From Sonoma County to Antarctica, Point Blue studies climate change through birds

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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.

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At first glance, it appears that all is well with the Adélies. In stark contrast to trends elsewhere, the population of Adélie penguins and the sea ice that supports them have been increasing in the Ross Sea since Point Blue began its research in the early 1970s.

This is precisely the type of research puzzle that researchers relish — what exactly is going on here? Are the Adélie penguins doing so well in the Ross Sea because its unique environmental conditions have allowed an increase in sea ice? Conversely, if the sea ice starts declining, will the penguin populations crash? Will warming temperatures make it easier or harder for penguins to find nest sites?

Like all good puzzles, however, this one gets more complicated the more you look at it. Beginning in the 1980s, Point Blue researchers and their colleagues from New Zealand discovered that part of the secret to the Adélies’ success lay in an imbalance in the marine food chain. In the 1970s and 1980s, hundreds of minke whales were hunted by humans in the penguins’ wintering area. Because they eat the same things as the penguins, fewer whales meant more penguins. And when whaling declined, commercial fishing of Antarctic toothfish in the Ross Sea accelerated. Again, Adélies benefited by the reduced competition for food.

In collaboration with more than 50 researchers from six countries, Point Blue used the research to make the scientific case that this important ocean ecosystem needed protection. Finally, in October 2016, the Ross Sea Marine Protected Area was established, the world’s largest.

Ballard points out that the agreement is not without its flaws. Some commercial fishing will remain, and fishing limitations will be reviewed in 35 years. “Still, it sends the message to the rest of the world that our oceans are worth protecting.”

While grappling with global environmental challenges seems daunting, and sometimes hopeless, Ballard has a piece of advice, no doubt gleaned from his time on the ice.

“Don’t go broad,” he suggested, “go deep.” Get to know the bird you see here in Sonoma County not as random or anonymous, but as an individual. Know that it has a preferred place to live when it’s here, and find out where it spends the rest of the year. Allow that animal to connect you to the landscape in a local, as well as global sense. In other words, find your own “White Cheek.”

This type of intimate connection gives Ballard hope that we are up to the challenge of finding solutions to climate change. “I think we can do it, but it’s not just going to happen. We have to work on it. We have to engage.”

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