There were more than just ducks at California Duck Days this sunny Saturday. There were the fruits of conversations between the stewards of the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area — the farmers, the conservationists and the scientists.
A dip of a net in a rice field — that is part-time food producer, part-time environmental study — turns up a handful of twisting and swimming zooplankton.
These critters — visible to the unaided exploring eyes of Yolo County children Saturday morning — are a bountiful dinner in the food chain. Diners include endangered young salmon on their way to sea, as well as numerous shorebirds, ducks and geese that pass through the valley on migration through the Pacific Flyway from Barrow to Tierra del Fuego.
California Duck Days is an annual event to celebrate the wetlands and wildlife they provide. It is organized by the Yolo Basin Foundation and hosted by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
The festival begins at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area Headquarters. It branches out with tours to several locations in the area giving bird watchers with binoculars and high-powered cameras images of flying flocks of birds that look a lot like shimmering fish with wings — the dunlins, the least sandpipers and the American avocets to name a few.
But much less of this wildlife might be here without agreements between the conservationists, scientists and farmers.
Clad in a cowboy hat and flannel shirt, Jacob Katz not only entertained groups of bird watchers, he educated them about the food chain and the importance of sharing the delta for both food production and wildlife.
Katz is director of salmon initiatives for CalTrout, whose mission is “to protect and restore wild trout, steelhead, salmon and their waters throughout California.”
Rice farmers who traditionally would burn the fields at the end of harvest to prepare for the next season, said Katz, have now gone to flooding the fields after a harvest following recent statewide clean-air initiatives.
Katz is now studying the weights and populations of young salmon who feed on zooplankton in nine, 2-acre flooded fields compared to young salmon reared in other locations like the Sacramento River.
“The food isn’t in the river — it’s in the flood plains,” said Katz, as he pointed to photographs of young salmon from both locations — those from the flood plains being visibly larger. “Low-lying marshlands are now in rice (production) — and they can still provide habitat for fish.”
John Brennan of Robbins Rice Company participated in the study at Knagg’s Ranch, just off Interstate 5 between the Sacramento International Airport and Woodland, which was one destination of the California Duck Days tours.
“We are trying to integrate environmental use into agricultural landscape,” Brennan said. “We have to prove that we can actually raise fish populations before we can get anyone to support it.”
Multi-use of the flooded fields is between growing seasons, Brennan added. Rice straw after harvest is mashed into the ground in conjunction with field flooding to increase nitrogen fixation, which is beneficial for farming as well as zooplankton.
“We want to show that you can actually raise fish on a rice field but not take rice out of production,” he said. “We don’t want to lose rice.”
With those studies ongoing, bird watchers turned their lenses as 200 to 300 silver and gray dunlin passed over a flooded rice field, while altogether changing direction for the cameras of avian enthusiasts up early on a Saturday morning.
Meanwhile, back at the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area Headquarters, 6-year-old Benjamin Leeman, with dad Thomas Leeman, learned how to gut a rainbow trout.
Hands covered in fish blood, the Leemans learned the difference between a fish pancreas and a liver and the good stuff for the grill.
Mike Mullins, volunteer for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, has been volunteering here for five years.
“Let the kids take ‘em home,” said Mullins, whose children have now grown up. Mullins also teaches hunter’s education including courses in firearm safety and archery.
More than 200 rainbows were brought to the pond at headquarters this year where hundreds of kids stood at the banks with fishing poles.
“Pan-fried with lemon, garlic, parsley and a little pepper and salt,” said Mary Horne of Davis, as her son, Solon, 9, washed his hands in the bucket.
Katz said more ducks and geese were counted this season than in any year in the bypass area, and fish were doing quite well too.
An aquarium set up by Fish and Wildlife showed 18 species found at Nimbus Fish Hatchery on the American River upstream near Sacramento.
Only six of these species were native, however, said Karin Petrites, scientific aide for the Department of Fish and Wildlife: rainbow trout, Chinook salmon, Sacramento pikeminnow, blackfish, hitch and the tule perch.
More information about next year’s California Duck Days can be found at www.yolobasin.org.
— Reach Jason McAlister at [email protected]