Feeding a crowd

Sandhill cranes forage on Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge. From October through the end of January, the refuge becomes a key stopover point for birds migrating along the Pacific Flyway. “It’s not unusual to see 100,000 birds each day on the Salton Sea during those months, and then another 100,000 scattered on managed habitat near the southern shore of the Salton Sea,”  says Chris Schoneman, project leader for the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge Complex. Credit: Rebecca Fabbri/USFWS

Sandhill cranes forage on Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge. From October through the end of January, the refuge becomes a key stopover point for birds migrating along the Pacific Flyway. “It’s not unusual to see 100,000 birds each day on the Salton Sea during those months, and then another 100,000 scattered on managed habitat near the southern shore of the Salton Sea,” says Chris Schoneman, project leader for the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge Complex. Credit: Rebecca Fabbri/USFWS

Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge serves up winter meals to migratory birds

By Meghan Snow
December 6, 2018

It’s the holidays, and for many of us, that means planning meals for large groups of people who descend on our homes. Now, imagine if you had to plan a meal for 100,000 guests.

Chris Schoneman and Tom Anderson, spend much of their summer months doing just that. Starting in June, they develop plans for crops that will be grown on the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge to feed hungry birds that arrive in the fall.

“The main value of the Salton Sea is the food it provides to birds,” said Chris Schoneman, project leader for the refuge complex. “During peak migration, birds on the refuge consume approximately 45,000 pounds of vegetation every two days.” Credit: Rebecca Fabbri/USFWS

“The main value of the Salton Sea is the food it provides to birds,” said Chris Schoneman, project leader for the refuge complex. “During peak migration, birds on the refuge consume approximately 45,000 pounds of vegetation every two days.” Credit: Rebecca Fabbri/USFWS

“From October through the end of January, this refuge becomes a key stopover point for birds migrating along the Pacific Flyway,” said Schoneman, project leader for the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge Complex. “It’s not unusual to see 100,000 birds each day on the Salton Sea during those months, and then another 100,000 scattered on managed habitat near the southern shore of the Salton Sea.”

More than 400 species of birds have come through the refuge. Many birds, including green-wing teal, snow geese and even roseate spoonbills and yellow-footed gulls, are drawn to the refuge’s unique location in the middle of the Sonoran Desert—an oasis along their migration route. The birds attract as many as 25,000 birdwatchers from 20 different countries each year.

On a late September day, as the temperature crept above the century mark, Schoneman and Anderson drove out to the refuge’s farmed lands, a 10-minute drive east of the visitors center. While the bulk of the 32,766-acre refuge exists in a natural state, 2,000 acres is used to grow a variety of crops.

Both cropland acreage and managed wetlands are prepared in the early summer and left for the birds to enjoy as they migrate through in the fall and winter.

More than 400 species of birds have come through the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge. Many birds, including green-wing teal, snow geese and even roseate spoonbills and yellow-footed gulls, are drawn to the refuge’s unique location in the middle of the Sonoran Desert—an oasis along their migration route. Credit: Rebecca Fabbri/USFWS

More than 400 species of birds have come through the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge. Many birds, including green-wing teal, snow geese and even roseate spoonbills and yellow-footed gulls, are drawn to the refuge’s unique location in the middle of the Sonoran Desert—an oasis along their migration route. Credit: Rebecca Fabbri/USFWS

“The main value of the Salton Sea is the food it provides to birds,” said Schoneman, as the truck traveled down the dusty, red dirt road. “During peak migration, birds on the refuge consume approximately 45,000 pounds of vegetation every two days.”

Growing this much food is no easy task. The soil at the refuge is very high in salinity, and without enhancement, crops won’t grow and bugs and worms that birds like to feast upon won’t take up residence in the dirt.

For the past five years, Anderson has spent a good portion of his time cultivating the soil. The refuge experimented with tilling strategies, including no-till strategies. Tilling the land every summer is time consuming, and staff found that there wasn’t a big difference in the size of the forage plants and seed heads of the crops that were grown. With this insight, the refuge now uses no-till strategies for crops grown in the managed fields.

Over the past five years, refuge staff experimented with tilling strategies, including no-till strategies. According to Anderson, tilling the land every summer is time consuming, and staff found that there wasn’t a big difference in the size of the forage plants and seed heads of the crops that were grown. Credit: Rebecca Fabbri/USFWS

Over the past five years, refuge staff experimented with tilling strategies, including no-till strategies. According to Anderson, tilling the land every summer is time consuming, and staff found that there wasn’t a big difference in the size of the forage plants and seed heads of the crops that were grown. Credit: Rebecca Fabbri/USFWS

“It saves time and money,” said Anderson, deputy project leader for the complex,  as the truck rumbled past early-arriving Sandhill cranes who endure the late summer heat for the bounty the refuge has already produced.

As the truck pulled up to the refuge’s wheat fields, the blonde, grainy heads were thick and ready for the birds to arrive. In addition to wheat, the refuge farms rye grass. These crops feed more than 30,000 wintering snow geese and hundreds of Sandhill cranes that travel through the refuge and prefer to feed on dry land.

“Wheat and rye grass are easier to grow. They don’t require the use of pesticides, and both do well throughout the year,” said Schoneman as he crumbled one of the seed heads in his hand.

Project leader Chris Schoneman displays wheat grain from a managed field on Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge. The crops grown on the refuge feed more than 30,000 wintering snow geese and hundreds of Sandhill cranes that travel through the refuge each year and prefer to feed on dry land. Credit: Rebecca Fabbri/USFWS

Project leader Chris Schoneman displays wheat grain from a managed field on Ssonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge. The crops grown on the refuge feed more than 30,000 wintering snow geese and hundreds of Sandhill cranes that travel through the refuge each year and prefer to feed on dry land. Credit: Rebecca Fabbri/USFWS

Back in the truck, Schoneman and Anderson cranked the air conditioning and moved along to check on the managed wetlands. Each pond is carefully designed for resident and migratory bird species, including waterfowl, shorebirds and wading birds.

Sprangle top grass, Japanese millet, wigeon grass, and swamp timothy weave through the sparkling water, and not by accident. The refuge crew floods the plants at various depths in the ponds to meet the preferences of each bird – from long-legged wading birds to diving waterfowl. All are favorite foraging grasses for migrating birds.

The ponds are lined with cattails and alkali bulrush, providing a tall, thick wall of greenery, ideal for nesting and year-round habitat for the endangered Yuma clapper rail, least bittern, American avocet and black-necked stilt.

“We have the formula down on how to make a good wetland each year for the birds, so it’s less time intensive than the first few years,” said Tom Anderson (left), with Chris Schoneman. Credit: Rebecca Fabbri/USFWS

“We have the formula down on how to make a good wetland each year for the birds, so it’s less time intensive than the first few years,” said Tom Anderson (left), with Chris Schoneman. Credit: Rebecca Fabbri/USFWS

“We have the formula down on how to make a good wetland each year for the birds, so it’s less time intensive than the first few years,” said Anderson.

In this desert landscape, the creation of the wetlands cannot be dependent on rain. The area only receives about three inches of rain a year, and as of September, it hadn’t rained in more than a year. To compensate for the dry conditions, the refuge purchases 9,000 acre-feet of water each year from the Imperial Irrigation District for the wetlands and crops. While consuming a significant portion of the refuge’s budget, this water is critical in helping the refuge meet its goal to make the lands as productive as possible for the birds.

“We want to make sure the grains we grow are high in calories and provide good nutrition for these birds as they prepare for the next leg of their journey,” said Anderson.

Since September, the daily temperature has cooled to the high 70s, and the number of birds landing at the refuge is growing every day. Thankfully, Schoneman and Anderson have created a smorgasbord to greet their guests.

So go on, birds, loosen up those feather belts and dig in.

For the moment, this great blue heron has the field to itself. Both cropland acreage and managed wetlands are prepared in the early summer and left for the birds to enjoy as they migrate through the refuge in the fall and winter. Credit: Rebecca Fabbri/USFWS

For the moment, this great blue heron has the field to itself. Both cropland acreage and managed wetlands are prepared in the early summer and left for the birds to enjoy as they migrate through the refuge in the fall and winter. Credit: Rebecca Fabbri/USFWS


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Meghan Snow

About the writer...

Meghan Snow is the congressional affairs specialist for the Pacific Southwest Region. An avid biker, runner and snowboarder, she brings her love for the outdoors to the office every day, promoting the Service's conservation work throughout the region.

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