A piece preserved

Autumn welcomes volunteers and migrating birds to Cosumnes River Preserve

When not staffing the visitor center desk, volunteer Jim Dunn guides nature walks, bird watches and canoes on the Cosumnes River.

When not staffing the visitor center desk, volunteer Jim Dunn guides nature walks, bird watches and canoes on the Cosumnes River.

SN&R Photo By Sena Christian

Next week’s topic: mistreatment of circus animals

The first of the sandhill cranes that will pass through the Cosumnes River Preserve on their migration south arrived three weeks ago. Soon, thousands of cranes will reside here, some settling through the spring before heading back to breeding grounds in Alaska, Canada and Siberia. Several Canada geese have arrived, as well, and volunteer Jim Dunn spotted four flying overhead on a recent Wednesday morning. While these birds often move on, sometimes they stay put.

“Canada geese are famous for hanging around,” Dunn explained.

Almost 250 bird species have called this preserve home, making the location in Galt a haven for bird watchers. With the start of the migratory season, people come out in droves, usually at dawn with binoculars hanging from their necks, eager to spot a great blue heron or snowy egret, and hear the loud clacking and chirping of the birds’ autumn morning chorus. Dunn doesn’t have a favorite bird; he enjoys them all, knowing most by sight and a select few by their calls. He learned about birds not only from his day job as a wildlife photographer, but also from his experience as a naturalist volunteer with the preserve, where he started volunteering four years ago after moving to West Sacramento from San Diego.

“I just needed to connect with people and the environment around here,” he said.

He walked along the Lost Slough Wetlands Walk, a 1-mile paved trail that weaves around a northern section of the preserve across the Union Pacific railroad tracks, dressed in typical volunteer attire—tan slacks, sturdy hiking boots, plaid shirt and a cap to block out the mid-morning sun. Dunn pointed out the wood duck boxes he manages and talked about how bird-migration season will soon be in full-swing. October also happens to be the start of the volunteer season, when training begins for another group of nature enthusiasts who will keep this vital ecosystem in the Central Valley flourishing.

Named by the Nature Conservancy as one of 75 “Last Great Places,” the 46,000-acre preserve is situated one mile off Interstate 5. In addition to the birds, 30 mammals and 18 species of reptiles have been identified here, according to Jennifer Buck, restoration ecologist for the preserve. The free-flowing, 80-mile-long Cosumnes River running through the preserve begins in the El Dorado National Forest of the Sierra Nevada Mountains at an elevation of about 7,600 feet and joins the engineered Mokelumne River on its way to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, which flows through San Francisco Bay into the Pacific Ocean. While hemmed in by levees, the river and its floodplain are relatively close to a natural state. But the ecology is also far different than it once was, as is the case with most of Northern California.

“When you drive down the Central Valley, 95 percent of what was wild is gone,” estimated Jon Courtway, who has volunteered with the preserve since 1988.

Miwok Indians once lived in the region, feasting off acorns and Chinook salmon. The word Cosumnes may actually derive from the Miwok word for salmon. The fish still exist here, although not to the same magnitude. With the 1848 Gold Rush, an influx of settlers moved west. Farmers recognized the valley’s rich soil and cleared bottomland, diverted streams and built canals into fields to farm the land and feed the gold miners in the foothills. Wetlands were drained, valley oaks cut down, and wheat, cotton and vegetable crops planted. A century later, additional land fell to suburban sprawl.

In 1987, an effort began to recapture the land, initiated by the Nature Conservancy, who bought up 85 acres. Through a 20-year process of land acquisition and environmental easement, thousands of acres have been obtained, first protecting the lower floodplain and later a portion of the upper watershed after the Nature Conservancy purchased a 12,300-acre cattle ranch. The preserve is a demonstration in the success of conservation partnerships and is jointly owned by the Nature Conservancy, Bureau of Land Management, Ducks Unlimited, California Department of Fish and Game, State Lands Commission, California Department of Water Resources, Sacramento County and private owners.

Although current appearances show otherwise, the Central Valley used to contain one of the largest expanses of streamside forest and wetland habitats in North America. A forest several miles wide once enveloped the Cosumnes River corridor, Courtway said. But the riparian (streamside) forest and freshwater marsh now have been reduced to less than 4 percent of their historic occurrence in the state.

Ecologists are getting help from the undammed Cosumnes in restoring these plant communities in the preserve. Heavy rains result in frequent flooding and with this water comes rich silt and sand, hauling valuable nutrients to forests, wetlands and grasslands. Several years ago, a levee break carried water filled with seeds and saplings to the southeast area of the preserve. A few years later, an “accidental forest” emerged. Valley oak, cottonwood, Oregon ash, box elder and several species of willow are once again thriving along the river, Buck said. Altogether about 400 plant species are found on the preserve, 60 percent native to California and 40 percent exotic.

On another September morning, Courtway pointed out the accidental forest as he tackled a 3-mile dirt nature trail that starts next to Willow Slough, where rain runoff and tidal action push back upstream. To the east, 30 acres of freshwater seasonal marsh restored by Ducks Unlimited provide wintering habitat for migratory birds. Courtway likes the forests and marshes, but his favorite spot is a small patch surrounded by trees when the river first comes into view. He pointed out grape vines growing on the mature trees and holes dug by beavers, animals that gnaw to keep their teeth short. While explaining how American Indians traditionally used the tule plant and native Barbara sedge for basket weaving, he stopped to listen to a bird sing.

“I guess it’s my outdoor church,” Courtway said of the preserve. “You get a chance to be observant and quiet.”

Almost 20 years after first volunteering, Courtway still enjoys the work because he gets to share his appreciation of the natural world and hopefully help people realize just how little of it is left, he said. Volunteering still has its surprises. That morning, a barn owl dipped down hunting for food and came up empty, stopping a moment to look at Courtway before flying away.

For many, the birds are a highlight. When corn harvest finishes in mid-October, Stanton Island, a 9,200-acre farm, opens to the public and thousands of waterfowl make the spot a spectacular site. The preserve supports permanent and seasonal wetlands. Some of the wetlands are shallow, serving the dabbling ducks and shorebirds that don’t need much water and some of them have been sculpted to deeper levels for the diving ducks.

“You can talk about wetlands until hell freezes over,” Dunn said on that Wednesday morning. “If [birds] didn’t have it, they’d have no place to feed or to rest. It’s an integral piece.”

Dunn looked out over the wetlands toward other lands on which dozens of grizzly bears and herds of elk once roamed.

“I just love being here,” he said. “To me, it’s just a little piece of heaven on Earth.”

For more information on volunteering with the preserve, call Amber Veselka at (916) 683-1700.