June 16, 2014

Bird Conservation Through Observation

by Emily Longman

Emily Longman '15 is a Royce Fellow taking action to sustain bird populations threatened by global warming and human disturbances in northern California.

If the superstition is true that it's good luck to get pooped on by a bird, then I'm in for a very lucky summer.
As soon as the school year ended at Brown, I got onto a plane to fly across the country to San Diego, California. I immediately began my research project studying California Least Terns at Naval Base Coronado.

This federally endangered bird species used to have expansive breeding grounds along the beaches of Southern California. However, these breeding areas have drastically diminished in size as a result of habitat loss, human disturbances and increased predation.

Naval Base Coronado has some of the largest remaining breeding grounds. The San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research has worked tirelessly over the past several years to closely monitor and protect this species for future generations.

As part of my Royce Fellowship, I am working with the California Least Tern and Western Snowy Plover research team for the summer to help protect these birds. In order to conserve these species, the team closely monitors large colonies of birds throughout their breeding season.  They oversee the colonies from the arrival of adults all the way to their migrating departure.

As the breeding season already was well underway by the time I arrived, I quickly got thrust into helping with fieldwork. This entails doing laborious surveying of nests and chicks while their parents fly overhead. The chicks are adorable and definitely make up for the fact that their protective parents often let down a few presents when soaring above.

Although these birds breed in large numbers, it is often challenging to determine population dynamics. It is fairly straightforward to identify and count nest numbers, but also very difficult to determine the numbers of chicks and fledglings.

Both chicks and fledglings are very mobile, and they are very skilled at hiding from both predators and researchers since the beaches are covered with vegetation and their feathers blend in with the sand.

Nevertheless, measurements are critical to successfully determine the viability of the species as well as the effectiveness of management actions. Therefore, I am helping to analyze a few new tracking techniques that the team is implementing in hopes to improve estimates.

First we are using small enclosures (40 x 40 m) in order to increase recapture rates. Secondly, we are attaching small radio transmitters to chicks in order to ensure the ability to find them. Both of the methods appear to be helping, but they don’t prevent me and my research colleagues from having to walk at least ten miles each day combing the beach looking for changes in the birds’ habitat.

Since the chicks have just begun to hatch, the project is just beginning to get implemented. As with many things, the beginning looks promising, but we will have to see in the next few months how effective our methods actually are.


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