Bird watchers along the west coast are being sought to help scientists determine the fate of the California Brown Pelican.
On May 7, volunteers in California, Oregon, Washington and Baja Mexico will take part in a two hour “Bio Blitz” observing pelican populations and reporting the results electronically to researchers.
The activity is being sponsored by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s E Bird program and Audubon California, a branch of the National Audubon Society.
Organizers hope the effort will shed new light on the health of the species by determining how changes in weather, habitat and the abundance of prey affects the birds’ survivability.
California Brown Pelicans roost off the coast between February and April. While most of the species breeds in the Gulf of California in Mexico at least 15-20 percent can be found in the Channel Islands off Santa Barbara, Calif.
Participants will observe birds between 5-7 p.m. and send their findings along with any photos they may have taken to EBird, an online checklist program developed by the Cornell lab in 2002. The data will then be collected and analyzed by researchers.
The pelican was declared on endangered species in 1970 after contamination from the pesticide DDT almost made the bird extinct. The chemical softened the pelican’s eggshells, preventing chicks from hatching. DDT was later banned and the species was removed from the endangered list in 2009.
While the total pelican population is estimated 70,000 breeding pairs, scientists see indications that breeding has been difficult in the birds traditional roosting grounds. “There has been a drop in their productivity and that has been alarming,” said Audubon’s Marine Program Director Anna Weinstein.“In the Channel Islands the nests that have been built are way less then what should have been built. There are a lot of nests that should be in the Channel and the Gulf of Mexico but they are not there.”
The decline could be attributed to lower stocks of bait fish like anchovies and sardines that make up the Brown Pelican’s diet. Warming coastal waters resulting from the El Nino weather pattern may be a big factor affecting the fish and the krill they feed on. Those fish feed near the surface and provide a good meal for pelicans which dive into the water and fill their large beaks.
Along with counting sheer numbers of birds, volunteers will count the distribution of adults to chicks. Young pelicans typically have a high mortality rate in the first year of life, Weinstein said. An imbalance in the population would signal that something is wrong. “If we don’t see any young pelicans that is alarming” she said, “If we see many young pelicans that is alarming too. We want to understand more about this iconic bird.”
Using volunteers can be cost effective when federal funding for surveys is not available. To take part, applicants must apply at the project website to be assigned a roosting area to monitor or choose an area of their own. “The roosting is the backbone, (of the survey) Weinstein said. “We want people to see it and be involved.”
The survey is part of a new “citizen science” trend be used by biologists to gather data over large areas using convenient computer applications to engage the public.The California Academy of Sciences has taken part in previous bio blitzes and recently competed with the National History Museum of Los Angeles County to document plants and animals found on city streets and open space preserves. The data was uploaded to the free app iNaturalist.