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Many Years After Oil Spill, Seabird Restoration Underway in Baja California

By Pat Leonard
Brown Pelicans by Mike Baird via Birdshare
Brown Pelicans. Photo by Mike Baird via Birdshare.

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Islands off Baja California, Mexico, may soon see an influx of seabirds thanks to a major new grant intended to help reverse damage by oil spills and pollution. Several environmental nonprofits share the $3.9 million grant including the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which will provide expertise, equipment, and training for the five-year project.

A 1953 oil spill, decades of pollutant dumping, and introduced predators such as cats and rats affected seven islands off Baja’s Pacific coast. Currents carried chemicals such as DDT and PCBs, plus oil from the sunken tanker, from U.S. waters to the Mexican islands and beyond. Seabird populations declined, particularly Brown Pelicans, Cassin’s Auklets, Xantus’s Murrelets, and Ashy Storm-Petrels.

The grant was awarded by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation from restitution funds for the incidents. The Cornell Lab’s Neotropical Research Initiative leader, Eduardo Iñigo-Elias, applied for the grant along with Mexico’s Island Ecology and Conservation Group (GECI), Audubon, and the Mexican Fund for the Conservation of Nature.

“This project gives local Mexican conservationists the tools they need to restore seabird colonies,” Iñigo- Elias said. Improving nesting grounds will result in more stable, healthier populations of seabirds shared by California and the Baja California islands.

GECI has been working for more than a decade to get rid of introduced predators. Now it’s time to bring the birds back. Getting seabirds to recolonize means convincing them others of their kind have found the site acceptable for nesting. The researchers plan to use “social attraction” techniques such as mirrors, decoys, and recordings of bird calls, all of which help birds decide to start new colonies, as past projects around the world have shown.

For example, sounds from our Macaulay Library have helped reestablish Atlantic Puffin colonies in the Gulf of Maine and Roseate Tern colonies in the Florida Keys. In Baja California, we’ve provided training and equipment to help GECI staff record the seabird sounds they’ll need to lure birds back to the islands. This spring, researchers will collect baseline data to determine which species live on the islands and in what numbers.

Originally published in the Winter 2012 issue of BirdScope.

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American Kestrel by Blair Dudeck / Macaulay Library