Birds make comeback in valley wetlands

July 24, 2008 

It isn't often we move forward by going backward, but that seems to be what's happening to the Central Valley's natural history. While social, economic and political news remains mostly negative, the good news is that many of the valley's native residents, long thought to be on a decline toward the point of no return, are making dramatic comebacks.

Consider the case of the white-faced ibis.

Exotic, splendiferous, multicolored with bursts of iridescent bronze, rose and green, the white-faced ibis resembles something come to life from an Egyptian hieroglyph. When feeding, they prance about on slender, storklike legs and probe at the mud and water with long, curved bills that look like inverted sickles. Only a few years ago, sightings were few and the numbers of birds per sighting could be counted on the fingers of two hands.

But in late June, a veteran birder counted more than 2,000 white-faced ibis near Patterson, marking a stunning comeback for these once common Central Valley residents.

The ibis are back because of habitat restoration by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, California Department of Fish and Game, and a diverse assortment of private and public organizations, including the Audubon Society and Nature Conservancy. The critical wetland habitat necessary for ibis breeding success has been restored enough so that it once again has begun to support ibis and other former residents of the great valley.

Another beneficiary of government protection and restoration is the Swainson's hawk, which has increased from an estimated 400 pairs in 1979 to more than 2,000 pairs in 2006. Most of the California population of these graceful raptors is concentrated in the Central Valley.

The dramatic expansion of the Swainson's hawk population is partly because of better protection on its wintering grounds in South America and Mexico, where pesticides had taken a disastrous toll on the birds. But part of the credit also goes to restoration of riparian habitat in the valley, where the birds breed.

The riparian habitat provides critical nesting sites for the hawks, which forage over our fields and flatlands, preying on rodents and insects. Once only rarely sighted, they now can be seen soaring almost anywhere in the valley -- even over Modesto, especially along the Tuolumne River and Dry Creek.

The return of these birds has been accompanied by the dramatic recovery of the formerly endangered Aleutian Canada goose.

While the white-faced ibis and Swainson's hawks are summer residents, the geese arrive in late fall and spend the winter near the confluence of the Tuolumne, San Joaquin and Stanislaus rivers, west of Modesto. Goose numbers are nearing six figures.

The dramatic recovery of many of the Central Valley's natural residents is in no small part because of superb work by employees of the California Department of Fish and Game and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Underfunded, understaffed and underappreciated, these dedicated workers have brought wildlife management to the highest state of the art.

They've been able to move our natural environment forward by going back to the magnificent history and habitats of times past. Before too long, the sighting of white-faced ibis no longer will be a shock and surprise. Instead, they will be cherished but common elements of our unique local landscape.

Caine, a Modesto resident, teaches in the humanities department at Merced College. E-mail him at columns@modbee.com.

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