By KATE CAMPBELL/Courtesy Of Ag Alert
Created: 01/27/2013 12:31:11 AM PST
Winter is usually a time when farming in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta slows down, but these days delta farmers are busy managing a different, louder -- and far more mobile -- aspect of their operations. Increasingly, land used to grow vegetable, field and forage crops from spring to fall is being transitioned to winter wildlife habitat.
The Cosumnes River Preserve, located off Interstate 5 south of Elk Grove, includes stands of old-growth valley oaks, vernal pools and natural wetlands. It also is home to the world's largest population of giant garter snakes; the area's rivers and streams provide habitat for protected fish.
And, on nearby Staten Island, a 9,000-acre agricultural tract outside Walnut Grove, there's one of the most important sandhill crane sanctuaries in the state.
At sunset on a winter evening last week, the cranes -- redheaded, with a wingspan of up to eight feet and weighing more than 10 pounds -- swooped over the island's flooded cornfields and settled in for the night. The birds' haunting bugles joined the avian chorus of quacks and calls that reaches a crescendo at dusk.
This wildlife phenomenon, which also takes place in Sacramento Valley rice fields to the north, attracts tourists and wildlife photographers from all over the world.
To nurture these burgeoning wildlife populations, increased habitat is created through a carefully managed system of field flooding and draining, which breaks down rice and corn residue while providing food and habitat.
Environmentalists and many farmers agree they want the birds, which are part of the winter migration along the Pacific Flyway, to continue roosting in the delta far into the future. To encourage that, they're testing and adopting cultural practices for corn and other crops.