January 24, 2012

Artists and Scientists collaborate on love shacks for mating birds.

Many visitors who come to Año Nuevo State Reserve to watch the elephant seals breed this time of year have no idea about an island half a mile offshore where animals reign supreme. It’s also a place where a collaboration between artists and scientists have come up with a life-saving solution for mating seabirds by developing ceramic, underground love shacks.

Año Nuevo is a wildlife reserve that’s been closed to the public for more than half a century: researchers with permission from State Parks are the only people allowed.  It’s among only a handful of predator-free islands in California where seabirds can successfully raise their chicks. At least nine species of seabirds lay eggs on the island. One of the breeding birds is the rhinoceros auklet, a stocky black bird the size of a small chicken. These close relatives to puffins get their name from the distinctive horn they grow on their bills in the weeks that they’re looking for mates. The auklets share the scarce space on Año Nuevo Island with mating elephant seals, Steller sea lions and harbor seals. California sea lions are also here in large numbers.

“It’s like the Galapagos of California,” said Ryan Carle, a biologist with Oikonos, the Bolinas-based conservation nonprofit leading the restoration project. “It’s just an incredible density of wildlife on a tiny island.”

But this small sanctuary faces large problems. Drought and storms have stripped the island of native vegetation, and the eroding sandy soil is blowing away. This poses problems for rhinoceros auklets, which use their claws to dig 6-foot-long tunnels just under the soil surface to lay their eggs.

“If you’ve ever been to the beach, you dig a hole in the sand and it collapses on you all the time because there’s nothing to hold it up,” said David Sands, president of Go Native, Inc., a Montara- based habitat restoration group involved in the project. The same thing can happen to a rhinoceros auklet burrow, killing the one and only chick the birds raise each summer.

In the past wooden nest boxes were built with PVC pipe but they required a lot of maintenance and weren’t a long-lasting solution.

In 2009 the Rebar design studio in San Francisco and the California College of the Arts in San Francisco and Oakland joined together to come up with an artistic solution to solve the problem.

A dozen students with backgrounds ranging from illustration to industrial design tried their hand at crafting ceramic cottages or bird condos. “We went from zero to 60 in terms of ceramics skills,” said Kolle Kahle Riggs, who at the time of the class was a junior majoring in jewelry and metal arts.

Riggs said she was excited to create a piece of art that could solve a problem. “It had a life beyond just being an art object in a gallery, or just being treasured by one person,” she said. “It had more of a purpose.”

That purpose was to help the rhinoceros auklet, considered a “species of special concern” by the California Department of Fish and Game, because its California breeding spots consist only of Año Nuevo Island and the Farallon Islands. The birds disappeared from Año Nuevo for about 100 years.

Part of the trouble arose from the Coast Guard light station that operated on the island from 1872 to 1948. The light keepers built a house and a garden on the island, cleared native vegetation and introduced rabbits, which overran the auklet burrows and drove the birds away.

In 1958, State Parks acquired the island as part of Año Nuevo State Reserve and closed it to the public. After State Parks removed the rabbits in the 1980s, the rhinoceros auklets naturally returned. But in 2000s, biologists realized the eroding soil could stand in the way of the birds’ breeding success. With money from the National Pollution Fund Center of the U.S. Coast Guard, and the help of more than 100 volunteers, State Parks engineered a solution with three main components: protection, plants and a little private space for the birds.

After a surge of California sea lions trampled a previous vegetation restoration in 2005, the team knew they needed to take extra steps to give the project a fighting chance. So in the fall of 2010, the team constructed a log wall to fence off a single acre of the island most heavily used by rhinoceros auklets. To minimize the environmental impact, team members used eucalyptus harvested from the San Francisco Peninsula as part of nonnative species removals. Then to stabilize the soil, they planted over 10,000 native plants in their protected patch, including American dune grass, salt grass and the seeds of coastal shrubs.

The final piece of the project was the ceramic burrow project. Scientists consulted with the California College of the Arts students on the biological and logistical specifications of the bird housing.

The modules needed a tunnel leading to a nest chamber that curved away from the light, similar to a natural burrow. They also had to protect against overheating, flooding and collapse. “They needed to be strong enough to withstand the weight of a sea-lion and light enough that we could carry them out there,” Lynch said.

After testing six clay burrows of various shapes in the spring of 2010, the team settled on a long tunnel leading to a curve like the crook of a pipe.

“It just turned out to be the simplest solution and the most elegant solution,” Passmore said. A pair of rhinoceros auklets showed its approval by nesting and hatching a chick in a shack.

The team produced 90 love-shack replicas in the summer of 2010 and buried them on the island in the fall. Last spring, 33 pairs of rhinoceros auklets moved into the new ceramic digs amid a lush, green oasis. The team members visited the island twice a week last fall to monitor the burrows and pull non native weeds. “It’s really changed my view of what’s the most productive relationship between humans and other inhabitants of the world,” Passmore said.

Hester hopes the project will help raise awareness about Año Nuevo Island.

“There’s the challenge of just communicating how rare and critical this land is, because it’s definitely out of sight, out of mind,” she said. “We just want people to recognize that there’s this jewel offshore.”

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