure there’s at least a minimal amount of flooded acreage to make sure the duck population stays healthy?
Craig Garner: One important factor everybody can do, and they did this back when we had the five-year drought, if you’re not going to get rice decomp water, put your boards in anyway, and when the rains come in November, December, you can capture that water and provide that habitat. The highest number of ducks and geese that arrive in the Sac Valley peak in December. So if you can capture some of that rainwater, we can still provide some of the habitat needed by these birds.
Jim Morris: And you mentioned decomp. So at the end of harvest, a little bit of water is put in the fields and that helps decompose the rice straw, which is an important part of the growing season. When we look at the ducks and you were out here in the fields and you see them, what goes through your mind? I saw several pairs this morning. It always gives my heart a little bit of a rush to see that.
Craig Garner: The Sacramento Valley is unique for many, many reasons, but you know, the complimentary benefits from having a natural habitat and benefits provided by rice is just amazing. That agriculture community is very important for many reasons, but fall flooded rice fields provide benefits to numerous species, not just ducks. So that was amazing to see not only the ducks out here, but the wading birds and all the amphibians and frogs croaking and it just everything that uses these wetland habitats.
Jim Morris: That wraps up this episode. Thank you to Marina Guzman of Cal Waterfowl and Craig Garner of Ducks Unlimited for their time and comments. We also appreciate Ducks Unlimited, Cal Waterfowl and our many conservation partners who are helping rice fields be the best they can to help the environment. You can find out much more at Podcast.CalRice.org. We appreciate your comments, please subscribe and thanks for listening.