Monday, December 22, 2008

Delta deals dozens of bird species

by Dave Seel, Education Specialist

Originally posted on November 18, 2008

As we stepped on to the Delphinius, the tule fog was thick over the still delta water. Pushing away from the dock, Ron Patterson of Dolphin Charters welcomed our group of birders, who had come to see the wonders of the Sacramento / San Joaquin Delta.

The trip--one of several Save The Bay sponsored outings--focused on the annual bird migration to the delta’s maze of waterways, islands, and corn fields. The delta, once a network of sloughs and wetlands, has changed dramatically over time by the increasing demand for more agricultural and cattle grazing land. Now, sloughs have been straightened and dredged and the wetlands drained. But still every year thousands and thousands of birds, from the Sandhill Crane to many species of ducks, stop in the fields and tule marshes as they migrate from the cold north to warmer southern climates.

Sitting on the top deck of the boat, we scanned the horizon with our binoculars, waiting and listening to our knowledgeable captain who pointed out the sites and sounds of the surrounding waterways. “Northern Harrier—one o’clock! Look at him work that cattle field. He’s probably looking for his morning meal.” All binoculars turned and gazed at the beautiful raptor gliding effortlessly over the landscape.

A bit later, we happened upon a flock of Sandhill Cranes just about to alight in a corn field. A dozen or so swirled and circled surveying their landing spot and then beat their large grey wings as they came to rest, perhaps after many hours of flying. Lit perfectly by the morning sun, the Cranes’ red crowns glistened against their grey bodies. The engine silented for a moment and we listened to their squawking, trying to understand what they had to say about their journey.

The day was a long one and we began to tire of looking for Green Herons or American Bitterns, only to find giant flotillas of American Coots. But just as we thought we’d seen it all, we saw what looked like a darkening storm cloud. But as we focused our binoculars, we saw thousands of geese and tundra swans, swirling upward from a far off field. In that moment, I realized the immense biodiversity that we have here in the San Francisco Estuary. For thousands of years, these birds have been returning to this spot, relying on it for food, water, and rest. Without these wetlands, these birds wouldn’t be here and we wouldn’t be able to share in their profound beauty.

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