High-tech bird watch
Watch of the birds at Castle Rock.
By Hilary Corrigan
Triplicate staff writer
The common murres look like penguins and stand shoulder to shoulder, all squawking at once in a sort of bird party scene that, until now, has remained hidden from human view.
A new window has opened into the little world of Castle Rock, a steep, grassy, 14-acre island off the coast of Pebble Beach that hosts the second largest seabird colony in California.
"Everyone assumes that's just a rock out there," said Humboldt State Universi-ty wildlife biologist Rick Golightly of the seemingly serene site that humans see from shore.
Now everyone can watch the antics of 100,000 common murres, rhinoceros auklets and rare tufted puffins, along with other species, in a real-time, reality bird show on the Internet.
After installing a robotic camera specifically built for the island, research-ers launched a live Web feed on Wednes-day through an HSU Website. The footage also plays on a big-screen TV at the Red-wood National and State Parks headquarters in downtown Crescent City.
"It's one of the most important seabird colonies in the lower 48," said Eric Nel-son, manager at Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge that manages Castle Rock National Wildlife Refuge.
Scientists knew little about the island, though.
Aerial photos have failed to show details on the various birds' habits and populations. And trips to the rock could destroy those colonies. A human walking on that soil, for instance, would crush the tunnels that burrowing birds craft. People would also scare the birds off, letting the single eggs that they lay on the ground each year roll into the ocean.
"Going to the rock would be disastrous, even a kayaker getting too close would be really bad for the birds," Golightly said.
But the camera can quietly spy all the time, gathering data on the nocturnal storm petrels and auklets, for instance, that burrow into the soil to lay eggs.
"We've seen lots of surprises, in terms of behavior," Golightly said, noting the birds' foraging habits that the camera has recorded.
Such data could help humans, as well.
"You can look at 'em as canaries in the coal mine, if you will, for ocean conditions," Nelson said.
Declining populations of the various birds that feed on different types of fish at different ocean depths along different coastal ranges may warn of ecosystem problems.
"It's basically environmental detective work using the wildlife as the clues and trying to piece together what happens out there," Nelson said.
In a move meant partly to save the roosting site for the then-endangered Aleutian geese, the nonprofit Nature Conservancy in 1979 bought the island considered for a rock quarry source to bolster coastal highways and jetties and turned it over the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service the next year.
As one of the nation's more than 547 national refuges, the island prohibits human visits. Boats must maintain a 500-foot boat boundary and aircraft must stay at least 2,000 feet away.
Scientists want to keep humans away from the site, but also want the new Web site footage to spark interest in maintaining and preserving it.
"So they've got a good understanding of the resource," Nelson said. "They may not realize how much life is out there."
Golightly launched the camera and Web site for a short time last year and continues to assess that data, aiming to set up a population index to monitor the seabirds over time. He, too, wants to see the public enjoy the images and consider the rock's future.
"Hopefully, some management plans for the refuge. Hopefully, some better awareness in Crescent City of the resource right in your backyard," Golightly said, adding that most people probably fail to recognize the site's importance. "Or how spectacular it is."
The images have captured some visitors' attention at the park office, said interpretive park ranger Adam Friedrich.
"Just the fascination of, you've got a live feed on the animals," Friedrich said. "Because this is something you'll never see."
Friedrich compares similar high-tech set-ups that monitor osprey and grizzly bears.
"You kind of peer into some other creature's life," he said.