Across a cornflower blue sky, the birds came in. They numbered in the thousands, in the tens of thousands. They were snow geese, their wings tipped with black, and they were headed for a special place on the Westside of Merced County, a place that has been their ancestral feeding place for millions of years.
They were headed for the wetlands that are maintained by sweat, hard work and water, especially water, on the Westside of the Valley.
The people who maintain those wetlands are federal employees, state employees, water district employees and local landowners. They make sure that the wetlands cater to the birds that need water to eat, breed and live. In mid-March, there are more than a million birds in western Merced County -- from ducks to shorebirds to songbirds, making the Westside their home.
The Westside wetlands are a special place, a place that holds some of the few wetlands left in the state. The wetlands in Merced County are unique, the largest contiguous remaining wetlands in California.
More than 95 percent of California's wetlands have been lost to urbanization, farming or draining. Merced County is unique in the fact that the state, federal and local entities work together to keep those thousands of geese coming in. They want to make sure they have a place to land. And keeping all those refuges going is the Grassland Water District, the district that provides water to the wetlands.
But those wetlands are facing the same problems that California farmers and cities are facing: the drought, lack of water and the continual cutting back of water supplies. The people who take care of the wetlands work every day to make sure that the birds and mammals that need the water, especially this time of the year, get it. Those people scrimp and move water around and are on the phone constantly, trying to find the one thing that keeps these wetlands going: water.
When the American Indians lived in the Central Valley, wetlands were everywhere. They were caused by the annual flooding of the rivers, such as the San Joaquin and the Merced, and of creeks, such as Bear Creek.
The tribes around the historical flood plains of the San Joaquin and the Merced rivers had a word, different in their various languages, a word that we can't imagine anymore. The word described the time in the evening, near dusk, when the birds would take off from their feeding grounds in the wetlands and head for their sleeping places. The word described how noisy those birds were -- so noisy that the Native Americans couldn't hear themselves talk.
Those wetlands provided ample food for the American Indians -- from the salmon making their way upriver to their spawning grounds, and tule elk that dotted the Valley flatlands, to acorns, herbs and other plants that thrived around the wetlands and the vernal pools that dotted the hillsides.
But since the early 1800s, when white men came to California and built missions, haciendas and huge ranches, the wetlands, along with the American Indians, slowly disappeared. Now most of the wetlands that were in the Valley 300 years ago are gone, replaced with housing, farmland and urbanization.
Now, with less than five percent of California's wetlands left, the birds and mammals that use the Pacific Flyway, an ancestral aerial route along the coast of Canada, the United States and Central America that includes the Central Valley, find their way to Merced's Westside. There, they fill the waterways with birds and mammals that aren't seen anywhere else in the Valley.