It’s early, but rising sea bird populations a good sign

STANWOOD — Scientists spotted some potentially uplifting trends when they sat down to pore over observations from Puget Sound birdwatchers.

Over the past seven years, volunteers with the Seattle Audubon Society saw increases among 14 of 18 seabird species they were tracking. That includes cormorants, loons, rhinoceros auklets and harlequin ducks.

Scientists warn it’s too early to jump to rosy conclusions about seabirds bucking population declines, which have been happening since at least the 1970s. Nevertheless, the data hold tantalizing clues about the effectiveness of conservation efforts in the region, among other factors.

“It indicates that perhaps we are doing something right,” said Toby Ross, science manager for the Seattle Audubon Society.

Results of the Puget Sound Seabird Study were published last month in the online journal PeerJ.

Observations took place at 62 locations throughout the Puget Sound region, including beaches in Edmonds, Everett and Mukilteo.

Another was Kayak Point Park, which sits on Port Susan, a focal point of conservation efforts since the early 2000s.

Port Susan divides the east shoreline of Camano Island from the west edge of Snohomish County. County leaders formally designated the bay and surrounding land as a marine stewardship area in May 2014, following the lead of Island County and the Stillaguamish and Tulalip tribes. About 30 organizations now are involved with the project.

In addition to seabirds such as cormorants and gulls, the area also hosts a wealth of shorebirds, shellfish, forage fish and salmon.

“The reason we’re focusing on that area is it has so much amazing biodiversity already, and yet there are threats to it,” said Kathleen Herrmann, Snohomish County’s marine resource steward.

Threats include bank hardening and loss of vegetation as people build along the shore, runoff from farms and processors, hazardous spills and derelict gear in the water, invasive species, septic system failures and increasingly severe flooding and storms caused by climate change.

Researchers spent years planning how to fight back. A formal Conservation Action Plan was adopted by Snohomish and Island counties in 2012.

More than two-thirds of the actions outlined in that plan are under way, according to a report released Tuesday.

The report focuses on this year’s to-do list.

County staff are working to increase training for officials and volunteers, who would respond to spills of crude oil or hazardous chemicals.

Snohomish and Island counties also hope to launch a grant program for shoreline restoration projects, and committees are brainstorming incentives for land owners. Possibilities include a new beach management district and tax breaks.

Populations of shorebirds, forage fish and shellfish in the stewardship area seem to be fairly stable, according to the conservation plan.

Salmon aren’t faring as well, research shows.

Last year, 435 adult chinook salmon were counted returning to the Stillaguamish River. Scientists figure up to 46,000 adult salmon would have returned to the river before the shoreline was developed in the past century.

The key to protecting a species is preserving its habitat, Herrmann said. Beaches and river deltas in the area no longer are ideal because of development, pollution and climate change.

Still, the region sees a flurry of feathered visitors, especially during winter migrations. That’s when the Stillaguamish Valley celebrates its eagle festival and Stanwood welcomes flocks of snow geese.

It’s a good time to track bird populations.

For the past three years, Jon Houghton of Edmonds has participated in Audubon surveys at Kayak Point to collect information for the recently released seabird survey.

“Interestingly, Puget Sound has a lot more birds around in the winter than there are in the summer,” he said.

Houghton was drawn to bird watching because it provided him a pleasant pastime as he approached retirement from a career as a marine biologist.

“It’s something my wife and I can do together and both enjoy,” he said.

The surveys are well-regimented, so the information collected can be used as reliable science. Volunteers conduct surveys from October through April. Groups in different areas go out on the same day around the same time so they don’t count flocks of birds twice.

Authors of the final work included scientists with the Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle and the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

While the latest study shows most species on the increase, they found declines in four: the white-winged scoter, brant, western grebe and red-necked grebe.

It will take more research to learn why seabirds have changed their patterns of frequenting certain locales. They might be reacting to changes in food sources or threats to their nesting grounds elsewhere. And some populations just shift to new areas.

“In the future, we’ll have a better idea of whether those trends were indicative of a specific time and place, or of a more significant (population) increase soundwide,” said Scott Pearson, a state Department of Fish and Wildlife seabird research scientist. “I’d like to see a few more years of information that would convince me.”

Kari Bray: 425-339-3439; Twitter: @KariBray.

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