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For 21 Years, Volunteer Has Kept Tabs on Morro Bay’s Black Brant

For 21 Years, Volunteer Has Kept Tabs on Morro Bay’s Black Brant

A black brant, similar to a dark-colored goose, feeds on eelgrass in a sandy bay shoreline.
Banded black brant feeding on eelgrass

A man with a gray beard and glasses, wearing a baseball cap and dark gray jacket, stands next to a spotting scope on a tripod, near Morro Bay, with Morro Rock in the background.
Volunteer John Roser in the field at Morro Bay

Hundreds of dark-colored birds fly together in a bright blue sky
Flock of black brant in flight above Morro Bay

A goose-like seabird with a black beak, dark hood, neck and coat, and white underside floats on bay water
Black brant in Morro Bay

John Roser began hearing the stories shortly after he moved to Los Osos, San Luis Obispo County, on the shores of Morro Bay in the mid-1990s.

Longtime birders, waterfowl hunters, biologists and other coastal residents were all saying the same thing: It seemed fewer black brant were showing up on the bay each winter.

The coastal sea goose is a cultural icon of the area, the signature species of the Morro Bay Winter Bird Festival and a temporary visitor welcomed by locals as the geese arrive each fall from their summer breeding grounds in the Arctic. When the geese are present in big numbers, you can hear their cacophony almost anywhere on the bay from November through April or until the warm environs of Baja California lure the birds farther south on their migration.

Roser, who holds a degree in biology from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and spent 25 years as an environmental educator, set out to see if the old-timers’ stories were true. For the past 21 years, he has provided CDFW and brant biologists throughout the Pacific Flyway with their most credible and reliable source of data on wintering brant in Morro Bay.<

“I’m retired, and I wanted to take on a volunteer project that would make a difference in this community,” Roser said of his motivation. “I wanted to create a Morro Bay specific data set significant enough that it would be valuable in brant studies and research across the Pacific Flyway.”

Roser’s initial efforts in 1997 focused on reading and reporting bands on individual birds with the help of a high-powered telescope. He has recorded more than 4,000 bands, including one affixed by a Russian ornithologist to a bird in Siberia some 5,000 miles away from Morro Bay where Roser spotted it. In addition to counting individual birds, Roser developed a formula – in consultation with brant biologists – to calculate the number of “brant use days” in Morro Bay each winter.

Roser’s retirement project has led him on a brant-like odyssey.

He banded brant one summer in Alaska, worked in Humboldt Bay with leading brant researcher Jeff Black and his Humboldt State University graduate students, and traveled to Baja California to help biologists read bands on birds at the extreme end of their southern range. Much of Roser’s winter observations take place at CDFW’s Morro Bay Wildlife Area.

“John is our go-to guy on the ground in Morro Bay for sure,” said Melanie Weaver, the head of CDFW’s Waterfowl Program. “We only have two employees in our program, myself included, so we depend on regional staff and volunteers like John to help compile survey data. John is part of the local community, he cares, and he is close to the resource.”

The data Roser supplies are incorporated into CDFW’s Mid-winter Waterfowl Survey, which is used to set hunting regulations for the following waterfowl season.

What attracts brant to Morro Bay is the same thing that prompts the birds to stop at other coastal bays along their southward migration: eelgrass. The underwater seagrass grows in shallow marine environments and is the birds’ primary food source.

Roser’s initial research in 1997 confirmed the reports he was hearing: The wintering brant population in Morro Bay had declined significantly and corresponded with a crash in eelgrass acreage in the bay.

While CDFW surveys from the 1930s through 1960s documented Morro Bay’s wintering brant population as high as 11,800 birds, Roser’s first survey in 1997 recorded a population high of fewer than 700 birds.

The eelgrass crash in the mid-1990s was temporary and well-understood, caused by an influx of sediment from a fire-ravaged landscape, a deluge of freshwater from a rainy year and warming El Nino ocean conditions. As environmental conditions normalized in subsequent years, the eelgrass rebounded, and the brant returned. Roser counted a population high of 4,600 birds in Morro Bay in 2001.

The story since then, as told in Roser’s annual reports to CDFW, is of another dramatic crash in eelgrass acreage in Morro Bay and a corresponding drop in the numbers of brant wintering there. Unlike the eelgrass crash of the mid-1990s, the latest decline has been more persistent and perplexing.

Biologists measure Morro Bay’s eelgrass acreage each year. Eelgrass spanned 344 acres as recently as 2007 but had dwindled to just 14 acres by 2017. Not surprisingly, Roser’s 2016-17 brant survey recorded a population high of just 319 birds and a low of 43. Roser’s brant-use-day metric has fallen by 90 percent since the nearly 500,000 brant use days he recorded in 2001. In the past five years, brant use days have measured around 50,000 a year. Money from the purchase of the California duck stamp-validation, required to hunt waterfowl in California, is funding research into the eelgrass decline along with restoration efforts.

In addition to fewer numbers of brant frequenting Morro Bay, Roser has noticed behavioral changes in the birds that still show up. Increasingly, the brant are foraging on secondary food sources that include salt marsh vegetation and green algae species such as sea lettuce with eelgrass in short supply.

Roser takes some solace that the overall Pacific Flyway brant population is holding steady if not increasing, estimated between 130,000 to 165,000 birds. Roser says waterfowl biologists are seeing flyway-wide changes in brant behavior that they suspect may be linked to climate change.

Fewer brant are migrating to Mexico for the winter. More are remaining in Alaska and their northern range throughout the year as warming Arctic conditions require fewer calorie demands and less ice exposes more eelgrass. Ten years ago, less than 10 percent of the population wintered in Alaska. By 2017, almost 40 percent of the Pacific Flyway population spent the winter there.

“This bird is tied to Morro Bay, our culture and our identity,” Roser said. “A robust wintering brant population needs abundant eelgrass beds. Eelgrass needs a healthy bay and watershed. Our actions as stewards of Morro Bay really do reverberate across the globe.”

CDFW photos: courtesy of John Roser
Top photo: Pair of black brant on Morro Bay

Study of Songbirds’ Calls Provides Important Climate Insight

Study of Songbirds’ Calls Provides Important Climate Insight

An audio recording device in a semi-clear, plastic container on dark brown ground
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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