“There must be now about 10,000 acres of the Miller and Lux property, under irrigation for pasture, much less than formerly; and I was told that just as soon as old man Miller, now about 80 years old, dies, the whole thing will be cut up for colonization. So that this famous feeding ground for water-birds is doomed.”
-Joseph Grinnell, 25 June 1916
I drove to the site the first morning prepared for the worst: a once rich and productive wetland brimming with ducks and other waterbirds, now drained and cordoned off into crop fields.
Instead I was met with an unexpected sight: reeds. The dense stems encased the roadsides and sprang in bold clumps from the stunted vegetation of vast and verdant meadows, flat as a pan and perfect to cradle a thriving wetland.
Except there was no water.
My excitement quickly renewed to disappointment. Three days of surveys with only a handful of herons and egrets wading through a couple scant inches of water left pooled in roadside irrigation ditches. And not a duck besides the broken decoys discarded into the irrigation ditches.
Out in the fields we spoke with one of the property owners, who told us the vast area is managed predominantly for duck hunting clubs. But the wetlands are only possible through extensive manual flooding, and this year, there’s simply no water to be pumped in. The oasis for waterfowl described by Grinnell, and even the modern day property owner, has dried out. Plenty of marsh species still thrive amidst the reeds – Song Sparrows, Common Yellowthroats, Marsh Wrens – but no ducks.
After our surveys we drove north to the San Joaquin Wildlife Refuge, hoping to find that most elusive resource – water. But ever in the refuge, there was none. The flat expanses between the reeds had drained down into meadows, just like in our survey site. And not a duck to be seen. Not even a Mallard.
Tragic as the story may be, the land is far from doomed. If water ever returns to the valley, the meadows will spring back to productive wetlands in an instant. And even if they aren’t thriving in the meantime, it is encouraging to see them hanging on. Our final morning, an unusual trickle of water began to fill the irrigation ditches along the road. Not enough to bring the marshes back. But enough to keep the cattails alive. And to fill them with more excited Song Sparrows than we could count.
The rest of the country here also abounds with character.
I was thrilled as a kid in a candy shop when I found my very own duck decoy for a souvenir. And the second decoy I found was just icing on the cake. Especially considering the beautiful crayfish exoskeleton I found hiding inside. Like a duck decoy Kinder egg.
An even more impressive collection of decoys is on display at the visitor center of the San Joaquin National Wildlife Refuge.
Which also had some of the best interpretive exhibits I have ever had the pleasure of perusing.