S1 E3: Life is a Flyway

If you think your nearest highway packs a lot of traffic, it probably doesn’t hold a candle to the air traffic in the Sacramento Valley each fall and winter.

This is the time of year for the massive and masterful Pacific Flyway Migration, where millions of birds travel thousands of miles. Fresh from harvest, Sacramento Valley rice fields are a key rest and refuel stop for ducks, geese, and shorebirds. Combined with nearby wetlands, this part of Northern California provides an invaluable habitat to many a weary winged traveler. 

Rice growers work with conservationists to ensure their fields are bird-friendly, including Avian Ecologist Kristin Sesser with Point Blue Conservation Science. Kristin and her colleagues have a multi-faceted approach to wildlife conservation. They are part of a great collaboration between farmers and conservation organizations. 

“There’s no way we could succeed in our work without our amazing conservation partners. They make the work more enjoyable to engage in, the science stronger, and the programs and practices more enduring,” she remarked. “These partners include the California Rice Commission and the rice farmers themselves, as well as NRCS, The Nature Conservancy and Audubon California. We all work together to enhance the rice landscape for waterbirds.”

Hopefully, working together, waterbirds will continue to flourish in the Central Valley for future generations to enjoy.


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Episode Transcript

Charley Mathews Jr.: Living out in rice country is special to me. There are people in the world that like to live near an ocean, near a river, near a creek, just for that comforting background noise. It’s that type of white noise that’s comforting. Out here, it’s a different type of white noise. We have white swans, white geese, white shorebirds, all very noisy. But it’s also something that’s very comforting. For me, it’s part of my childhood. It’s something that I always remember.

Jim Morris: Rice grower, Charley Mathews Jr. commenting on this remarkable time of the year in the Sacramento Valley. Charley lives in Marysville, which is a very popular wildlife stopover, and one bird, in particular, attracts a lot of attention year after year.

Charley Mathews Jr.: The White Tundra Swan is probably the largest of the migrating birds. It mixes in well with the migrating ducks and geese. It’s a huge bird. It’s got a particularly loud sound. Its wings flap and hit the water when they take off, and it’s become very popular. They’re also very helpful to the rice farmer because, what they’re doing with their extra-large web feet, is they’re helping incorporate that rice straw, and soil, together to get it to decompose. And it’s kind of like having free labor.

Jim Morris: A few inches of water in those same fields that produce America’s sushi rice, now provide a vital habitat for millions of birds. The environment has taken center stage in rice country, and it’s time for the Pacific Flyway migration.

Welcome to Ingrained, the California Rice Podcast, episode three. I’m your host Jim Morris. I’ve worked with farmers and ranchers for nearly 30 years, and I’m a passionate supporter. Rice farmers in particular, deliver two major benefits to our state: growing food and nurturing wildlife. And it’s time to get back on the road so we can visit with a key conservation partner.

Not too far from Charley Mathews Jr. and Marysville, and all of the Tundra swans, and geese, and ducks, is Montna Farms, near Yuba City. And there are Tundra swans, geese, ducks, and shorebirds out here, as well as Kristin Sesser, of Point Blue Conservation Science.

Jim Morris: Kristin, some people spend their nine to five in an office. You and I once in a while, get out and get to see this beauty. What does it all mean to you when you’re out here?

Kristin Sesser: I really love being in the rice fields in the Sacramento Valley. I’ve been watching birds since I was a kid. And in these rice fields, we are just surrounded by birds. There’s something to look at everywhere.

Jim Morris: Absolutely true. And especially this time of the year, with it being the Pacific Flyway migration. So for those who don’t really understand what the Pacific Flyway is, can you explain?

Kristin Sesser: Well, I think of the Pacific Flyway, as something of a highway in the sky. And so there are a lot of birds that nest in Alaska and Canada, and then they move to more Southern climes for the winter, and they come through along the Pacific Flyway. And some of them are heading down as far south as Chile and Argentina. Other birds actually stay, and winter here in the ricelands, and the managed wetlands of the Sacramento Valley.

Jim Morris: How much variety of wildlife do we have coming on this big journey?

Kristin Sesser: Well, we have birds as small as a Rufous Hummingbird, which you can see at feeders here in the Sacramento Valley. And then birds like the small, little, Least Sandpiper, which are here out in the ricelands, and I can even see some now. Then anywhere from birds as fast as the Peregrine Falcon, and as big and majestic as these Tundra Swans that we’re surrounded by.

Jim Morris: When these millions of birds make their trek, how important are rice fields in the Central Valley, for that part of the equation?

Kristin Sesser: Well for waterbirds, the ricelands, and then the managed wetlands that the ricelands surround, are critically important. Many of these birds get quite a bit of their nutrition throughout the winter from rice. And it’s an important place for them to rest and refuel, and they basically spend their whole winters here.

Jim Morris: And how does Point Blue, help this process in rice country to make sure the habitat is the best it can be?

Kristin Sesser: We do quite a bit of science to support the conservation efforts. And we also work with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, NRCS, to work on and develop practices that enhance ricelands for waterbirds. And some of that science, it can vary from using telemetry to track birds, to using satellites to understand… To track the water, and understand where the water is moving, and when it becomes available and when it’s not.

Jim Morris: And telemetry, that caught my ear. So what does that mean?

Kristin Sesser: So telemetry is, we put these transmitters on the birds. They wear it like a backpack, and then we can use antennas to track where they go. And so, we have in the past, put transmitters on Dunlin, which is a small-medium-ish shorebird, and then also Long-billed Dowitchers. And so the Dunlin was kind of an interesting case. And that’s where some of the Dunlin, we actually tracked them day and night.

There were Dunlin, individual Dunlin, that would spend both the nights, they would sleep in the rice fields, and then they would actually forage in the rice fields the next day. And then there were some Dunlin that would spend the nights in the rice fields, but then go to managed wetlands during the day. And so, it just really showed us how important having both flooded rice, and managed wetlands are for these Dunlin.

Jim Morris: That’s cool because you would not have known otherwise except for that very high tech research that was done. So, unfortunately, over the decades, the worldwide bird population is down. What can you draw from that in terms of trying to maintain what we have here in rice country?

Kristin Sesser: It’s true that especially shorebirds have declined quite a bit over the last 50 years. And we think one opportunity is… I would like to point out that one of the bright spots was waterfowl populations. Many of them are actually doing much better, than some of the other birds. And if we can expand some of this wonderful habitat for waterfowl, to include a bit more shorebird habitat, which tends to be on the shallower side, I think we can really make a difference for shorebirds.

Jim Morris: And when you say shallower, so the water depth is critical, right? Some birds love it, really shallow other birds, like a few more inches in the field. So, that would be very helpful.

And I think you were destined to be out here because, in college at Humboldt State, you actually worked on a project involving a rice bird. Can you explain?

Kristin Sesser: Sure. So I did my thesis at Humboldt State University, on Long-billed Curlews. So, Long-billed Curlew is the largest shorebird in North America. They have a very long bill, hence the name. And I studied a group of about 10 birds. They nested in Oregon and Nevada, and they came to the Central Valley. And they spend about nine months of their lives in the Central Valley, and only go up to Oregon and Nevada, for those three months, to attempt nesting.

And for a set of those birds, they spent almost their entire winters in the ricelands, and the wetlands of the Sacramento Valley. And so, it was a fun place. I spent a lot of time, even before I started work at Point Blue, traveling the rice roads, and looking for my Curlews.

Jim Morris: That’s awesome. And for those of you who like the 49ers, there’s a little bit of history, that actually does somewhat involve a Curlew. Because the curlew is also called the candlestick bird. And that’s where Candlestick Point and Candlestick Park, got their name.

Do you know what a group of Curlew is called?

Kristin Sesser: [Laughs] I don’t. I think it’s just a flock.

Jim Morris: Okay, well, people have fun names for bird groups. I’ve read that a group of Curlew is called, a curfew.

Kristin Sesser: Oh my goodness, that’s great.

Jim Morris: So we’ve established how gorgeous of an area this is, worth protecting, hopefully for generations to come. So, Kristin, what is a perfect day in the field look like to you?

Kristin Sesser: Oh, that’s a good question. I would have to say, it would include sunrise. So a lot of the work we do is, we try and get out in different times of the day, because the birds move around at different times.

Any day I can be out here doing some science to support conservation. And then when I get to see a lot of different species. So, when I’m in rice country, and they’re shallow fields, and deep fields. And just the sound is part of it, is there are so… The calls of all the different species, it’s really amazing.

Jim Morris: I echo Kristin’s thoughts. I get to see wildlife in rice fields several times a week. It always gets my heart pumping, always brings joy. Whether it’s seeing a bald eagle, giant garter snake, or any of the nearly 230 wildlife species found in rice. What we have in that environment is exceptional. And one of my favorites is this odd-sounding bird: 

[Audio clip of bird call]

Jim Morris: That’s an American Bittern, which to me sounds a little like an office water cooler. They have brown speckled plumage. They try to hide and rice fields, but you can definitely see them if you keep your eyes open when you’re traveling North of Sacramento.

That wraps up this episode of Ingrained, but it’s just the start of our environmental coverage. Coming soon, we’ll have a look at how rice fields help ducks, and how those same fields are poised to help salmon. Very exciting research.

Thank you to Kristin Sesser, Point Blue Conservation Science, Charley Mathews Jr., Montna Farms, Page Design, Social Crows, Kurt Richter, and Unearth Digital Media, for all of your help.

And please spread the word about our podcast. We welcome your comments and questions. Go to podcast.calrice.org, for much more information. Thanks for listening.