As I mentioned in my last post, my advisor and I are collaborating with the Oiled Wildlife Care Network to study the movements of pelicans affected by the Refugio Oil Spill. Twelve cleaned pelicans will be fitted with PTTs and monitored post-release, along with a group of eight non-oiled pelicans captured in the wild whose movements and survival can be compared to those of the rehabilitated birds.
Last Wednesday, I flew out to San Pedro, a district of Los Angeles, where International Bird Rescue is headquartered. Since OWCN is based in Davis (inland northern California), it relies on a network of partner facilities like IBR to remain ready to handle an oil spill anywhere in the state. When the Refugio spill occurred, IBR immediately scaled back its normal rehabilitation work to make room for oiled birds coming in from Santa Barbara, about two hours northwest of the facility. Many of the OWCN staff members arrived thinking the spill was about 500 barrels-- a few days' work at most. More than two weeks later, the total had mounted to 2,500 barrels, and they were still there.
Spill response and preparedness is what OWCN does year-round, and it's easy to see why. Besides readying vets, rehabilitators, volunteers, and facilities to handle the cleaning and medical care of hundreds of birds and mammals at a moment's notice, they also manage the field operations, a whole separate set of trained respondents and volunteers that find, stabilize, and transport oiled wildlife from the spill site to the rehab facility. All of this happens on a high-profile stage, surrounded by a media and public hungry for information
My (tiny) role was to deploy five transmitters and train OWCN's staff to handle the other fifteen. After the staff banded and examined the birds, I took over to demonstrate the basics of harness technique. I've never had such a big audience for a harness attachment! After the first few, I handed over the materials to Kyra (the biologist who will be capturing the control birds) and Chris (the veterinarian who will manage deployments on the rest of the rehab birds), and they each did a harness on their own. Their technique was impeccable. We also managed to get several hours of video of the birds before and after attachment, which we can use to look for behavioral effects of the transmitters-- I never have that luxury in the field!
Just after I left to return to the Gulf, the five transmitter birds were released along with five other pelicans near the site of the spill. Although I could only watch it on my computer, seeing them take off was thrilling, especially knowing that we'll be able to keep an eye on them for months and maybe years to come. Although my research in the Gulf is not a post-spill study, everything we learn here will help contribute to readiness for the next spill. For coastal wildlife, a baseline that doesn't include the influence of oil is a virtual impossibility. It's nice to have a reminder of why this work matters, and what it can achieve.
I am grateful to have met and worked with the staff of OWCN and IBR, whose dedication, humor, and professionalism provide a nice counterpoint to the bleak news of yet another spill. I can't wait to see where these birds go
Somehow we're almost halfway through the field season... how does that happen? Although there's plenty to say about pelicans, I think I'm going to talk about gadgets instead.
It's hard to find any research in the modern natural sciences that doesn't rely on an array of different technologies, from camera traps to GPS units to speedy computers to the satellites that orbit the earth gathering vast quantities of information on the systems we study. We too often underappreciate our gadgets-- or, at least, to take them for granted until they go wrong. When you're back in the lab, it's easy to gripe about wasting a few hours because a data server is down or a piece of equipment needs service. In the field, though, gadgets (trucks, boats, ATVs, telemetry units) are your lifeblood-- if they don't work, you don't work. And we definitely ask a lot of our equipment.
Here are some of the many gadgets that go above and beyond for our project.
1) Ever wonder what a GPS transmitter and harness look like after two years on a pelican?
We recovered this PTT from an adult we had captured in 2013 that recently died of natural causes. GeoTrack has since refurbished it, and I will be bringing this unit (and a few others) out to southern California next week as part of the Refugio Oil Spill Response. I'll be helping the Oiled Wildlife Care Network study the movements of oiled pelicans that have been cleaned and released. I'm really excited to be able to contribute to this important project-- keep an eye out for details!
2) Ever wonder how to get a 250lb inflatable motorboat on a truck? Here's the story of Achilles, in twelve easy steps.
3) Ever wonder what pelicans' heartbeats say about them? We're working on it.
Heart rate is a great surrogate for energy expenditure, and with the current popularity of heart rate monitoring in personal training, it's easy to find a unit small enough to fit on a pelican chick. All we need to do now is adapt it from human to bird use. Easy? Well, maybe, if you have the right tools. And it takes a lot of tools.
4) And, of course, the mega-gadget without whom none of this would have been possible: Mako, our trusty Gulf-trotting boat.
Thanks for everything, gadgets