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Using eBird to help shorebirds

Long-billed Dowitchers. Photo by Brent Bremer
Long-billed Dowitchers. Photo by Brent Bremer

A paper published recently in the journal Science Advances confirms that a creative approach to bird and habitat conservation in California’s Central Valley really works.

In 2014, the Nature Conservancy launched BirdReturns, a program that pays rice farmers in California to flood their fields to provide temporary “pop-up” wetlands exactly when and where shorebirds need them. The strategy relies on data from eBird, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s online bird-observation program.

In its initial season in 2014, BirdReturns enrolled about 15 square miles of rice fields in the Sacramento Valley, the northernmost region of the Central Valley, an important region for shorebirds.

Lead author Mark Reynolds of the Nature Conservancy and his 19 co-authors used eBird data and local land cover and elevation data from NASA satellites to estimate the abundance of Long-billed Dowitcher, Least Sandpiper, and Dunlin, three common shorebirds in the valley.

The information then was used to select fields that had high value for shorebirds and that farmers were willing to add water to through a reverse auction.

The researchers recorded 57 waterbird species in fields enrolled in the program. “On average, shorebird species richness was more than three times greater and average shorebird density was five times greater on enrolled fields than unenrolled fields,” they wrote.


The program now covers more than 77 square miles of wetland habitat “including multiple seasons, and additional species groups, regions, and crop types.”

“The dynamic strategy we piloted offers a promising new ‘tool in the toolbox’ for advancing conservation of biodiversity in a changing world,” the authors say. “It may be particularly valuable for developing and implementing conservation plans for migratory species, whose dispersed habitat needs often test the limits of more traditional conservation approaches.”

A version of this article appears in the December 2017 issue of BirdWatching. Subscribe.

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