By Guest Blogger Wendy Gibbons
"When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe," wrote the naturalist and environmental philosopher John Muir in his 1911 book My First Summer in the Sierra. Muir’s eloquent expression of the central challenge of ecological research captures beautifully the daily work that comprises SFBBO’s bread and butter. The full depth and breadth of the organization’s mission can be challenging to describe in one web page, newsletter, or research article. For example, this spring, SFBBO scientists and volunteers contributed to local and national efforts to understand microplastics in avian diets, waterbird use of salt ponds, nesting behavior in raptors, and pollination by songbirds. Each warbler that our bird banders carefully swabbed for pollen, every phone call our biologists answered to share their knowledge, and each scientific paper our research teams contributed data to through meticulous weekly...
and monthly counts of hundreds or even thousands of individual avocets, stilts, and terns -- each represents just one aspect of the attention to detail that SFBBO applies to help balance the needs of the entire natural community, human and non-human, in the Bay Area and beyond.
Here are a few examples of some of the recent ways SFBBO has contributed to understanding and strengthening that balance:
Former SFBBO executive director Dr. Yiwei Wang and former science director Dr. Max Tarjan were co-authors (with four other researchers) on an article Habitat Use by Breeding Waterbirds in Relation to Tidal Marsh Restoration in the San Francisco Bay Estuary published in the June 2023 issue of San Francisco Estuary and Watershed Science. The article compares local populations of waterbird species such as Forster’s Terns and American Avocets between 2001 and 2019. As the South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project process brings about large-scale tidal marsh restoration, understanding how the Project can best preserve places for these species to forage, breed, and roost while also improving tidal marsh habitat for the endangered Ridgway’s Rail and the salt marsh harvest mouse will be critical to its long term success. To learn more about SFBBO’s Tidal Marsh Restoration work see Tidal Marsh Habitat Restoration.
SFBBO science director Dr. Katie LaBarbera was recently interviewed by Bay Nature magazine for her perspective on the science of adoptive parenting in birds. The story of two scrawny Red-tailed Hawk nestlings being “chick-napped” by an ambitious Bald Eagle mother kept hundreds of nature-oriented social media viewers on tenterhooks the past month as wildlife photographer Doug Gillard captured and shared hair-raising shots of the avian drama on social media. The tale of the baby Red-Tail “Tuffy” and their adoptive Bald Eagle sibling “Lola” is explored in this informative and engaging article, complete with Gillard’s photos of the complicated family interactions. Unfortunately, Tuffy was recently found deceased in the vicinity of the nest, leaving those following the story to hope a forensic analysis will shed light on the factors that led to their untimely demise.
SFBBO volunteer bird banders at Coyote Creek Field Station in Milpitas and Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve at Stanford University added a gooey new type of data to their research this winter when they collected fecal samples from over-wintering land bird species such as Fox Sparrows and Golden-crowned Sparrows. The samples were requested by a Bloomsburg University graduate student as part of a study on microplastic pollution. Microplastics (1um - 5 mm) and nanoplastics (<1um) have now been shown to affect bird health when they cause a syndrome known as “plasticosis” in some species. The tiny particles are produced as larger pieces of plastic from cosmetics, clothing and food packaging degrade, but don’t fully break down in the environment. Birds, and presumably other organisms, including humans, can ingest these tiny fragments, causing their digestive tissues to become abraded and scarred. In addition to causing damage, or fibrosis, the microplastics can enter the bloodstream and even cross the blood-brain barrier and placenta. One step in slowing or preventing this pollution is documenting how much is present in both wild species and in humans. Bird fecal samples collected by SFBBO will be compared with other locations to help assess the risks.
By gently swabbing pollen grains from bird bills during the bird banding process, banders at SFBBO’s Coyote Creek Field Station and Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve are adding a powerful new dimension to the data scientists can obtain from each bird’s capture. The samples are sent for genetic analysis to the Songbirds As Pollinators Project (SaP), a partnership between the Institute for Bird Populations, which runs hundreds of MAPS bird banding stations in the US and Canada, and researchers at Colorado State University. SaP’s goals include determining how climate change may impact both bird and plant communities. Birds from the warbler and blackbird families, especially, are known to forage for nectar from flowers, which could transfer pollen from one location to another, especially during migration. Even a small amount of cross pollination could significantly enhance gene flow and improve the genetic health of plants in their favored species, which include plants in the diverse and widespread maple and plum families. As the widely documented decline in bee populations reduces the availability of insect pollinators for native trees and shrubs, wildlife ecologists would like to know whether birds might pick up some of the slack.
As an SFBBO volunteer citizen scientist, I know I am privileged to be able to contribute in even a small way to research experiences such as these. Trekking beside a muddy salt pond recently while attempting to count elusive tiny brown birds, I noted happily the way that all five of my senses were heightened and engaged by the work I was doing. Counting shorebirds or scraping bird poop samples out of a paper bag might not seem glamorous, and it’s hard to brag about these skills to friends who don’t even know (or care) that Fox Sparrows exist. But when I feel the grasp of a bird’s bill on my finger as I am affixing a tiny aluminum tag to its leg, when the summer sun baking a tidal flat stirs up a little wind that brushes my skin and sends a pungent smell up my nose, when I close my eyes to better discern the distant song of a Black-headed Grosbeak, I feel connected to the past, present, and future in ways that go far beyond my daily routine. I feel the tug of balancing a fully inclusive narrative, belayed not just by the sensory joy I can take in the present, but tethered philosophically to past explorers like Muir, and sending out tendrils of questions for future investigators who will read our journal articles, puzzle over our data tables, and examine our graphs and charts as they continue the adventure of seeking to understand, honor, and repair our relationships with natural communities.
Wendy Gibbons works as a science writer and educator when she is taking a break from her valued pastimes banding birds, studying data science, and causing good trouble.
Wingbeat is a blog where you can find the most recent stories about our science and outreach work. We'll also share guest posts from volunteers, donors, partners, and others in the avian science and conservation world. To be a guest writer, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.