From Sonoma County to Antarctica, Point Blue studies climate change through birds
Tucked behind a Petaluma office park overlooking Shollenberger wetlands, the headquarters of Point Blue Conservation Science can be difficult to find without a map.
Yet this 53-year-old, Petaluma-based organization is doing globally significant work from Alaska to Antarctica, and from the Sierra Nevada to the California coastline. Point Blue’s 160 scientists form a kind of “geek squad” for nature — unapologetically generating, interpreting and leading with data that document impacts of a changing climate and other threats to wildlife and ecosystems.
“We are driven by data,” said Point Blue’s chief scientist, Grant Ballard. “If the data don’t say anything, we don’t say anything.”
Since its 1965 origins as the Point Reyes Bird Observatory, the organization’s scientists and their collaborators have recorded more than a billion observations of birds and other wildlife from field stations throughout California and in Antarctica. According to Ballard, it is precisely these long-term data sets, some of which dates 50 years, that set Point Blue apart.
“By taking the long view, we can speak with credibility about whether changes are happening or not.”
It comes as no surprise then that climate change has become the central focus of Point Blue’s research and that “climate-smart conservation” is now the cornerstone of its strategy.
The complexity of how and whether animals respond to changes in their environment is perhaps best illustrated by one of Point Blue’s most charismatic long-term research subjects, the Adélie (pronounced “uh-DELL-ee”) penguin, a tough little bird whose population in Antarctica’s Ross Sea has actually been increasing during the time Point Blue has been studying them.
A tuxedo-wearing “canary in a coal mine?”
“Adélie penguins are considered a leading indicator of climate change,” Ballard said.
Antarctic sea ice is their primary habitat. But, unlike their larger and more famous cousins the Emperor penguins (of “March of the Penguins” fame), Adélies don’t breed on the ice. Instead they require ice-free terra firma, which makes Ross Island — the southernmost point accessible by ship in Antarctica — the perfect spot to study them.
Composed of four volcanoes that rise above the Ross Sea, Ross Island appears to be connected to the mainland by the Ross Ice Shelf, the largest body of floating ice in the world. This area is home to the largest population of Adélie penguins in Antarctica, about 1 million birds strong.
Each year, Ballard and an intrepid band of Point Blue researchers, along with collaborators from other organizations, brave sub-zero temperatures and winds up to 100 mph to count, weigh and track the penguins and monitor their nesting success. Tiny GPS units on the penguins’ legs even record the depth and duration of every dive they make, allowing researchers to determine how well they are finding food.
Fortunately for the researchers, the Adélie’s breeding season corresponds with the Antarctic summer (roughly October-February). And because the penguins return to the same nest site year after year, they are relatively easy to find.
One of Ballard’s favorite research subjects is an Adélie he calls “White Cheek,” that he has been tracking for 20 years. When it comes time to retrieve the data from the GPS band on her leg, he simply walks up to her nest and picks her up. “Some times we get slapped,” he admitted, but Adélies are so dedicated to their nests, they generally do not run away.