For migrating birds, Merced County is paradise

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.

Historical wetlands

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.

Species that depend on Merced's wetlands

On a Wednesday morning in mid-February, snow geese flew in by the tens of thousands, and they weren't the only species found on the wetlands that day. Paddling along in the canals along the dirt roads that snake through the wetlands were white-nosed coots, tundra swans that gathered by the thousands far from the road and white pelicans soared in silently, coasting on wings that barely moved.

Sand hill cranes jumped and clacked and showed their wings, warily watching people.

In the water, ducks of all kinds dove for the grass that grows under the foot of water that extends for miles. Mallards, wood ducks and cinnamon teal were everywhere, taking off at the slightest noise.

Coyotes crossed dirt roads, racing through the upland cover, snacking on the ground squirrels that find the refuges a true refuge. Raptors, such as the rare Swainson's hawk and the more common red-tailed hawk, kestrels and harriers, flew silently over the marshes.

Mammals like skunks, raccoons, mink and opossums are everywhere. And the king of the mammals, the animal that has made a quiet comeback, were enjoying the sunny day on the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge.

Tule elk are found in a 780-acre fenced area of the 7,400-acre refuge. They've been used to build up other herds of the once-common deer-like animal throughout the state. Before the 1800s, tule elk ranged the entire Central Valley in herds of thousands. They were killed by man for their meat and fur, and their natural habitat was destroyed.

Now the tule elk graze, live and breed in Merced County. Federal agents have moved animals to places throughout California to restock other herds. It's a government program that has worked.

Water, water, water

Without water, there are no wetlands. Period. The wetlands in Merced County are made up of three owners: the federal government, the state government and local landowners.

There are 160 separate landowners in the Grassland Water District, the district that supplies water to all of the refuges, more than 60,000 acres total. Most of those landowners work with the district to keep the land compatible with wildlife. Most of them are owners of duck clubs; they charge to hunt and to join the clubs.

Chris Hildebrandt, a regional biologist for Ducks Unlimited, wants people to know that duck hunters are a huge part of why there are still wetlands in California.

"Of course, the main goal of duck hunters is ducks," Hildebrandt said. "But they hunt only 7 percent of the year. The rest of the year the duck clubs maintain the land as marshland for waterfowl habitat."

Some of those duck clubs date back to the 1920s, and their buildings dot the refuges. There's no difference between the areas taken care of by duck clubs and those watched by government entities. Both have the same goal in mind: To keep the wetlands pristine enough to support wildlife.

Because of old lawsuits in the 1950s by the landowners against the state, some of the water that the Grassland Water District gets is guaranteed, no matter what else happens. But some of the water depends on rainfall, reservoir storage and the amount of water that state and water projects give to their contractors each year.

Because of that, the district is extremely careful with the water it gets. Canals snake through the refuges, home to the coots who like to hang around the roads, and also to egrets who like to spear the frogs and other amphibians that live in the water.

The pumps in those canals are turned on and off, depending on what area of the refuges needs water. It's a nonstop job, and a job that keeps employees roaming the refuges every day.

In the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge, Karl Stromayer is the assistant refuge manager. He works hard to keep water flowing to the areas of the refuge that need it, and he makes sure that the water is used prudently.

Near Salt Slough, an old natural slough that came off the nearby San Joaquin River, Stromayer explained how sensors constantly check the salt content and other detrimental chemicals in the water. Salt Slough, which butts up against a federal water canal, often gets runoff from farm fields. The federal reserve can use that water, but it has to be checked first.

"Sometimes it has too much salt," Stromayer said. "We have to mix 'good' water with it to make the water OK to use for us."

The problem of water access

Some of the water that normally would come to the Grassland Water District will be cut this year. The district is being told the cutback will be at least 25 percent, maybe up to 50 percent.

Driving past a marshy, wet area covered with ducks, Scott Lower, the assistant general manager of the water district, said that by this summer, the area will be bone dry.

But sometimes that's OK. In the past, when rivers weren't dammed, those rivers would flood in the spring, and then sometimes dry up in the summer. So animals get used to not having marshy areas. But the keepers of the wetlands aren't worried about summer water; they're worried about the water they will get this spring, when there are still thousands of birds trying to get ready to make the long migration to their breeding grounds.

"Our future relies on the water supply," said Lower. "With no water, the land is basically useless. It's not good land."

The wetlands in Merced County started out as flooding from the San Joaquin and Merced Rivers. But now, some of the wetlands are just a bit beyond the footprint of the San Joaquin, maintained where wetlands were marginal before.

Many of the birds that flock to the refuge during the winter are there to eat and bulk up before migrating to breed. The snow geese breed in the Arctic, and to get that far they need a solid layer of fat.

To help those birds put on fat reserves, the refuges seed the marshy and water-covered areas with plants the birds like to eat. That helps them get ready to migrate. Some of the plants are introduced, but many of them are native. Some of the nonedible plants help the birds and other mammals hide from predators.

The main purpose of the refuges on the Westside of the county are to winter waterfowl. With a projected 25 percent loss of water, and a possible loss of up to 50 percent, those people who work hard to make sure water gets to the right places at the right times will be hard-pressed to keep the birds, mammals and invertebrates alive, much less plentiful.

Wetlands are a constantly changing ecosystem. The federal, state and water district employees work to keep it a place where wildlife want to come. Wetlands filter toxins and also provide flood control. And the people who take care of those wetlands believe that it's a place that needs to be protected and preserved.

"It's like Yosemite Valley," said Scott Lower. "Wetlands are one of the most important places on the Earth."

Reporter Carol Reiter can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or creiter@mercedsun-star.com.

If you go ...

Los Banos National Wildlife Refuge

open 365 days a year until dusk

(209) 826-3508

no charge for entrance

Merced National Wildlife Refuge

closed during duck hunting season

open Monday through Friday until dusk

(209) 826-0463

(209) 826-3508