Millions of birds migrate through California this time of year, but the waterways and wetlands they rely on for food and rest are largely dry due to the ongoing drought. So farmers are keeping their fields flooded to make temporary wetlands, providing a place for migrating birds to rest and eat.
Rice farmer Douglas Thomas is one of these farmers. On a recent morning some 3,000 snow geese float in his rice fields in California's Central Valley. He's watching a young bald eagle awkwardly dive at the flock.
"As soon as they start getting here, this is what I sit and do," he says. "I keep my binoculars in my truck."
The birds come here because Thomas always keeps his fields flooded in January. The water decomposes the rice straw left over from the previous year's harvest. Usually, at the end of January, he says, "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."
But not this year. Thomas is leaving water on his fields a little longer as part of an experiment.
Nature Conservancy scientist Mark Reynolds is 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.
"It's like 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," Reynolds says.
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, he 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.
"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," he says.
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.
"The traditional model in conservation, it's actually [to] permanently buy a piece of property or an easement. It's very expensive — it's prohibitively expensive — and also, we don't actually want to displace farmers from that property," Hallstein says.
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.
Thomas, the rice farmer, says he is taking a risk doing it.
"It'll push back our planting cycle. We can't get into our fields earlier, so we're putting harder, more longer hours on our tractor and our crew," Thomas says.
But there's a personal upside. "Northern pintail is my favorite bird," Thomas says. "It's such a graceful, amazing creature. And that we're part of that annual cycle — that's a neat, special thing."
By April, these fields will be dry and the birds will be back on their way up north.