Science for a Blue Planet

Featuring cutting-edge work, discoveries, and challenges of our scientists, our partners, and the larger conservation science community.

47 Blue Whales! And more Science News

Navigating Change

Striking blue wing of the male Western Bluebird we captured today. Looking for differences in color and ware (molt limits) in birds helps us determine age. Photo by Mark Dettling.

Since our last Science News e-mail Point Blue has continued to navigate a world changed by COVID-19. What does it mean for our staff and our work and how do we modify and move forward? We continue to have “family units” of biologists living and working together in the field on the Farallon Islands, at and near our Palomarin Field Station in Point Reyes, and at a temporary STRAW intern house in Petaluma. We have been working closely with our partners to make sure the bird and wildlife monitoring and restoration work we continue to do is safe and appropriate for all parties involved. We have put some field work on pause for the time being and potentially for the year, such as some research, monitoring, and restoration work in Sierra meadows and at-sea research cruises with our ACCESS partners. Additionally, the upcoming Antarctic field season will proceed with a much smaller team than usual. Most of our staff continue to work from home as our office headquarters in Petaluma remains closed.

These modifications do mean changes to some of our science, like gaps in some long-term data-sets, but we are putting safety of our staff and communities first and acting according to the science being done in the virology realm. We have been able to retain all of our staff due to the hard work of our finance, management, and development teams. We are deeply grateful for partners and supporters who continue to reach out to us and ask how they can help–we are truly all in this together.

In recent weeks, we have also seen blatant examples of the injustices present in our society towards people of color. And we’ve seen powerful responses from people working towards a more just world. From New York to Minnesota, Georgia, Kentucky, and beyond, the reminders of how much work we still need to do are everywhere. In case you missed it, please read more about Point Blue’s stance in this statement from our CEO, posted on May 29th.

An Abundance of Blue Whales!

Blue whale tail with Common Murre flying over and Farallon Islands in background. Credit: Sean Gee/Point Blue.

On June 13th our biologists on the Farallon Islands National Wildlife Refuge counted an astonishing 47 blue whales in a single hour. That was one of the largest aggregations of this species in 30 years and is great news considering that blue whales are still listed as federally endangered. There are a few key factors that likely contributed to this surge in numbers. Based on the timing of reproduction and high chick success rate of Cassin’s auklets this year, a species of seabird we monitor annually on Southeast Farallon Island, there is likely a high abundance of krill within the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. Krill is the dominant prey of blue whales, and upwelling conditions (which bring nutrient rich cold water up from the ocean depths) have been compressed nearshore this year–including around the Farallon Islands. It’s possible that this region is one of the few places blue whales are finding adequate prey. This feeding hotspot happens to overlap with heavy shipping traffic from the Port of San Francisco. Point Blue and NOAA scientists have made progress in recent years working with the shipping industry to change shipping lanes and slow vessel speeds to avoid the accidental killing of whales based on the scientific data we’re collecting on whale timing, location, and abundance. There are many factors that influence the health of whale populations, but the sighting on the 13th is a hopeful sign that we’re moving in the right direction. Read more in recent articles by Eric Simons in Bay Nature, Paul Rogers in The Mercury News, and Anna Guth of the Point Reyes Light.

Restore Locally, Share Globally

Point Blue habitat restoration sites in the SF Bay Area (left) and the Sierra Nevada (right).Credit: Point Blue photos.

On May 6th we engaged over 300 restoration practitioners from around the world in a conversation about restoring habitats to be resilient during change. Marian Vernon, Point Blue’s Sierra Meadow Adaptation Leader, led a webinar hosted by the Society for Ecological Restoration on our climate-smart restoration framework. She brought the framework to life and expanded on these seven key components: Show your work; Look forward but don’t forget the past; Consider the broader context; Build ecological insurance; Build evolutionary resilience; Include the human community; Monitor and experiment. The Q&A session was rich and informative, including topics such as assisted migration, why kids can sometimes be better restorationists than adults, and how traditional ecological knowledge can be incorporated into habitat restorations. Find a video recording of the webinar here and our “Guide to climate-smart meadow restoration in the Sierra Nevada and southern Cascades” here.

A Conservation Partnership Built to Last

Point Blue and TomKat Ranch staff examining soil on the ranch.Credit:TomKat Ranch

A recent article in Heated Magazine highlights our partnership with TomKat Ranch in Pescadero, California. As ranch director Wendy Millet said, “We get to run the whole place as an experiment,” and they share the results with ranches that don’t have that same capacity. Since 2011, Point Blue has been TomKat’s on-site science partner, helping the ranch to “demonstrate what works” in an effort to inform and inspire the transition of 1 million acres to regenerative rangeland management across the state. It is a partnership we are grateful and excited to be a part of. We’ve been able to test and expand our Rangeland Monitoring Network from this site, allowing us to better understand the ecology of California’s rangelands, demonstrate their importance, and conduct science that helps ranchers manage their land to benefit soil, water, and biodiversity. The article explains how our rangeland science has shown an increase in perennial grasses on TomKat Ranch as a result of planned grazing and that our bird banding data has shown an increase in common bird species–pointing towards the benefits of restoring habitat and managed grazing.

News Bites

Science on the Range. Read a new paper led by Point Blue Soil Scientists Dr. Chelsea Carey that synthesizes the current literature on effects of rangeland management practices in California. One exciting finding: Oaks seem to create “islands of [soil] fertility.” Read the brief or the full paper.

Bat Science for Kids. Science Journal for Kids completed a very cool kid’s version of our bats and wildlife scientific publication. Find it here.

Auklet Class of 2020. Learn what’s happening with a special seabird species, the Cassin’s Auklet, this year on the Farallones in one of the latest posts on our Los Farallones blog.

New Video Reports from the Field. In case you missed our recent care package, take a virtual trip to visit our biologists on the Farallon Islands by watching these two new videos: Monitoring Cassin’s Auklets on the Farallon Islands and Brandt’s Cormorants on the Farallon Islands.

Zoom Backgrounds. As a little gift from us to you, we’ve compiled a handful of virtual backgrounds, of some of your favorite Point Blue field sites. You can use these during your video chats on Zoom, Skype, etc. with your friends, family, and colleagues. Enjoy!


Instagram Live visit to Palomarin. Friday, June 26, 8:30 – 9:30 am. Join our staff and intern biologists virtually at our founding field station–Palomarin!–for “Ask the Bird Bander.” You’ll get an overview of how we track birds and nature through bird banding and you’ll get to ask questions and receive answers live from our scientists. Just visit (and follow!) our Instagram page and you will see the option to view Point Blue live any time during the hour mentioned. Hope you can join us and we look forward to your questions.
Photo: Palomarin Bird Banding Intern Mary De Aquino and Avian Ecologist Mark Dettling during our Facebook Live visit on June 4th. Credit: Point Blue photo.

Webinar: Restoring the Farallones – Removing Introduced Mice.  Thursday, July 16, 7pm on Zoom. Join us for a webinar hosted by Marin Audubon Society and featuring Point Blue and US Fish and Wildlife Service biologists. The program will highlight the elusive and threatened ashy storm-petrel, and the urgent need to restore the ecosystem of the Farallon Islands, its most important breeding site. Register for the webinar here.
Photo: Ashy Storm-petrel drawing. Credit: National Park Service.

Scientist Spotlight: Alicia Herrera, Shasta County Partner Biologist

Alicia Herrera came to Point Blue as an intern on our Clear Creek Floodway Restoration Songbird Monitoring Project in Redding, California in 2005. She stayed on as the project lead for 5 years and in 2011 became our first Partner Biologist. She has been leading restoration and land management efforts with private working lands owners and land managers in North Central California ever since.

We asked Alicia what specific rewards and challenges she’s experienced in this unique part of California and how she and her partners are coping with the circumstances that surround COVID-19. Here’s what she said:

When I transitioned to the first NRCS Partner Biologist position, I was pretty familiar with many of the habitats and conservation partners in the Redding area having worked on the Clear Creek Floodway Restoration project for several years. However, I had never worked directly with agricultural producers or on working lands to implement conservation projects. The first year in my partner position, not only was I getting a crash course on the NRCS conservation planning process, but also in building relationships and establishing trust with the rural agricultural community. Close to 10 years later, I feel I provide an important role in getting local conservation projects on the ground and helping to sustain the rural agricultural community of Shasta County. 

The challenges and rewards that come with working in a largely rural community often go hand-in-hand. Often places with denser populations receive more focus and have more financial resources to direct towards conservation projects, but the very fact that there is so much land and open space in rural communities means that the opportunities for conservation are large. It’s endlessly interesting and often technically challenging to work with agricultural producers to develop, implement, and monitor the outcomes of conservation projects. But it’s extremely rewarding to contribute to these projects that not only provide wildlife and ecosystem benefits, but also help to sustain food production and local economies. It’s so satisfying to me when I see a ranch name listed on a menu or a product in the grocery store grown from a property where I’ve personally been, most likely have a bird species list for, and helped design a conservation project for.
In the wake of COVID19 social distancing guidelines, it’s been difficult trying to care for my relationships with producers and move conservation projects forward. So much of the Partner Biologist position is building and maintaining trust with the agricultural community within which we work. And I feel especially in the agricultural community, there is a familiarity and confidence that can only come with face-to-face conversations and walking the land together. There is also the practical struggle of trying to discuss the details of often complex and large projects that can span several unnamed fields with someone over the phone. But it has been encouraging to hear from producers that continue to maintain and appreciate the benefits of conservation projects on their land – brush piles being used by new quail families along a riparian corridor; increased cover of perennial grasses on rangeland; reduced irrigation times on pasture – along with stories from producers that market and sell direct to consumers being inundated with orders. These stories prove to me the value of the relationships I have built with producers in supporting our local food systems and continuing to keep our rural communities thriving for wildlife and people.