Science for a Blue Planet

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

Science News: Water, Beef, Cormorants, and more

Photo: California Central Valley Wetlands. Credit: Blake Barbaree/Point Blue.

Waterbirds, Wetlands, & Water Budgets in the Central Valley

The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) is expected to transform the landscape in California’s Central Valley as stakeholders in each groundwater basin work together to draft groundwater management plans. Severe over-pumping of groundwater has led to dropping water tables and sinking land, threatening water supplies and infrastructure, including roads and canals. The passage of SGMA in 2014 was intended to stabilize these trends by developing local water budgets and determining how much groundwater can safely be pumped. One critical piece has been missing from many of these water budgets: the water needs of wetlands, which create critical habitat for waterbirds. Point Blue is working with Audubon California and The Nature Conservancy through the Migratory Bird Conservation Partnership to ensure wetland water needs are represented in these water budgets. We are partnering with state, federal, and private wetlands experts, and with hydrologists at Davids Engineering to develop a water budget calculator for estimating wetland water needs, both now and under future climate change scenarios. We’re bringing this information to Groundwater Sustainability Agencies, local stakeholder groups who have the power to decide how groundwater gets allocated over the next two decades under SGMA. Without Point Blue’s partnership-driven action and support, federal, state, and private wetlands would be at greater risk of not getting enough water, to the peril of birds and other wildlife that rely on them.

Photo: Conservation Ranching certification label. Credit: National Audubon Society.

Labels, Beef, and Science

We’re excited to share that Audubon Certified beef will have Point Blue science backing it up. Point Blue’s Rangeland Monitoring Network will be part of National Audubon Society’s Conservation Ranching certification program in California. This market-based conservation approach helps customers make bird-friendly decisions when purchasing beef. The certification will help maintain grasslands and conserve grassland birds by encouraging ranchers to implement practices that promote healthy ecosystems. To make sure these practices are actually having the desired results, Point Blue scientists will closely monitor variables such as soil carbon sequestration, water infiltration, vegetation, and bird diversity. By adding our scientifically rigorous suite of bird, plant, and soil surveys to the certification process we will help ranchers in the program create a baseline of ecosystem health.

Photo: Plumas County students at a recent STRAW Childs Meadow restoration. Credit: Melissa Pitkin/Point Blue.

Restoring Headwaters in the Sierra

We are just beginning an exciting, comprehensive restoration design project that will identify restoration actions that will revive Childs Meadow in the Sierra Nevada to help make it resilient to a changing climate. Childs Meadow is located at the headwaters of Deer Creek, several miles west of Lake Almanor, with excellent potential for local and watershed-scale benefits. We performed pilot restorations at this location using human-made beaver dams and also engaged over 100 students from Plumas County schools in willow plantings as part of our STRAW program. We expect to scale-up these and other techniques to help restore the rest of the 348-acre meadow and surrounding forest. We are aiming to improve water quality and storage, enhance habitat for wildlife, improve soil health, and sequester more carbon. As usual, we’re able to achieve great results by working in collaboration, in this case with seven different organizations and agencies.

Photo: Double-crested cormorant. Credit: Allan Hack/Flickr Commons.

Cormorant Comeback

By the late 1970s the San Francisco Bay Area population of Double-Crested Cormorants was reduced to a single colony of only 50 pairs offshore at the South Farallon Islands. Today, our research has documented the comeback of this cormorant species to nearly 3,500 pairs at 31 different locations, population levels comparable to the late 19th century. Meredith Elliott, Senior Scientist at Point Blue, and colleagues looked at colony numbers in the San Francisco Bay area over a 42-year period (1975-2017) to better understand how the cormorant population changed through time and why. Their work, published recently in Marine Ornithology, shows the ability of this species to use human-made structures for nesting (the Bay Area’s major bridges) and increase their population in this highly urbanized area, despite ongoing disturbance and variations in prey availability. In several different years between 1984 and 2003, more than 1,000 nests were documented on the San Rafael-Richmond and San Francisco-Oakland Bridges. View the publication brief here.

News Bites

See Gulls on Science Friday. See a compelling video short featuring Point Blue’s Kristie Nelson, who has overseen California Gull nesting colony research at Mono Lake since 2005. There’s been no shortages of challenges to address lately with drought-driven water-level changes. Watch the recent Science Friday episode now.

Jiminy Cricket! Evolutionary secrets have been uncovered about the Farallon Cave Cricket (Farallonophilus cavernicolus) in a new paper by former graduate student Mike Valainis supported by his professor Jeff Honda from San Jose State University and Point Blue Farallon Program staff. It turns out that the branches on the evolutionary tree are not where we thought they were. See the full paper here.

What’s Up with Whale Entanglements? Humpback whales are getting tangled-up, harmed, and sometimes killed by gear associated with crab fishing. Learn how Point Blue and partners are working collaboratively to address this avoidable issue in this recent SF Examiner article.

Continued Commitment to Bird Conservation. Point Blue’s Strategic Partnerships Director, Geoff Geupel, was recently welcomed as the Partners in Flight Representative on the North American Bird Initiative Committee. In this role he will be meeting with officials in Washington, DC to help push bird conservation efforts forward across North America.

Science Events

Coastal Conservation and Photography. Thursday, June 13th, 7-8:30pm, Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History. Point Blue Snowy Plover Biologist, Carleton Eyster is teaming up with photographer Jacqueline Deely to share how art and science can work together for conservation. More information here.
Photo: Event Flier. Credit: Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History.



Scientist Spotlight:

Kriss Neuman, Lead Ecologist, Coastal Monterey Bay Program

Kriss Neuman has been a rock star of coastal conservation with Point Blue since 1996. She holds a BA and and MS in Environmental Studies from UC Santa Cruz and San Jose State University, respectively. She recently helped secure $1 million from the Ocean Protection Council to monitor sandy beach and surf zone systems to inform the state’s management of Marine Protected Areas. It will be a collaboration between UC Santa Barbara (lead institution), the Greater Farallones Association Beach Watch Group, Humboldt State University, Point Blue Conservation Science, and San Jose State University.

We asked Kriss to tell us more about what makes her so passionate about studying and conserving sandy beach ecosystems and what she’s most excited about in relation to this newly funded effort.

“Most people appreciate the biodiversity of rocky shores. Many people understand the ecological significance of wetlands. But my heart has always belonged to sandy beaches! Sandy beaches provide important habitat for migrating and wintering shorebirds, support nesting of the federally listed western snowy plover and California least tern, host a kaleidoscopic diversity of beach and dune plants and animals, and provide important ecosystem services to human communities, such as flood protection and recreational opportunities. It’s easy to overlook the importance of this coastal habitat and that fact motivates me to continue working harder toward better understanding and protecting it. Point Blue’s work on the Marine Protected Areas project is part of a statewide effort to understand how protections put in place under the Marine Life Protection Act have affected the sandy beach ecosystem across California, and will provide a basis for better management in the future. This project will also connect us with a network of sandy beach experts and provide us with a methodology that can be applied to monitor the status of other sites in the sandy beach ecosystem over time, which is a central goal of our Protecting Our Shorelines strategic initiative.”