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PRBO's achievements in guiding cost-effective management and restoration are derived from our long-term data sets.

Treasured Legacy: Long-term Data

Ellie M. Cohen


The fog was thick as we arrived, but the island's towering silhouette was clearly visible. As I disembarked from the fishing boat that had comfortably (thankfully!) brought us the 27 miles from San Francisco to the Farallones, someone yelled "shark attack!" To the southwest, hundreds of Western Gulls swirled in formation, cawing wildly about the food that had just become available to them--the remains of one unlucky juvenile northern elephant seal.

A few minutes later, I was hoisted 75 feet up onto a rocky cliff by a huge crane. A dozen sea lions porpoised about below, propelling themselves out of the sea one after the other, then gracefully reentering the 53°F water.

As I walked toward the house, chirps and trills filled the air. What kind of pelagic sound was this I was hearing only a couple miles from the edge of the continental shelf? Was that the call of a nuthatch? The chip of a Hermit Thrush? A redstart flitting about?

It turns out this was not a typical day on Southeast Farallon Island. One of our intern conservation biologists awoke that morning to find a dozen Golden-crowned Sparrows walking on her sleeping bag! Indeed, over 1,000 landbirds had dropped in on the Farallones that day. It was the first time in over ten years, and only one of a handful of times since PRBO biologists first came to the island in the spring of 1968, that such a large "fallout" of migratory songbirds had occurred.
PRBO's first visit to the South Farallon Islands was in 1968. PRBO photo

Our valued partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to steward and conduct research on the natural resources of this treasured rock outcropping has produced some unexpected insights into the variability of Mother Nature.

This issue of the Observer highlights one of our most valued treasures within PRBO--our long-term data sets, some of the longest in the world. What does it mean for conservation, these millions of bits of data painstakingly collected by our outstanding staff, interns, and volunteers over years and decades on the Farallones, at Palomarin, and now at dozens of other sites?

Our long-term data sets reveal both human-caused and natural changes to ecosystems over time. PRBO's achievements in guiding cost-effective management and restoration in marine, coastal dune, tidal wetland, oak woodland, and other habitats are derived from our long-term data sets.

Insights into bird migration and a host of other issues, ranging from climate variation and population shifts to food web productivity and fisheries estimates, would likely have been missed had we been working for less than ten years.

PRBO's recently launched Conservation Science for a Lasting Legacy campaign (see page 13) and our new San Francisco Bay Research Center will permanently secure our legacy of these past four decades--the legacy of our long-term data sets and their application--to advance effective conservation for future generations.

I was quite fortunate to experience first-hand one of nature's unexpected moments, when a huge mass of migrating landbirds dropped on to the virtually treeless landscape of the Farallones.

Another of nature's infinitely diverse tales, this one provides additional proof that the more we know, the more we realize how much we don't know. Indeed, the ongoing pursuit of knowledge--to increase our understanding of nature's vastly complex interactions so that humans can make the best decisions about how we interact with natural resources--is what PRBO is all about.