Saving Seabirds from the Ground Up
Encouraging seabirds to recolonize regions of the Channel Islands National Park requires more than just erecting artificial nests hoping 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 like 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, who 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 towards restoring natural resources like seabird colonies on the Channel Islands.
A total of 12 species of seabirds nest on the archipelago. The other 10 include three types of cormorants, pigeon guillemots, Xantus’s murrelets, California brown pelicans, western gulls, black oystercatchers, and two more types of petrels, black and leach’s. Eight of those species utilize Scorpion Rock which is in the middle of a major facelift botanically. Once suffocating in invasive crystalline ice plant, cheesehead and goosefoot, restoration ecologist Dave Mazurkiewicz is winning the battle against non-native plants on the weather-beaten rock outcropping. The most invasive being the ice plant. Along with a slew of volunteers, they’ve removed about eight tons of the non-native plants 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.”
Currently the biggest challenge facing the restoration process is water. December was a wet month with eight inches of rain soaking the new native plants, but January reverted back to a dry, La Nina episode with only two days of rain at the beginning and at the end of the month. To compensate, the NPS has transported 1200 gallons water on one of their boats to Scorpion Rock where a fire hose is connected to a row of tanks and the thirsty plants.
“We’ve been at a crux of late due to the Santa Ana conditions,” said Mazurkiewicz.
Because a small colony of Cassin’s auklets already exists on Scorpion Rock, social stimulation hasn’t been needed. However, to the north on nearby Orizaba Rock, and tiny Santa Barbara Island to the south, new nest sites of ashy storm petrels and auklets have benefitted 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 on 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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