Sheltering at Palomarin
April 10, 2020
–This blog was written by Diana Humple, Point Blue’s Palomarin Program Lead.
About Point Blue: Our mission is to conserve birds, other wildlife, and ecosystems through science, partnerships, and outreach.
Our Vision: Because of the collaborative climate-smart conservation work we do today, healthy ecosystems will continue to sustain thriving wildlife and human communities well into the future.
Explore Point Blue’s website to learn more.
Palomarin in the time of Coronavirus
We wanted to share a little about what has been happening at the Palomarin Field Station (Palo) during these complex and challenging times, and as most of Point Blue’s staff, myself included, work from our respective homes where we are sheltered in place.
Our spring interns began arriving in early March, with the final few arriving just days prior to Marin County’s shelter-in-place order. Since then, of course, life and work have been upended for most everyone. The interns, along with a resident graduate student, chose to shelter in place at our field station inside a now-mostly-closed national park, and are functioning together like many other family units – or “cocoons” – during this period. All of our staff, except two that were deemed essential, are working from home and not coming to Palo. The interns are only doing fieldwork they can access on foot, from their Palo home, and are currently not driving to field sites. This means that our riparian “off-sites” (the creekside banding stations located elsewhere in the region) are suspended for the time being. We closed the field station and our visitor center to the public and canceled group visits that come for bird-banding demonstrations. Point Reyes National Seashore has put up a gate, which residents and essential staff and services can still get through, to block most vehicular traffic and protect the public.
Even with sheltering in place, the daily life of our interns at our 36-hectare study site remains rich and diverse, and full of exploration, much as it has for decades. They are still learning new skills, although training is of course modified. The bird-banding interns are running the on-site mist-netting stations, target netting locally to mark our study species with the colored leg bands we use to identify individuals in the field, using modified banding methods for human safety, and watching the spring migrants return and the winter migrants thin out. The “gridders” – the interns who focus on finding and tracking bird nests and mapping their territories across their gridded study plots – spend their mornings out in the coastal scrub and Douglas-fir forest, pursuing mated pairs of all the diverse species that breed at Palo, using bird song, calls, and cryptic behaviors as their guide. The interns participate in “virtual” meetings and presentations – connecting them to the larger organization of Point Blue, to other Palomarin staff sequestered at home, and to Point Blue’s Marin County Spotted Owl crew. The owl crew (whose monitoring work on this threatened species has been deemed essential) is housed elsewhere in Point Reyes National Seashore, and normally would be joining them in person for weekly intern meetings at the field station.
Within the Palo cocoon, birds continue to surprise and delight the interns daily. In the fine nets (called “mist nets”) that are set up to safely capture birds, the banders never know what gem they might find. They have recently caught exciting passage migrants like Rufous Hummingbirds, just-returned breeders such as Wilson’s Warblers, and birds in breeding condition indicating a nest close by. And they have already captured the first young of the year – a fledgling Allen’s Hummingbird! Having spent the last couple of weeks out on their respective nest searching study plots, or “grids”, the gridding interns are getting comfortable navigating the jungle-like habitat and are learning the unique breeding behaviors and sounds of the various species that they follow. They are chasing pairs of churring Wrentits and other songbirds through the scrub and forests laden with poison oak, always on the lookout for glimpses of breeding behaviors that they hope will lead to the coveted prize of a nest – which, if found, will be monitored for days or weeks to come. In fact, 17 Wrentit nests, along with a handful of nests of other species, have been found to date! The gridders have been thrilled to see Wrentits sitting tightly on their nests protecting their bright blue eggs, and in one case already bringing food to their tiny nestlings (which hatched on April 3rd, making them one of the earliest-hatched nests for the species ever recorded at Palomarin!).
Amidst the anxiety, uncertainty, and sadness going on right now, I find comfort in knowing that bird life continues along its normal and intricate course. For those of us sheltering in place, it’s reassuring to still be privy to intimate glimpses of these creatures, and through them the changing of the seasons, in our local ”patches” of our own backyards and neighborhoods. Neotropical migrants return from points farther south and fight, with song or display, to establish territories and find mates; winter migrants, soon to depart for the far north, are bulking up at feeders and foraging eagerly on native plants and the insects that feed on them; and early breeders pluck nesting material from my window’s cobwebs or dog fur from my yard. And, even if I can’t directly witness it myself, I find comfort in knowing that life at Palomarin continues too, even though greatly altered. It is comforting to know that, at least for now, the chronicles of the bird populations and their habitats and habits are still being witnessed and recorded by dedicated, passionate, and keen observers, much as they have for over half a century – providing the information that will allow us to continue unraveling the drivers and consequences of environmental change. And it is comforting to know that the act of field work – of observing birds and natural history, of absorbing and losing yourself in it, almost as a meditation – can itself be a comfort for those who are able to do so, and do so safely, right now.
Wishing the very best to all of you.