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Migrating Birds Will Find Welcome Habitat in Texas on Annual Journey

Migrating Birds Will Find Welcome Habitat in Texas on Annual Journey

Story by Beverly Moseley

Driving through Chambers County, Texas, mere miles from the Gulf of Mexico, rice fields are green and birds are swooping through the air while rain showers build and dissipate on the horizon. This tranquil coastal scene is a sharp contrast to what some coastal counties in the United States are facing now that oil from the Deepwater Horizon well has reached their shorelines, their wildlife and habitat.

One proactive wildlife effort, the U.S. Department of Agriculture�s (USDA) Migratory Bird Habitat Initiative (MBHI), was launched recently in response to the oil spill and targets birds migrating through America�s flyway to coastal areas on the Gulf of Mexico.

Some coastal county producers and landowners in eight affected states now have an opportunity to provide habitat to migrating bird populations on their annual journey to rest, feed and roost. The initiative is administered through the USDA�s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

�Hopefully with the program and all the farmers taking part, it will give birds a chance to roost and stay in areas they normally would,� said Will Beaty, one of the first in Texas to enroll acreage into this initiative.

Beaty farms rice and owns Central Flyway Outfitters in Chambers County. He owns thousands of acres of coastal farmland, prairie and marshes in Chambers and Galveston Counties. He began purchasing the farm lands and wildlife habitat decades ago. He�s spent a lifetime learning about wildlife habitat and watching bird behavior.

�Water, food, safety � are things they need,� Beaty said.

Russell Castro, the state wildlife biologist for NRCS in Texas, welcomes the new opportunity to assist private landowners in this endeavor to help migratory birds and other wildlife species in Texas� coastal counties.

�The Migratory Bird Habitat Initiative provides the opportunity to create additional and alternative habitat by going back in there and flooding and doing the conservation practices, such as disking, to encourage desired vegetation for foraging, while also increasing populations of insects and larvae desired by waterfowl,� Castro said.

Initiative Basics

The NRCS� migratory bird initiative utilizes 2008 Farm Bill conservation programs such as the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) and the Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program (WHIP). The USDA has allocated $20 million in financial assistance distributed to MBHI farm bill programs in designated areas in eight states: Texas, Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and Missouri.

Beatty has enrolled 1,445 initiative acres into EQIP and 600 acres into WHIP. Under EQIP, rice farmers are paid to flood their fallow fields to create a wetland or overwintering habitat for waterfowl and shorebirds. Under WHIP, landowners are paid to flood non agriculture acreage that is suitable for wetland wildlife habitat to attract migratory birds.

�Most rice farmers will flood up fields anyway during overwintering season, but they are limited to how many they can flood, because of water costs per acre,� said David Manthei, NRCS district conservationist in Anahuac. �This program is going to give producers an opportunity to flood far more acres than they would typically be able to.�

By the Numbers

Miles and miles of water canals snake through Beaty�s land. Some of his property is the last agricultural base before the Gulf. Beaty said two challenges he faces each year are costs to pump water and trying to get water providers to continue sending water to his property for flooding after rice season.

�They all want to shut down because of the costs,� he said.

He noted that he is currently flooding roughly 600 acres and has the capability to flood 2,000 acres for wildlife habitat.

Bobby McGill, who manages Beaty�s operations, said costs for agriculture water has increased to $56 an acre from a low of $26 an acre, last year. NRCS� migratory bird initiative can help alleviate some of the costs associated with flooding fallow rice fields for migratory bird habitat.

As of mid-July, Texas had 71 percent of eligible contracts out of the initiative�s eight states, according to the NRCS state office in Temple. In eligible upper Texas coastal counties alone, more than 27,500 acres have been enrolled into MBHI and have been funded or are in active application program status.

NRCS is sharing 75 percent of the costs to flood designated contract acreage. Supporting partners in delivery of this initiative include Ducks Unlimited (DU), who also has a program in place to cost-share 25 percent of flooding costs for producers. Other partners include the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, along with local Soil and Water Conservation Districts.

Coastal communities also may realize an economic benefit from this initiative.

�There is a true economic value tied to the migratory birds. There are so many people that come to the area for just recreational birding. It�s a large income to coastal cities,� Castro said.

Loving the land

Whether it�s wadding into the rice fields with Beaty or bouncing along the levees with McGill watching waterfowl and shorebirds take flight, their passion for the land and the wildlife is evident.

�I just love it. It�s beyond the hunting,� Beaty said. �It�s managing the land and getting the birds to come. You feel like your accomplishing something when they show up and stay.�

Some of his property shares a border with the Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge and seems an extension of the national site. Opportunistic alligators watch while Killdeer, Roseate Spoonbills and Mottled Ducks feed. Threatened wildlife species also can be found on the properties. During migration, the area will be home to waterfowl such as geese, Mallards and Gadwall. Blue Wing Teal should begin arriving in the area in August.

�Everything that�s on the flyway we see,� Beaty said.

Beaty has been involved with DU for years and strives to share his passion for wildlife with other enthusiasts. He hosts youth activities on the property, along with the DU annual writer�s conference.

DU has done extensive member education and outreach on this initiative, increasing the success of this public-private effort. The organization recently received upwards of $2.5 million in a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to assist eligible landowners with Gulf Coast restoration and enhancement of migratory bird habitat in areas affected by the oil spill.

The future

The NRCS initiative may also prove beneficial for migrating birds on the central flyway for another reason � Hurricane Ike.

Ike�s fury rolled across Beaty�s land in 2008 destroying everything in its path. This is the first year he has been able to plant some of his acreage to rice. In Ike�s aftermath, waterfowl and shorebird populations were left searching for suitable habitat to rest and feed.

�The birds came still, but utilized the marsh,� Beaty said.

With the reduced habitat, roosting patterns were altered and birds scattered. They ended up feeding in more concentrated areas and competing for food. This resulted in decreased breedings and compromised survival rates for some bird species.

The pressure on the migrating populations had left what was once predictable behavior, unpredictable.

Two years after Ike, Beaty and McGill look across the land and smile. McGill said it�s like Ike exfoliated the land. Today soil nutrients have never been better and native grasses are abundant. Emerald green rice fields sweep to the horizon. Once these fields are harvested for the final time this season, water on acreage which is part of the MBHI will be released to flood the fallow land in an effort to provide suitable habitat for central flyway birds.

�It�s a wonderful program that we never had the privilege of enjoying before,� McGill said.

For more information on the NRCS MBHI visit http://www.tx.nrcs.usda.gov/programs/mbhi/index.html.

David Manthei, (left), NRCS district conservationist in Anahuac goes over Migratory Bird Habitat Initiative contracts with Will Beaty of Chambers County. Beaty has enrolled more than 2,000 acres into the agency�s initiative.

Will Beaty farms rice and operates Central Flyway Outfitters in Chambers County. He has three main water pumping stations and miles of canals for flooding rice fields, along with fallow fields.

David Manthei, (left), NRCS district conservationist in Anahuac goes over Migratory Bird Habitat Initiative contracts with Will Beaty of Chambers County. Beaty has enrolled more than 2,000 acres into the agency�s initiative.

Will Beaty farms rice and operates Central Flyway Outfitters in Chambers County. He has three main water pumping stations and miles of canals for flooding rice fields, along with fallow fields.

Rice fields appear emerald green on Will Beaty�s land. This is the first year since Hurricane Ike hit in 2008 that Beaty has been able to plant rice on some of his acreage. Bobby McGill, (rear), who manages the farming and outfitting operations for Will Beaty, (left), releases water into a fallow rice field that is part of the Migratory Habitat Bird Initiative. Beaty points out how quickly water levels can rise once water is released. Bobby McGill, (rear), who manages the farming and outfitting operations for Will Beaty, (left), releases water into a fallow rice field that is part of the Migratory Habitat Bird Initiative. Beaty points out how quickly water levels can rise once water is released.

Rice fields appear emerald green on Will Beaty�s land. This is the first year since Hurricane Ike hit in 2008 that Beaty has been able to plant rice on some of his acreage.

Bobby McGill, (rear), who manages the farming and outfitting operations for Will Beaty, (left), releases water into a fallow rice field that is part of the Migratory Habitat Bird Initiative. Beaty points out how quickly water levels can rise once water is released.

ducks alligator Wood Storks
Will Beaty�s Chambers County land which is enrolled into the Migratory Habitat Bird Initiative is home to a diverse wildlife population such as ducks, Wood Storks and alligators, along with an abundance of native grasses this year for foraging and nesting.