Point Blue: studying the “crown jewel”

From Ridgway’s rails to restoration, find out why a premier research organization turns to China Camp

What do Adélie penguins in Antarctica, mice on the Farallon Islands, and song sparrows at China Camp have in common? They are all the focus of research by Point Blue, the Petaluma-based international research nonprofit that searches for nature-based solutions to environmental challenges, including climate change and habitat loss.

Point Blue, formerly known as the Point Reyes Bird Observatory, has grown into a global network of more than 160 scientists, plus educators, restoration specialists, and other experts. Over the years, China Camp State Park and its surrounding tidal wetlands have provided a rich habitat for Point Blue research. To get insights into the scope and importance of this work, we turned to Julian Wood, Point Blue’s San Francisco Bay Program Leader.

Julian Wood, San Francisco Bay Program Leader for Point Blue.

FOCC: Could you tell us about your work with Point Blue?

I lead Point Blue’s bird-monitoring projects, with a focus on tidal wetlands, throughout the San Francisco Bay Area and the Sacramento Delta. I also network with other organizations and agencies to address climate change and other land-use issues, in ways that benefit human and wetland bird communities throughout the Bay Area.

FOCC: What Point Blue research projects are underway at China Camp?

Since 1996, Point Blue has conducted long-term bird monitoring and population trends at the park. January to March, we use one set of protocols to monitor the federally endangered Ridgway’s rail. March to May, we use slightly different protocols to survey pretty much all the other tidal marsh species, such as black rails, marsh wrens, and song sparrows. Other Point Blue projects have included long-term monitoring of nests and nest success in the tidal marshland.

FOCC: What makes China Camp’s tidal wetlands such a good place to do research?

In the North Bay, it’s pretty easy to say that China Camp is a crown jewel, if not the crown jewel. There really isn’t another marsh that is as old and intact as the ones lining the park.

FOCC: Have there been any studies that are particularly interesting to you?

We did a one-year study of transition zones, which are the areas between tidal marshes and uplands. At China Camp, that would include the grasslands at Back Ranch Meadow and Miwok Meadows. The research was meant to inform different options for dealing with climate change and the flooding of N. San Pedro Rd.

One of the interesting things we found was that, in the fall, there were hordes of young San Pablo song sparrows, the endemic subspecies that only nests in the tidal marsh. They had been born that spring and summer in the tidal marsh, and had moved up into the transition-area meadows in the fall, presumably for protection from predators. Other species probably do the same thing, but in our study young song sparrows were the most obvious because there are so many of them. That points to this transition habitat as a protected refuge, a nursery.

I’d like to look into this more, to see if it’s happening in other transition zones, and to look at the vegetation and structural features that make that habitat important. How can we pull these plants and features into restoration plans? What are the parameters that the individual species need?

FOCC: That sounds very cool. What makes China Camp such a prime location for this type of research?

There has been a lot of work on how to protect and restore tidal wetlands in the Bay Area, but that transition zone, which is still intact at China Camp, is extremely rare in the Bay Area. There hasn’t been that much research, or restoration. That makes China Camp a really great living lab–what does this kind of habitat look like if it’s not impacted? How should it look?

FOCC: Will visitors ever see research underway, and if so, where and when?

January to March, at sunrise and sunset, we might be out there doing two-hour-long rail surveys. That’s because the rails are calling most frequently around sunrise and sunset. And other birds come out around sunrise, so it’s the best time to do our monitoring.

FOCC: What can tidal wetland birds tell us about the health of the park?

They’re definitely telling us that native tidal marsh habitat is still doing a good job at supporting at-risk populations, such as the Ridgway’s and black rails. Though we are already seeing some changes to our habitats because of climate change and other impacts, we see that the populations at China Camp are resilient to those changes–so far–and that’s largely due to the park’s large expanses of high-quality habitat.

That’s important, and a point that’s often overlooked. Yes, the future looks bleak for tidal habitats because they are so vulnerable to climate change and other impacts. But larger patches of intact tidal habitat, and the species they support, are more resilient. That’s exactly what we are trying to do with restoration efforts in the Bay Area, with big projects like Sonoma Baylands and the South Bay salt pond restoration project. We’re recreating these large networks of tidal marsh

FOCC: How long does it take to restore a wetland?

Restorations can be done in a variety of ways. You can do it intentionally, planting native species and creating tidal channels, or you can simply set the stage and let the habitat naturally evolve. If you set up restorations properly, those sites can evolve extremely fast. Those projects can go from a hay field to diverse tidal habitat, supporting healthy populations of Ridgway’s rails, in a few years.

FOCC: That’s really inspiring. What’s a tangible thing the average person can do to help the health of avian species in wetlands like those at China Camp?

Of course, people can support nonprofits–like Point Blue–that do important research. But one very real thing people can do, especially if they live near wetlands, is to keep cats indoors. One of the main sources of mortality of Ridgway’s and other rails are cats. We know this from specific studies. The mouth of Gallinas Creek, in the San Rafael neighborhood of Santa Venetia, is one of the most densely populated areas for Ridgway’s rails. Keeping cats inside there is very important.

People can also support bond measures that support shoreline restoration and clean water projects. That is exactly how we’ve been able to pay for much of our region’s tidal marsh restoration projects. It’s yielding results. So you can help protect and restore wetlands with your vote.

—interviewed by Harriot Manley/FOCC volunteer


Find out more on Point Blue’s efforts in the Bay Area and around the world, and read the organization’s recent blog posts.


Photos: (top) Ridgway’s rail by Rick Lewis; (inset) courtesy of Julian Wood