Recent accomplishments of CDFW's scientific community
A dwindling population of a tiny owl in Southern California has a chance at a comeback, thanks to a collaborative effort by scientists from CDFW, the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research (ICR), Caltrans and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The Western burrowing owl (Athene cunicularia hypugaea) is currently listed as a Species of Special Concern, and nongame scientists have long been concerned about their viability and survival. Breeding populations have especially declined in the central and southern coastal areas, due in large part to a combination of habitat loss and eradication of the ground squirrels that dig out the burrows where the owls make their nests. In San Diego County specifically, the once-widespread population has been reduced to a single breeding node in the Otay Mesa region, just north of the Mexico border.
Two groups in particular have been monitoring these owls carefully, in an effort to help. Biologists from Zoo’s ICR have spent seven years assessing owl population status and productivity, including assessing the feasibility and effectiveness of artificial burrows, refining techniques to help the ground squirrels thrive and disperse into new areas and developing a system of identifying potential new locations where the owls might thrive. Much of ICR’s owl research has been conducted at Brown Field, a small municipal airport near the border within the City of San Diego, and on an adjacent property owned by Caltrans.
Meanwhile, about 10 miles from the Brown Field study site, CDFW scientists have spent a decade working to create more suitable burrowing owl habitat at Rancho Jamul Ecological Reserve (RJER). Efforts there included installation of artificial burrows and mowing the tall grass to foster a low-growing grassland suitable for burrowing owls and ground squirrels. Despite their best efforts, CDFW scientists studying the Rancho Jamul site have experienced many years of disappointment -- although wintering owls have shown up every year, none have stayed and attempted to breed on the property. But conditions have been improving over the last four years, thanks to the implementation of a grazing program that reduced dense thatches of old grasses and expanded areas of open ground. As habitat changed at Rancho Jamul, CDFW scientists observed more squirrel burrows, and the conditions seemed just about right for the owls.
This spring, an approved development project at Brown Field began to take shape – and it became evident that the timing for an owl translocation project was ripe at last. Thanks to efforts by Caltrans, which incorporated burrowing owl habitat restoration as part of their mitigation effort for a nearby highway, CDFW staff believed the owl population to be strong enough to support a translocation effort. Also the spring season, just prior to egg-laying, is likely the optimum time to move the animals. After looking at many options, scientists decided to try to move five pairs of breeding owls to RJER in the hopes that they would establish a new population and thrive.
The full conservation team – which included CDFW, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the City of San Diego, Metro Air Park, Schaefer Ecological Solutions and the San Diego Zoo – was on board and ready to move the owls. In March 2018, the team caught five pairs and moved them to hacking cages at RJER. The owls lived in the cages for about one month to give them time to acclimate to their new surroundings. By the time the cages were removed, each female had laid at least one egg in the artificial burrow chamber.
CDFW Environmental Scientist Dave Mayer has worked on this project for years and is anxious to see efforts at RJER finally pay off. The presence of the eggs, he said, was thrilling to see. “More owls, and at diverse locations, is what it will take to conserve this species in San Diego County. This first step was a long time coming, but I have all my fingers crossed that it’s going to work.”
This successful multi-agency partnership will continue long past the actual translocation day. Scientists banded the owls and fitted some with radio transmitters. ICR staff will monitor the owls themselves, while CDFW staff will monitor the grassland and the grazing program, and perform inspections and repairs of the artificial burrows twice a year. After five years, CDFW will perform regular monitoring of the owls, the habitat and associated grazing practices, and the general status of the ground squirrel population.
Mayer is proud of the work achieved so far in this unusual project. “We built a better mousetrap, with the Zoo’s help,” he says.
General information about California’s bird species of special concern can be found on the CDFW website, along with the species account (PDF) for the burrowing owl and information about Rancho Jamul Ecological Reserve.
The San Diego Zoo has also issued a news release with more details about the burrowing owl translocation project.
All photos © San Diego Zoo Global, all rights reserved
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The automated recorder model the scientists used. (CDFW photo by Brett Furnas)
Two avian researchers recently completed a groundbreaking study on the effects of climate change, based on the calls of California’s songbirds. By recording the sounds made by eight different songbird species, and tracking the dates they are most vocal and how frequently they sing, the scientists were able to develop a method to measure how the birds are adjusting to climate change.
CDFW Wildlife Ecologist Dr. Brett Furnas and William Jessup University’s Professor Michael McGrann analyzed data from two bird surveys, one done by CDFW and another led by William Jessup University, in the Klamath Mountains and Southern Cascades of northern California. Both studies used automated recorders to monitor bird sounds between 2009 and 2011. The results of their analysis, detailed in a research article entitled Using Occupancy Modeling to Monitor Dates of Peak Vocal Activity for Passerines in California, were published this month in a peer-reviewed, international journal of ornithology, The Condor: Ornithological Applications.
Furnas and McGrann’s study was prompted by the scientists’ concern that climate change could throw bird’s reproduction cycles out of sync with the seasons. Their work, which represents the first comprehensive assessment of songbird occupancy over approximately 15,000 square miles in California, earned high praise from Steve Beissinger, an expert on avian phenology at the University of California, Berkeley.
“Furnas and McGrann provide a textbook example of how to detect differences in the timing of nesting among bird species using information on the peak date of singing derived from surveys and automated recorders,” Beissinger said. “Their results support recent findings of a five-to-twelve day shift forward in the timing of peak singing by California birds in the nearby Sierra Nevada and coastal ranges in response to climate change.”
Because birds’ songs are correlated with their breeding behavior and are easily identifiable to species, the scientists found them to be a useful tool to provide new baseline data for the birds of northern California. Working together, they identified the precise dates of peak vocal activity for eight songbird species: Hutton’s vireo, hermit thrush, dark-eyed junco, Nashville warbler, MacGillivray’s warbler, yellow warbler, western tanager and black-headed grosbeak. In addition to gathering baseline data, Furnas and McGrann developed a method to track advances in the timing of vocal activity in the coming decades.
Male songbirds sing for several reasons -- including to advertise their territory or to find a mate with which to breed. When birds are at their most vocal, they are usually near the height of their breeding season, Furnas explained.
Much like the call of the imperiled “canary in the coal mine,” changes in the frequency or timing of these native birdsongs can serve as barometers of the cumulative impact of climate change.
“When the canary starts singing you know that there is a danger, such as a buildup of dangerous gasses in a mine,” Furnas explained. “When the birds in our study start singing earlier in the season, they are warning us that climate change is starting to disrupt complex ecological cycles that developed slowly over millions of years of evolution.”
One of the most interesting findings of the study so far is a hint in the baseline data that migratory birds may be at greater risk than non-migratory birds. “We found the highest singing activity for migrant birds spanned a shorter number of days than the highest singing activity for non-migratory birds,” Furnas said. “This could be because migratory birds have less flexibility to shift the timing of their breeding cycle. If they are prompted by increasing temperatures to migrate earlier in the year, they may arrive at their breeding grounds to find they don’t have enough insects to eat.
“Migratory birds have to compress a lot of activities into a shorter time period with less margin for error,” Furnas explained. “Think of it like scheduling a short holiday somewhere nice, but when you show up, bad weather cancels out a lot of your itinerary.”
This, in turn, negatively affects the very biodiversity that CDFW is responsible for monitoring.
“If all the species adjusted their ecologies similarly, perhaps that would be OK, but unfortunately, we expect that different insects and birds will react in different ways leading to a mismatch of conditions,” Furnas said.
Both CDFW and William Jessup University plan to continue bird surveys over the long term so that California has the information to support effective management of climate change and other conservation challenges.
Top photo: Singing hermit warbler, one of the species addressed in the study. (CDFW photo by Michael McGrann)
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