Recent accomplishments of CDFW's scientific community
Banded black brant feeding on eelgrass
Volunteer John Roser in the field at Morro Bay
Flock of black brant in flight above Morro Bay
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 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
For residents of Humboldt and Del Norte counties, the majestic Roosevelt elk is a common sight. Although Roosevelt numbers were dwindling in California by the 1920s, conservative management strategies and limited hunting opportunities have helped them to rebound. Today, researchers have identified more than 20 distinct groups of elk in these two counties, many of which consist of well over 50 animals.
This conservation success story doesn’t come without a downside, though. Elk require large amounts of food to survive, and they tend to graze where food is most plentiful – often in agricultural areas and residential neighborhoods, where they cause damage to crops, landscaping, fencing and other private property.
Partly in response to rising concerns about property damage caused by the Humboldt and Del Norte herds, CDFW scientists are working on a wide-ranging, long-term study of Roosevelt elk population size and growth, herd movements, habitat use, disease and causes of mortality. The project, which is a collaborative effort with researchers from Humboldt State University, will collect critical baseline information about the animals that will help CDFW develop more robust and efficient methods for monitoring the herds, set future hunt quotas, inform local agencies about elk management and manage depredation issues. CDFW initiated this project in 2016 and expects to continue data collection efforts through 2018.
Tracking and studying one of the largest mammals in California is a much more complex undertaking than one might think. Roosevelt elk herds are wide-ranging and tend to graze in areas that are not easily accessible. Traditionally, CDFW relied on aerial surveys to monitor population trends of big game species such as elk, but such surveys are only feasible in a small portion of northwestern California because visibility is limited by steep terrain and dense vegetation. Ground surveys have similar constraints and are further limited by the small amount of occupied habitat that can be easily accessed from roads.
Given these constraints, CDFW scientists are employing multiple survey methodologies for the current study. Different techniques will be used in different habitat types. For example, in hard-to-reach areas, trail camera footage will be compared to visual surveys and used to collect herd composition data and estimate population size. Estimates will also be derived from analyzing the DNA contained in elk droppings.
CDFW also monitors the movement of the Roosevelt elk via electronic collars. There are currently 20 collared elk in coastal Del Norte and northern Humboldt counties and researchers hope to extend this project into central Humboldt County this winter, with plans to collar as many as 30 additional elk. Captured animals are also marked with ear tags, which allow for individual identification.
These survey efforts, and similar efforts elsewhere in the North Coast Roosevelt Elk Management Unit (EMU), are outlined in California’s Draft Elk Conservation and Management Plan, which is available for public review and comment through Monday, January 29. The plan provides guidance and direction to help set priorities for elk management efforts statewide.
CDFW photo: Environmental Scientist Carrington Hilson monitors a Roosevelt elk during a survey of the population.
to receive Science Spotlight and Featured Scientist articles by email