Saving seabirds from the ground up

Saving seabirds from the ground up

By Chuck Graham 02/16/2011

Encouraging seabirds to recolonize regions of the Channel Islands National Park Service (NPS) requires more than just erecting artificial nests in the hope that they’ll return. They also need native island flora and the sweet serenade from their own species resonating above sheer volcanic cliffs.

Since 2008, the NPS has been aggressively restoring lost habitat for seafaring birds such as ashy storm petrels and Cassin’s auklets on Santa Barbara Island, and on large rock outcroppings like Orizaba Rock and, in particular, Scorpion Rock near the southeast end of Santa Cruz Island.  

The project is funded by the Montrose Chemical Corporation, which dumped millions of tons of DDT in the Southern California Bight from the late 1940s to the early 1970s. The results were devastating for the pelagic food web. In March 2001, Montrose was court ordered to pay $40 million in restitution toward restoring natural resources like seabird colonies on the Channel Islands.

Twelve species of seabirds nest along the archipelago. Eight of those utilize Scorpion Rock, which is in the middle of a major facelift, botanically. Once suffocating in invasive crystalline ice plant, restoration ecologist Dave Mazurkiewicz is winning the battle against non-native plants on the weather-beaten rock outcropping. Along with a slew of volunteers, he has removed about eight tons from the volcanic crag and, at the same time, planted 18 species of native island flora.

“The ice plant crystallizes and salt drips on the ground, not allowing native plants to germinate,” explained Mazurkiewicz of the Montrose Restoration Program. “The ice plant physically blocks access for Cassin’s auklets, the only seabird on the islands that burrows into the ground to nest.”

Currently, about 35 auklets nest inside artificial and natural burrows, while Mazurkiewicz and volunteers landscape Scorpion Rock with coreopsis, sea blithe, alkali heath, California saltbush, prickly pear, Santa Cruz Island buckwheat and others. The laborious effort is paying off and Mazurkiewicz sees a light at the end of the tunnel.

“We need one more big push next year,” he said. “You can’t just throw plants in the ground.  Ideally, it’s 10 years.  Five years on the ground effort, then going into maintenance mode.”

Because a small colony of Cassin’s auklets already exists on Scorpion Rock, social stimulation hasn’t been needed. To the north, on nearby Orizaba Rock, and on tiny Santa Barbara Island to the south, however, new nest sites of ashy storm petrels and auklets have benefited from audio broadcasts.  

To encourage colonization, biologists use solar panels to power MP3 players to broadcast the weak, croaking songs of the Cassin’s auklet that becomes a mighty chorus on windy, foggy nights. The audio broadcasts of the ashy storm petrel’s rising and falling, purring vocals attracts petrels to potential nest sites on Orizaba Rock and the windswept cliffs of Santa Barbara Island.

“There’s been an increase in the number of nests,” said Laurie Harvey, a seabird biologist for the Montrose Restoration Program. “Seabirds need habitat and no outside disturbances, but they also need social stimulation.”

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