A Misty Walk through the Wetlands


During a rainy and foggy Thursday morning walk, I observed a wide variety of wildlife congregating on the wet meadows of the north end of the valley. As I looked through my binoculars to identify the groups of Mallards and Wigeons, I noticed several Greater Yellowlegs foraging at the edge of the inundated field. Greater Yellowlegs are in the sandpiper family and spend their winters stopping over at marshes and suitable aquatic habitats in California and down to the southern tip of Argentina and Chile. The Greater Yellowlegs that have stopped over in Little Lake Valley on their spring migration most likely left their warm wintering grounds in South America last February. Over the course of the morning several groups of Yellowlegs flew overhead in search of new foraging grounds, their flight call clearly audible, a scratchy high-pitched ‘deew deew deew.’ Greater Yellowlegs can be identified by their yellow legs, long dark bill, and black and white speckling on their back.

Wetlands are a vital component of the ecosystem, supporting unique flora and fauna throughout the year. These are lands transitional between terrestrial and deep water habitats where the water table usually is at or near the land surface or the land is covered by shallow water (Cowardin Et al, 1979).  Wetlands benefit the environment by absorbing and storing floodwaters, reducing downstream damage, and serving as a buffer against erosion. Nutrients are also recycled, thereby alleviating pollution issues (California Wetland Resources). California’s wetlands provide critical wintering and breeding habitat for immense numbers of migrating waterfowl and shorebirds along the Pacific Flyway.

For thousands of years prior to the arrival of European settlers, the Central Valley was a rich, diverse landscape that supported large populations of both resident and migratory species of fish and wildlife (Garone 2011). The relatively recent history of California’s wetlands is tied to the growth and development of agriculture, and the massive irrigation and reclamation projects that supported the state’s agricultural industry. Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, California pursued policies aimed at making the state an agricultural empire, and in the process came close to destroying all of its wetlands. These practices were supported by the federal government. The Swamp and Overflowed Lands Act of 1849 made it the policy of the U.S. government to promote the drainage of wetlands by the states for conversion to agriculture. This policy reflected the ill-informed thinking of European settlers during that time: that wetlands were wastelands that not only failed to provide economic benefits, but also posed a significant health risk from malaria (Garone 2011). The Native American inhabitants did not share this view, as they had a working generational knowledge of the natural world and relied on wetlands as a valuable source of both sustenance and raw materials. Since that point in time up until the later twentieth century, California experienced a dramatic decline in its wetlands, losing 90 percent of its estimated five million wetland acres.

Although the volume of wetland losses has been enormous, there is reason to be optimistic about the future of wetlands in California. The scientific and public perceptions of wetlands started to shift in the early 1900s, with the noticeable decline of waterfowl and other game bird populations. The Migratory Bird Treaty with Canada was passed in 1916 and private citizen groups, notably Ducks Unlimited, started efforts to protect waterfowl breeding grounds in the 1930s (Garone 2011). The large amount of revenue generated by recreational use such as hunting and fishing has funded conservation efforts and greatly increased the public’s interest in protecting and sustaining California’s natural resources. An era of wildlife refuge creation in the Central Valley was initiated by state and federal agencies at that time. Changes in land-use practices since the 1980s have caused increases or improvements in wetland habitats (California Wetland Resources). Today, there are many government agencies and private organizations that participate in wetland conservation. Resource Conservation Districts (RCDs) such as the Mendocino County Resource Conservation District assist the State in conserving soil and water resources, including wetlands (California Wetland Resources).  

Here on the Willits Bypass Mitigation Lands, conservation efforts are resulting in visible results. The beavers that are protected along Outlet Creek help sustain the aquatic habitat on the north end of Little Lake Valley, benefiting many wetland-dependent species. The Wood Duck boxes that have been installed are encouraging this majestic waterfowl species to thrive. In fact, as of this week, one of the nest boxes harbors a Wood Duck female preparing to raise another brood this season. Hiking through the wet meadows, I pause and take it all in. The mist-strewn hills serve as the perfect backdrop to a scene of Tule Elk crashing through the water, Swallows maneuvering effortlessly through the air, Red-wing Blackbirds establishing their territories, and a Green Heron flushing from its roost in a line of ash trees.