By Science Director Nathan Van Schmidt
Last month, I spoke about SFBBO's research on phalaropes at the Mono Basin Bird Chautauqua in Lee Vining, California. Every year, conservationists with Mono Lake hold the Chautauqua as a special birding event with field trips and talks to celebrate the unique birds of Mono Lake and the eastern Sierras. This year was a particularly special event, hosting a "Phalarope Festival" to bring together scientists from across North and South America to host the first group meeting of an amazing collaboration we've built, the International Phalarope Working Group.
Phalaropes are very unique and understudied shorebirds. They're small like a sandpiper, but unlike sandpipers that forage by probing in the mud, they prefer to herd prey by swimming in tight circles. There are only three species, which are exclusively found in the Americas: the Wilson's Phalarope, the Red-necked Phalarope, and the Red Phalarope. While the Red Phalarope spends its time out at sea, the Wilson's Phalarope and the Red-necked Phalarope are even more unusual in that they specialize in hypersaline lakes. ...
After breeding in Canada, they migrate down and stop at Great Salt Lake, Mono Lake, and other salt lakes to feed on abundant alkali flies and brine shrimp that flourish in the unusually salty waters.
Because the man-made salt ponds of South San Francisco Bay are also hypersaline, they historically mimicked saline lakes in many respects, so phalaropes have also adapted to use San Francisco Bay as another migratory stopover! Historical surveys found peak counts of 40,000 Wilson's Phalaropes foraging in southern San Francisco Bay in the 1980s. No matter what their migratory path, the phalaropes converge to overwinter alongside flamingos at Laguna Mar Chiquita in Argentia, the "Great Salt Lake of South America," and the site of Argentina's newest national park, Ansenuza National Park. Researchers at all of these sites have banded together into the International Phalarope Working Group to study and help protect these unusual and imperiled birds.
At the festival Ryan Carle from Mono Lake, Marcela Castellino and founding staff of Ansenuza National Park, and Great Salt Lake scientists gathered to both teach Chautauqua attendees about trends in their populations and to plan the next phase of our efforts to conserve these unique birds.
With the help of our community scientist volunteer surveyors, SFBBO has been counting migratory phalaropes for the past several summers. This past year, we found something shocking: Wilson's phalarope counts have declined 98% compared to the 1980s population, with less than 1,000 birds during the peak of migration. Sleuthing with historical eBird observations, we found the decline occurred mostly in the 1990s, though it has continued since. This is especially worrying because the Great Salt Lake and Mono Lake are imperiled by water diversions and climate change, with the Great Salt Lake on the verge of collapse before the unusually rainy winter rescued it. Because San Francisco Bay is so different, maintaining suitable habitat here could be key to increasing the overall population's resilience to climate change.
Despite these challenges, we have high hopes for conserving and recovering phalarope populations. The creation of Ansenuza National Park was one major milestone, and SFBBO is currently working with the South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project to figure out how to recover populations here in the Bay.
The people at the Phalarope Festival showed amazing enthusiasm for these shorebirds, bringing together conservationists and birders from California, Utah, and Argentina to not only strategize but also to celebrate. A bilingual song commemorating the intercontinental linkages created by the phalarope migration was sung by Ryan and Marcela. And an Argentinian artist, Franco “Vato” Cervato, painted a series of "sister murals" in Lee Vining to complement those he painted at the "sister lake" at Mar Chiquita. They serve as a lasting and beautiful physical reminder of the linkages that bind these diverse places together--not just our shared birds, but also our shared work, culture, and vision for the future.
If you'd like to be involved in helping achieve that future, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to hear about how to volunteer to participate in our phalarope surveys!
Nathan Van Schmidt, Ph.D., is a science director at SFBBO who specializes in waterbird research and conservation. After getting a B.S. in Zoology at University of Wisconsin-Madison, he moved out to California to pursue a Ph.D. in Environmental Science, Policy, and Management. His dissertation focused on understanding how human-created wetlands allowed rails to persist through California's droughts. He has held a variety of other positions at the U.S. Geological Survey, U.C. Santa Cruz, and the International Crane Foundation, where he has researched cranes, sage-grouse, and water sustainability and policy. Nathan has lived in the Bay Area for over a decade and is excited to be working at SFBBO and finally studying the landscape he lives in. His interdisciplinary research approach focuses on understanding how waterbirds, their habitats, and human decision-making around those precious natural resources co-evolve over time. He combines field research with simulation models that forecast those changes into the future, with the aim of identifying effective long-term conservation strategies that can allow birds to adapt to the pressures posed by ongoing climate change and development.
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