Audubon keeps its eyes on the drought

Dry management units at Volta Wildlife Area Photo credit: Fresno Audubon Society

Fresno Audubon Society’s President, Robert Snow, reflects on the initial results of drought impact surveying at Los Banos Wildlife Area’s wetland habitat in a cautiously hopeful tone, “Your wish is that you get to experience a flock of a thousand birds flying over your head when you do these [surveys], but I just haven’t seen that … it’s possible though that the birds just haven’t made it this far south.”

Similar observations have been noted at another location surveyed by Fresno Audubon at Volta Wildlife Area where dry patches of earth mark where wetland pools should be.  However disappointing these sights are, land managers are thankful to have an extra set of eyes watching over these at-risk ecosystems. Understanding how birds respond to drought stress on their refuges will provide real-time insight on how to protect Pacific Flyway migrants looking to rest and forage.

Fresno Audubon Society is partnered with Audubon California, Kern, Altacal, and Stanislaus chapters on a drought monitoring project being piloted throughout select Central Valley wildlife areas. Species occurrence and habitat characteristics are documented to inform water management decisions. The surveys will be used to demonstrate the effects of what Robert calls, “the denial of water to refuges” and identify troubled areas where avian disease or death may occur.

Shorebirds and waterfowl are being confronted with a reduction in viable habitat as historic drought conditions continue and insufficient water supplies are allocated to wetlands. The expectation from land managers was that species would crowd into what habitat was available which would facilitate the spread of events like avian cholera and die offs. Robert notes this has not been the case at Fresno Audubon’s study sites at this point. While communities of Black-necked Stilts, Green-winged Teals, and Northern Pintails have been recorded at Los Banos, it seems that the variability and abundance historically associated with such a dynamic ecosystem has been lost this season. Robert sees the dehydrated stretches of landscape thick with brittle cattails and few shallow pools as unappealing to most birds.  “If there’s no water, there are no birds” Robert says emphatically.

With these survey observations in mind, Audubon’s drought monitoring partnership will continue to survey wildlife areas to inform land management practices and influence the conversation around water distribution and drought to reflect the needs of birds.

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