Beautiful and functional

CHELBERT DAI / AGGIE
CHELBERT DAI / AGGIE

Historical wetland habitats provide nature space to de-stress

A huge mass of black swarms across the sky, momentarily blocking the golden rays of the late afternoon sun. It twists and turns, gracefully bending and bulging into different shapes until it sinks back down to earth, disappearing in the tall brown grasses of the marshland.

This morphing mass that can be seen across the Central Valley is actually made up of thousands of small individual forms — birds. This phenomenon is called a murmuration.

“You’ll be driving along the highway, and over an open field, a grassland or across the valley, you see a huge flock of birds,” said Sami LaRocca, a tour guide for the Davis Wetlands. “The birds act as this one organism, and it’s just phenomenal to watch. Sometimes they fill the whole sky, twisting […] over themselves to make intricate artwork. It’s just wonderful.”

According to LaRocca, many observers of these murmurations believe they are made up of one type of bird, but these flocks are often more than a single species. Birdwatchers enjoy watching murmurations and try to point out the oddities in each one.

“[The birds] come together to find a place to roost at night and they use their energy to connect with one another,” LaRocca said. “While they’re going around they’re chattering […] and don’t run into each other hardly ever.”

The Davis Wetlands is one of many popular destinations among the birding community. The Wetlands host a large variety of wildlife besides these birds — mammals, reptiles, amphibians and many species of trees, shrubs, grasses and emergent aquatic plants inhabit the area as well.

LaRocca has been a docent with the Yolo Basin Foundation for the past 12 years, but it wasn’t until about three years ago that she learned about birds. Now she feels confident enough in her knowledge that she leads tours of the wetlands for fellow birdwatchers and other local residents of the area.

“Our mission statement says [that the Yolo Basin Foundation] is an environmental education nonprofit dedicated to the stewardship of wetlands in the Yolo Basin,” said Michael Herrera, community outreach and volunteer coordinator for the Yolo Basin Foundation. “[The Yolo Basin Foundation] leads educational tours of the Davis Wetlands and the Yolo Bypass [Wildlife Area].”

These tours are available to the public the first Saturday of every month at the Davis Wetlands and the second Saturday of every month at the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area; both serving as opportunities to learn more about why the Yolo Basin is considered a prime location for wetland restoration. Indeed, until the turn of the century, much of the Central Valley existed as wetlands. In fact, about 95 percent of the original wetlands have been lost due to urban and agricultural manipulations of the land.

It may seem strange that the vast spaces of farmland we see today used to be marshlands during most of the year. As students, there is a universal generalization that the Central Valley is simply flat, empty land best fit for agriculture, and has always been that way. This assumption, however, is wrong. The local environment used to be very different.

“The Yolo Basin is the historic term for the large floodplain that existed between Davis and Sacramento,” said John T. McNerney, a Wildlife Resource Specialist for the City of Davis, in an e-mail interview. “Today the ‘basin’ is generally referenced to as the Yolo Bypass which is contained by levees on the east and west sides. The Bypass moves Sacramento River flood waters past the city of Sacramento to the delta.”

The Yolo Wildlife Area is managed by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, while the Davis Wetlands are owned and maintained by the City of Davis. Both areas, though, are part of a growing effort to preserve and restore native habitats.

Not only do the Davis Wetlands provide support for native wildlife, but they are part of the wastewater treatment process. In 1970, the City of Davis constructed the Water Pollution Control Plant, colloquially referred to as the wastewater treatment plant. It receives raw sewage from the City of Davis, which undergoes a series of treatment processes until it reaches an advanced secondary level before it is released into the watershed.

“The Davis Wetlands were constructed in 1999 to restore wetlands habitat and provide additional wastewater and stormwater treatment,” McNerney said. “At the moment, the Davis Wetlands are considered part of the wastewater treatment process. They act as polishing basins for additional removal of suspended solids and nutrients from the wastewater. Likewise, the Wetlands detain stormwater runoff to allow the settling of suspended solids and sediments.”

Under federal law, water that is treated at the secondary level is not meant for human use, but does not bother the waterfowl that occupy the ponds, or tracts, of transitioning wastewater. The aquatic vegetation within these tracts filters the water, oxygenates it and allows microorganisms to contract. If it weren’t for the wastewater treatment plant and the wastewater from the community, the birds and other animals that rely on this type of marsh environment would be without a habitat.

There are a total of 220 acres of permanent wetlands, 44 acres of seasonal wetlands, 26 acres of riparian woodlands and 208 acres of grassland. Essentially, there is a lot of nature that the wetlands have to offer, and it’s only a 15 minute drive (30 minute bike ride) away from the heart of campus. With the stress of school and pressures of responsibilities, these spaces offer an opportunity to escape to a beautiful place as well as learn about the native environment, and maybe even pick up birdwatching as a new hobby.

Any and all of these places around here are wonderful places to go on tours,” LaRocca said. “You don’t have to be a scientist or have an interest in birds, [it’s good for] you [if you] just want to get out in nature and breathe fresh air. […] It’s as fresh as you can get, especially in our polluted society.

Written by: Marlys Jeane — features@theaggie.org