SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
California's bracing for one of its driest years in decades. The drought is hitting farmers hard but it is also affecting billions of birds that travel the migratory route known as the Pacific Flyway. These birds are finding that the waterways and wetlands they rely on for food and rest are largely empty. Lauren Sommer from member station KQED reports on a new effort to create temporary wetlands in an especially dry year.
LAUREN SOMMER, BYLINE: Douglas Thomas always knows when the snow geese arrive on his farm.
DOUGLAS THOMAS: Those fields behind there will fill with geese. It's just so loud. It is so loud.
SOMMER: They actually keep him and his family from sleeping. They go all night?
THOMAS: Oh, yeah. They're like - you'll listen to this all night long.
SOMMER: Despite the lack of sleep, Thomas is a big fan of these birds. On this cold, clear morning, some 3,000 snow geese are floating in his rice fields in California's Central Valley. He's watching a young bald eagle awkwardly dive at the flock.
THOMAS: As soon as they start getting here, this is what I sit and do. I keep my binoculars in my truck.
SOMMER: The birds come here because Thomas always keep his fields flooded in January. The water decomposes the rice straw left over from last year's harvest. Usually, at the end of January...
THOMAS: We would let our water go and start trying to dry our fields out because the lake that's in front of us has to be dry enough to drive a tractor in it and then we've got to seed it.
SOMMER: But not this year. Thomas is leaving water on his fields a little longer as part of an experiment.
MARK REYNOLDS: There's White-fronted Geese and there's Tundra Swans in this...
SOMMER: Nature Conservancy scientist Mark Reynolds is here working with Thomas. Reynolds says this farm is right in the middle of the Pacific Flyway, a vast migration route that stretches from the Arctic to South America. The Central Valley is a key pit stop for millions of birds along the way.
REYNOLDS: It's like the stopping on a road trip and so anywhere that they can find habitat and find things to eat to put on fat for their journey, they'll stop.
SOMMER: But Reynolds says there aren't many places left to stop. Ninety percent of the Central Valley's historic wetlands have been filled in and this year's record drought has made it even tougher. Reynolds wanted to know where and when the birds need wetlands so we turned to an app on his iPad called E-Bird. Birders have used it to report tens of thousands of bird sightings creating a detailed data set.
REYNOLDS: What it gives us that we've not really had before is for many, many species we now can look week by week at arrival patterns in California.
SOMMER: In places that lack wetlands, the Nature Conservancy asked rice farmers to put up bids, pricing out how much it would cost to leave water on their fields. Nature Conservancy economist Eric Hallstein says the payments are a cost effective way to create habitat.
ERIC HALLSTEIN: The traditional model in conservation it's actually permanently buy a piece of property or an easement, and it's very expensive - it's prohibitively expensive. And also we don't actually want to displace farmers from that property.
SOMMER: About 10,000 acres of these pop-up wetlands will exist through March. If it works here, it could expand to other parts of the country. Rice farmer Douglas Thomas says he is taking a risk doing it.
THOMAS: It'll push back our planning cycle. We can't get into our fields earlier, so we're putting harder, more longer hours on our tractor, on our crew.
SOMMER: But there's a personal upside.
THOMAS: Northern Pintail's my favorite bird. It's such a graceful, amazing creature and that we're part of that annual cycle, you know, that's a neat, special thing.
SOMMER: By April, these fields will be dry and the birds will be back on their way up north. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Sommer.
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