**This blog entry orginally appeared on the website oceanspaces.org.**/p>
Like scores of Californians, Dan Robinette is a bird watcher. He spends many blustery spring days hiking across rocky terrain to reach remote bluffs along the North Central Coast in search of seabirds. Bundled in layers to buffer the frigid northwest wind sweeping in off the Pacific, Robinette hunkers down behind a powerful sighting scope and waits…and waits some more. Some days find him waiting hours for a nesting bird to move enough to reveal eggs or chicks tucked beneath its belly. On others he continually scans the horizon to watch birds feeding over the ocean. Robinette knows that his attempts can be hit or miss.
“It can be mentally exhausting and it’s not rewarding every single day,” he admits.
But Dan Robinette isn’t the average birdwatcher: he’s the senior biologist and coastal program leader with Point Blue Conservation Science (formerly PRBO) in Lompoc. His bird watching “expeditions” are part of an ongoing statewide monitoring program mandated by the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA). Robinette works on seabird monitoring surveys in the North Central and South Coast regions that are designed to document how seabirds are using coastal habitat in relation to nearby marine protected areas (MPAs) and to determine if these MPAs are affecting seabirds.
“We’re studying seabirds that breed on the coast and forage in nearshore waters – areas that are protected by MPAs,” Robinette explains.
In the North Central Coast region, Robinette and his team have focused their efforts on three MPA clusters to establish a before-after-control-impact (BACI) framework. From 2010-2011 they conducted surveys on five seabird species likely to benefit from these MPAs: Common Murres, Pigeon Guillemots, Brandt’s Cormorants, Pelagic Cormorants, and Black Oystercatchers. South Coast region surveys began in 2012 and run through 2013. Researchers have targeted eight MPAs in the South Coast, surveying the same species as in the North Central Coast, along with the endangered California least tern.
Researchers rely on several survey methods to collect data on breeding/productivity, foraging and human disturbances in both regions.
Point Blue’s scientists conduct weekly surveys at various nesting areas to estimate population sizes. Without disturbing the birds, researchers observe and document the number of seabird eggs and chicks at each colony. That’s where patience comes in. “You can easily sit for three to four hours waiting for a bird to get up off its nest,” says Robinette.
Foraging surveys require researchers to scan a 1 km radius every 15 minutes to visually track and record actively feeding birds, creating a general index of foraging activity within the area.
Researchers also document any human-induced disturbances during their nesting and foraging surveys. Disturbances can be caused by a variety of sea- and land-based activities, including kayaking, fishing, hiking or aircraft flying overhead.
In the South Coast region, researchers are also examining least tern droppings to learn more about the seabirds’ diet and discover any links to their reproductive success. “Finding evidence of offshore species means that the parents are traveling farther to find food, expending more energy and leaving their young vulnerable to predators while they’re gone,” explains Robinette. “They don’t do very well as a colony when they have to forage far away.”
‘Pulse of the Ecosystem’
Researchers are studying seabirds because they utilize a broad range of habitat, foraging offshore and breeding on land. Studies have indicated that seabird population increases and decreases often track closely with increases and decreases in forage fish populations. “Understanding what’s happening to fish populations offshore is often challenging and costly,” explains Erin Meyer, associate scientist and project lead for the North Central Coast region at California Ocean Science Trust. “Monitoring seabird populations along the shore can give us important information about the condition of offshore pelagic ecosystems.”
The monitoring surveys will provide important scientific information to inform a management review of the MPA network five years after implementation. Monitoring surveys conducted in the first two years after the MPAs took effect establish baseline conditions and set the benchmark against which future MPA performance is measured. MPAs in the North Central Coast Region are expected to undergo review in 2015 while the South Coast’s regional network will reach the five-year mark in 2017.
While survey data collection in both regions is almost complete, researchers insist that seabird monitoring is only one small piece of a larger puzzle.
According to Meyer, “These monitoring programs are designed to take the pulse of the ecosystem at a given time.” Ongoing monitoring – conducted in partnership with representatives from the state, stakeholders and academic community – is vital to understanding ecosystem conditions on a broad scale and to evaluate MPA performance.
“There are so many different factors involved, including outside forces, such as oceanographic changes, that can impact MPAs,” agrees Robinette. “We need to establish a time series over many years to see if these MPAs are having an impact on seabirds.”
Until then, Robinette will continue to search for seabirds, hunkering down behind his sighting scope to wait…and wait some more.