Cool new nesting boxes help save seabird colony

The Cassin’s auklet (above) is an unusual bird. But its uniqueness also makes it vulnerable to changing weather conditions. With a breeding population on Farallon National Wildlife Refuge that had shrunk to a quarter of its 1970s numbers, staff from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and their research partners from Point Blue Conservation Science knew they had to account for this new reality on the islands if the Cassin’s auklets colony was to survive. Credit:  Duncan Wright/USFWS

By Doug Cordell
April 28, 2017

By 8 a.m. on an unusually hot morning in May 2008, surface temperatures on Farallon National Wildlife Refuge, a rocky outcropping of small islands 30 miles off the coast of San Francisco, were already breaking records. Cassin’s auklets, one of the species that make the islands a globally critical seabird breeding site, were dying in their nests.

Natural burrows used by auklets were augmented by man-
made versions, and which are now being replaced with
ceramic nest boxes. Credit: Flickr CC 2.0

Research biologists and refuge staff had augmented the auklets’ natural nests with man-made wooden ones to promote breeding for a population that had shrunk to a quarter of its 1970s numbers. Now, as temperatures climbed, they scrambled to shield nests from the heat and rescue as many of the dying birds as possible.

The Cassin’s auklet is an unusual bird for a number of reasons. It uses its small wings to swim underwater and stores food in a throat pouch to carry to its young. It also feeds on krill, microscopic plankton-like organisms in the ocean—which makes the auklet an important indicator of ocean health and productivity for many other species.

Unfortunately, heat spikes like the one in 2008 have become a more frequent phenomenon on the Farallon Islands, part of a decades-long rise in surface air temperatures.

Russ Bradley, Point Blue senior scientist and Farallon
program manager . Credit: KQEDQuest, Flickr CC 3.0

Refuge staff from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and their research partners from Point Blue Conservation Science knew they had to account for the new reality on the islands if the Cassin’s auklets colony was to survive.

A first step in protecting the colony from more extreme heat was the installation of wooden shields over the nesting boxes. But a more weather-resistant, long-term fix would ultimately be needed—one that would also allow for easy monitoring of the nesting birds.

“We had to be creative,” says Russ Bradley, Farallon program leader with Point Blue. “Luckily, the Bay Area has an amazing pool of design talent.”

Enter master ceramicist Nathan Lynch and students from the California College of the Arts, who, together with Oikonos Ecosystem Knowledge, helped develop new, ceramic shield-and-box nesting modules.

A newly designed ceramic shield and nesting box to protect breeding Cassin's auklets from extreme heat events on Farallon National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: USFWS

Now the plan is to install 30 ceramic modules on the refuge and monitor their effectiveness. If all goes well, the hope is that funding can be secured to construct an additional 400 nesting modules.

A key to success of the project thus far has been the Service’s unique partnership with Point Blue on the islands. Stretching back decades, it has produced one of the longest-term, continuous biological monitoring programs in the world.

Service wildlife specialist Jonathan Shore cradles a Cassin's
auklet chick. Behind him is an early version of nesting
boxes designed to protect the auklets from unusually warm
heat events on the Farallon Islands. Credit: USFWS

The Service’s Farallon Wildlife Refuge specialist Jonathan Shore says, “It enables us to accomplish so much more together than either of us could do on our own.”

It’s clear, in talking to Service and Point Blue staff on the islands, that the work is inspiring.

“From the middle of Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco to the Farallon Islands, it’s only 30 miles, yet you’re in a different universe,” says Point Blue’s Bradley. “You feel like you are just a visitor there. It’s for wildlife.”

Shore echoes the point: “There’s such a huge diversity of life there, in such a small place. But it was disturbed by human activity for more than 150 years. It’s our responsibility to restore and protect it.”

Point Blue volunteers Claudia Tapia and Nina Duggan install one of the new ceramic nesting boxes on Farallon National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: USFWS

Note: The Cassin's Auklet habitat restoration project is being funded by the Natural Resource Damage Assessment and Restoration's Cosco Busan Oil Spill Restoration Plan.


Doug Cordell is a Public Affairs Specialist at the San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge Complex.