Mallards taking flight

Episode 27: The Birds

It took longer than normal, but fortunately it is happening. A shallow amount of water is showing up in rice fields throughout the Sacramento Valley – essentially a welcome mat for the 10 million ducks, geese and other wildlife migrating through our area for their annual Pacific Flyway journey.

This year was the driest in a century in California. The water shortage led to about 100,000 fewer acres of rice planted in the Sacramento Valley. It also threatened to leave many rice fields without a shallow amount of water after harvest, which helps decompose leftover straw and provides vital wildlife habitat.

Luke Matthews and Jeff Gallagher
Luke Matthews and Jeff Gallagher

 Fortunately, through an innovative new program and a large recent rainstorm, the outlook for migrating wildlife has improved.

“We went from historic drought to record-setting rain, and it has helped,” said Luke Matthews, Wildlife Programs Manager with the California Rice Commission. “It has saturated the soils and added a bit of water to creeks, streams and reservoirs. It’s definitely going to benefit migratory birds, but one storm doesn’t change a couple of years of drought. We’re not out of the woods yet, but definitely hope here.”

Matthews said a new program funded by the California Department of Water Resources will be a huge help. It provides for about 42,000 acres of rice fields to be shallow-flooded for birds, along with about 12,000 acres of private wetlands.

Sutter County rice grower Jeff Gallagher has participated in many conservation programs, including this effort to provide more water for wildlife. He said wildlife viewing is good and getting better by the day.

“It’s nice to be able to come to work every day and see thousands of geese and ducks, as well as tons of shorebirds,” Gallagher remarked. “It’s a good thing for everybody!”

Jeff McCreary
Jeff McCreary

Among those closely monitoring the Pacific Flyway migration is Jeff McCreary, Manager of the Western Region for Ducks Unlimited, a key conservation partner with the Rice Commission and other stakeholders.

McCreary said the Sacramento Valley is perhaps even more valuable for migrating wildlife this year, due to water shortages elsewhere on their journey.

“What we’re seeing with the dry conditions in the Klamath Basin and the Great Salt Lake is that birds are not staying in those locations, they’re moving on quickly and coming to the Sacramento Valley earlier than they normally would,” McCreary said. “We’re seeing lots of ducks and geese really early. This recent rain actually provided more habitat in the Sacramento Valley, because it’s shallowly-flooding up the dry rice fields unexpectedly. We thought there would be a lot more dry ground out there all the way into the middle of winter, when the rains have typically come. Now, we’re seeing rain on the landscape, which is right in the nick of time, because this is when the birds are starting to come. We’re cautiously optimistic about how things are going to progress this winter.”

He said those in the Sacramento area have a great opportunity to see the amazing sights from the millions of visiting birds, through local wildlife refuges. Ducks Unlimited just completed a major project at the Gray Lodge Wildlife Area in Butte County, making the auto tour loop safer and providing better access to viewing these stunning birds.

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Episode Transcript

Jim Morris:

It’s an amazing annual spectacle. The Pacific Flyway wildlife migration through the Sacramento Valley is one of the largest waterfowl migrations you’ll find anywhere. It has been a difficult year in the Sacramento Valley, but seeing why rice is the environmental crop, seeing all of the birds in the fields provides a chance to exhale and appreciate something beautiful.

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. The water outlook in California has improved as we get deeper into fall, but we have a long way to go, according to meteorologist Alexander Mellerski of Western Weather Group in Chico.

Alexander Mellerski:  We saw a pretty significant atmospheric river event slam into California. We saw multiple inches of rainfall across the state ranging anywhere from right about three inches up north of the valley near Redding, a little bit farther south in Chico and then near Oroville about four to five inches kind of in that range. And then even down further south in the Sacramento area, we got about five to six inches of rain, maybe even a little bit more kind of closer to the foothills. So pretty significant rainfall. And, to put that into perspective, for all of last water year, so in 2020 to 2021, the water year, Sacramento for example, got anywhere from about six to seven inches of rain the entire water year. So this one storm gave us about 75 percent roughly of what we got all of last year.

Jim Morris: It’s pretty amazing, but we’re not out of the woods in terms of the drought?

Alexander Mellerski: In terms of the drought. No, unfortunately I would say, one event, that’s by no means is indicative of getting us out of a drought.

Jim Morris: Conditions are better, but the drought continues. And while we hope for several more storms at the right time, that’s far from guaranteed, I’m near the Sutter-Yuba county line at Gallagher Ranch near Rio Oso. Jeff Gallagher, it was a stressful year for water. How did it treat your operation?

Jeff Gallagher: It’s definitely been one of the most challenging years we faced. Starting out the season we were cut way short on our water. We get all of our water out of the Camp Far West, which our allocation got cut about 80 percent back. So, we ended up planning about 65 percent of our ground this year had to leave out a little over a third. So, it was definitely tough here. And then we’re getting through harvest, got kind of an early storm here recently, and we have a few fields still left to cut. It has definitely been a tough year.

Jim Morris: Too little the front, too much on the back end, boy that is tough. So you have participated in wildlife conservation programs. It’s great to see the wildlife in the rice fields and those tremendous benefits. How do these programs help you carry out what you can to help the birds?

Jeff Gallagher: We’ve been working with the Rice Commission and Luke the last three, four years now, and the programs have just been really great. Anything we can do to kind of co-exist with the environment, help that area out and ourselves production wise, it just kind of fits really good. We’re doing kind of our straw decomposition anyway in the fall. It creates this great habitat for all the waterfowl. And plus, it’s just nice to be able to come out to work every day and see thousands of geese and ducks and tons of shorebirds in the spring. And so it’s just a good thing for everybody.

Jim Morris: And when you do look out at the fall and we’re going to have a lot more wildlife coming into our region, favorite wildlife that you see?

Jeff Gallagher: I would have to say the ducks and geese. I think we get here, we’ll get some geese, snow geese, and specklebelly geese packed in pretty thick down here. And just to drive across the field and see thousands and thousands of birds sitting out there. And then they all get up at once. I mean, it’s definitely a sight to see and something that we look forward to every year.

Jim Morris: Luke Matthews is Wildlife Programs Manager with the California Rice Commission. When we look at the weather this year and getting water on the rice fields, the conditions have improved a little bit for wildlife. Can you comment?

Luke Matthews: We went from historic drought to record-setting rain and it’s definitely helped. It’s saturated the soils. It’s added a little bit of water to creeks, streams, reservoirs, stuff like that. It’s definitely going to benefit migratory birds, but one storm doesn’t change a couple years of drought. So we’re still not out of the woods, but definitely some hope here.

Jim Morris: So we really do need the wildlife programs and there is one that’s unfolding right now. Can you comment on how that will help the Pacific Flyway?

Luke Matthews: So we have a program that’s funded by the Department of Water Resources and it is to help get more flooded acres out this winter, given the drought conditions on both rice and on private wetlands. So, really just an effort to increase the amount of flooded landscape this year, because we knew there wasn’t going to be much with surface water without any sort of program.

Jim Morris: This is shallow flooding of rice ground. And how many acres should be involved with this?

Luke Matthews: That’s correct. We’re looking at very, very strategic use of this water. It’ll be shallow. For the rice we have about 42,000 acres enrolled. And then on the private wetland side, we’ve got about 12,000 acres.

Jim Morris: Rice is amazing in terms of its environmental value. The Central Valley Joint Venture, in 2020 I believe, has some new numbers. It’s very impressive. Can you relay those numbers?

Luke Matthews: The Central Valley Joint Venture puts out a plan every couple years and the most recent one cited the food resource use from agriculture of waterfowl and that’s that ducks in the Sacramento Valley rely on rice for 74 percent of their nutritional needs. And then for geese, it’s even higher, that rice provides 95 percent of all their nutritional needs for geese in the Sac valley.

Jim Morris: That’s a lot of food when you consider seven to 10 million ducks and geese are spending their fall in winter in Sacramento Valley rice country in adjacent wetlands. There is already stress as these birds arrive because of dry conditions elsewhere. So how important is the Sacramento Valley to keep these migrating birds comfortable, fed and rested before they continue their journey?

Luke Matthews: Well, in a normal year, the Sac valley is very important because it’s sort of the final resting ground for a lot of these birds that migrate south along the Pacific Flyway. So they spend a lot more time here than most of the other areas. This year, I’d say it’s even probably more important, because their key staging areas in the Great Salt Lake, up on Klamath, in Oregon – those are all historically dry right now. So as they come down on their migration, they’re experiencing low food availability, low resting and loafing habitats. So when they get here, they’re in worse body condition we assume. And so that just means that this year, the habitat we can provide is going to be utilized more aggressively, more heavily and be even more important.

Jim Morris: Innovative conservation programs are only possible through collaboration with outstanding partners, Jeff McCreary is director of operation for the Western Region of Ducks Unlimited. Jeff, how is the Sacramento Valley leg of the Pacific Flyway proceeding for ducks?

Jeff McCreary: Well Jim, we’re in the heart of the Pacific Flyway and the Central Valley, and particularly the Sacramento Valley, is key for the wintering habitat for the Pacific Flyaway migrating birds, ducks, geese, swans, all those great charismatic megafauna that you see out there in the rice field this time of year, but we’re in a Pacific Flyway drought. And, although we’ve just had record rain in the Sacramento area, we’re still incredibly dry, exceptionally dry all across the Western United States. So, while things are definitely better here in the Sacramento Valley, it’s still challenging in two of the other main migration habitats within the Western US, that’s the Klamath Basin and the Great Salt Lake, both of which have seen record dry years along with the Central Valley.

Jim Morris: So the drought continues and how important are the rice fields of the Sacramento Valley? Obviously very important, but even more important this year because these birds really need to rest and refuel now in our area more than ever.

Jeff McCreary: Absolutely. In the Sacramento Valley, winter flooded rice provides up to 70 percent of the energetics for these wintering birds and what we’re seeing with the dry conditions in Klamath Basin and the Great Salt Lake is that birds are not staying in those locations. They’re moving on quickly and they’re coming to the Central Valley, the Sacramento Valley, earlier than they normally would. As we drive around the northern part of the valley here, we’re seeing lots of ducks. We’re seeing lots of geese and this is October. This is really early. The peak of the migration is in mid-December. What we’re seeing here is that this recent rain has actually provided more habitat in the Sacramento Valley because it’s shallowly flooding up these dry rice fields unexpectedly. We thought there was going to be lot more dry ground out there all the way into the middle of the winter when the rains have typically come. But now we’re seeing rain on the landscape and it’s right in the nick of time because this is when the birds are starting to come. And I think we’re cautiously optimistic about how things are going to progress this winter.

Jim Morris: I mentioned at the start of our conversation, the importance of partnerships, probably more important this year than ever, because of the limited water supply. Your view, Jeff, on the importance of partnerships to best protect wildlife and our region as a whole.

Jeff McCreary: Partnerships are essential for effective conservation without a good suite of partners, nothing’s going to happen on the landscape and that’s private landowners, that’s nonprofit groups, that’s federal and state agencies, local governments, water districts, when they can all come together. What we can do collectively is greater than we would’ve been able to do individually. I think one great example is a recent memorandum of understanding that was signed between Ducks Unlimited, California Rice Commission, Northern California Water Association and California Trout. And we’re working to re-envision the Sacramento Valley’s floodplain ecosystems so that the valley can support sure, ducks, but also rice agriculture and fish. It’s a complicated system that we have with the floodplains and the rivers, but we think that there’s space and there’s an opportunity for us all to work together so that we can see a landscape that’s vibrant with winter flooded rice, millions of ducks and geese in the winter and vibrant fisheries in our rivers and streams.

Jim Morris: You mentioned the millions of ducks and geese. We see this all the time. I was in Yuba County this morning and enjoyed seeing thousands and thousands of birds. How best can someone who hasn’t yet experienced this, take it all in, in the weeks ahead?

Jeff McCreary: Well, we are blessed to be right in the middle of a spectacle of nature, which is the Pacific Flyway migration and ducks, geese and swans are starting to arrive here in the valley and Sacramento, one of its great assets is that it’s central to most everything. And, in fact, in a short drive from Sacramento area, we can see lots of wildlife right outside the vehicle and right outside of walking trails. Some great places to go, I think are the Cosumnes River Preserve , which is south of Sacramento, great rice fields and wetland habitats, all with walking trails and there’s a great sandhill crane viewing area if you go there in the evening Also the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area , which is just to the west of Sacramento, great auto-tour loop. And two other places that I think have some of the more spectacular wildlife waterfowl viewing, especially during mid-winter is the Gray Lodge Wildlife Area and the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge. Spectacular auto-tour routes, in fact DU just did a major project at the Gray Lodge Wildlife Area where we reconstructed the auto-tour loop to make safer and better access for viewing these spectacular congregations of waterfowl.

Jim Morris: I have gone through Gray Lodge recently and it is a major upgrade. So thank you to you DU for doing that. And I would also say Colusa National Wildlife Refuge has an excellent auto loop too. Hopefully we’ll have abundant rain and snow moving forward, filling the reservoirs and helping cities, farms and the environment. Until then, there are many in our region doing what they can to make the most out of a tight water situation. Thank you to our interviewees, Jeff Gallagher, Alexander Mellerski, Luke Matthews and Jeff McCreary. We will keep you updated on fall and winter along the flyway. Until then, you can go to to learn more and listen to past episodes. Thanks for listening.