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This blog post was written by students in Avian Ecology, Fall 2018 about our field trip to Newport Back Bay

The History and Significance of the Newport Back Bay.

Newport Back Bay serves as a stopover site for many birds taking part in the Pacific Flyway. However, in the 1960s this critical location was on the brink of disappearing with plans for new residential construction. It was only through the efforts and organizing of concerned citizens that construction was prevented and the Bay was listed as an Ecological Reserve. Today, many birds still make use of these wetlands and students and bird-lovers can spend their time admiring the species diversity and beauty this bay has to offer (Newport Bay Conservancy).

Shorebird Migration

Migrating birds can travel thousands of miles converging on key stopover sites along the way to rest, eat and breed. Amongst these are diverse group of shorebird species, migrating birds that cover impressive distances along the North American Pacific Flyway (Ehrlich et a., 1988). These birds are especially vulnerable during migration because (1) migration is a set behavior that they can’t change from one day to the next, and (2) starvation and fatigue are constant threats. Stopover sites like the Newport Back Bay are therefore critical for the continuation of this migrating behavior, providing birds with familiar landing sites to rest and eat. However, many of these stopover sites are increasingly vulnerable to environmental and human disturbances (Galbraith et al., 2002).


Wetlands are essential stops for migratory birds, from shorebirds and waterfowl to seabirds and raptors. The health and size of a wetland can determine its carrying capacity as a foraging stop on energetically demanding migrating pathways (Evans and Dugan 1984, Goss-Custard 1996). Anthropogenic pressures such as pollution, habitat loss, and climate change put wetlands in jeopardy, making places like Newport Back Bay all the more important (Galbraith et al., 2002).

Professor Karnovsky holds this little wildlife sanctuary close to her heart — she has been going there since she attended grad school at UC Irvine. She appreciates the chance each year to go back and see the many migrating birds, which change each year, and to see the excitement that this special place can ignite in students seeing it for the first time.

“I knew there were a lot of birds that used the flyways but this put into perspective the amount of species that pass by every year,” says student Cody.

Our trip!
During our classes, we discussed migration extensively, touching on specific obstacles that migrating birds face during their journey. As a key stopover site for many migrating birds, Newport Back Bay allowed us to take what we had discussed in class out into the “real world”. We took a Friday afternoon to drive over to the bay and, though we did not stay for very long, we made the best of our time there. We were able to observe the behaviors of these birds and the number of species of birds present in the bay in real time. Truly, it was an amazing experience for all of us.

We carried our individual binoculars along with our field guides and field notebooks. We also took turns carrying scopes that we set down when we noticed a bird. Bird scopes allowed us to see more in detail the individual characteristics of different birds. While walking, students called out any birds they saw, but most of our in-depth observations were made along the banks of the estuary.

In our last hour, we drove back down south and rented out kayaks. A few students had never kayaked before, but we were all excited to continue to explore everything that surrounded us. By kayaking in the bay, we were literally able to immerse ourselves into this habitat. We observed birds along the banks, on the water and above in the sky while we were kayaking, but were only able to physically record the species we had seen once we were out of the water! During this part of the trip, we also saw a group of people that were conducting research on the shore, indicative of the scientific importance of the bay.

Birds Sighted
We accumulated an impressive list of birds sighted. Some highlights included a Clark’s grebe skimming along the surface of the water and doing a fun, above-water dance, multiple snowy egrets, the least sandpipers that travel so incredibly far, despite their small size, an osprey right above us as we walked around back bay, two ospreys that swooped down towards us from their heights in the sky, and getting impressively close to some great blue herons on our kayaks.

Student + Professor Experiences:
We asked students on the trip what their favorite part was. Cody, a sophomore at Pomona really “enjoyed the kayaking.” Kyra agreed, and appreciated “getting to be in nature, having the time to take it all in.” It is easy to get caught up in the business of life, and forget to take a moment to watch the excitement of the nature around you. As Lao Tzu, and ancient chinese philosopher says, “nature never hurries, yet everything gets accomplished.” It was quite a treat to spend an entire afternoon at this special spot. Many of us saw species we’d never seen before, or even known existed before this class. And then to imagine how far they’d come to rest in the sanctuary of Newport Back Bay? Taking a moment to step back and observe put things into perspective. “There is a lot more diversity than is noted at first glance in a certain place,” remarks Kyra. The little things can make a big difference, too. Nina was shocked at the striking size difference between the tiny plovers and sandpipers and the other shorebirds like the willets. In conclusion, I think that all the students of avian ecology can agree that the best way to learn about shorebird migration is to observe it first hand!

Filed under: News
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Island Update from Kay!

Posted by: nina-karnovsky | June 22, 2018 | No Comment |

The chicks are hatching!!!!!! We are doing feeding studies, and I am already attached to c chick, which I know is a dangerous game… yesterday we had a peregrine falcon that took two of our common terns 🙁 Also, Kay has caught and banded several puffins and she has named one “Prof. K.” I am so touched! 

Filed under: Puffin Project

Another Sagehen Roosting with Puffins!

Posted by: nina-karnovsky | June 7, 2018 | No Comment |

The third Sagehen is monitoring seabirds with the Puffin Project! Kay’18 is following the tradition started with Kristina and Clare.

Kay with first Puffin of the season!


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Sagehen on Southeast Farallon Island!

Posted by: nina-karnovsky | May 25, 2018 | No Comment |

Clare’19 who was on Seal Island as part of the Puffin Project last summer is now out on Southeast Farallon Island! She is continuing the tradition of Sagehens out on the rock. In past years Matt, Kristina and Eleanor contributed to the collection of the long term data sets that have become part of several senior theses. Clare says “I love it here- there are more birds than I’ve seen in my life! So far I’ve been doing work with Brandt’s cormorants, tufted puffins, elephant seals, rhinoceros auklets, and obviously Cassin’s auklets!” The Cassin’s auklets will be the subject of her senior thesis.


Filed under: Farallon Island, Puffin Project, Senior Thesis
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Planting Halos

Posted by: lars | November 8, 2017 | No Comment |

Once upon a time, during the spring bloom, you could have looked out onto the Channel Islands from the Southern California coast and seen one island with what would have appeared to be a bright yellow halo around it. That island, Anacapa, is angelic no more. But let me back up a little.

A few weeks ago, my Advanced Animal Ecology class, led by the inimitable Professor Karnovsky, took an overnight trip to Anacapa Island, the second smallest of the five Channel Islands off the coast of Southern California. This was no jet-setting island adventure, however. While on the island we volunteered with three Channel Island National Park biologists who work to study and conserve the island’s wildlife. It is one of these biologists who first told me of the island’s long since lost halo.

Our initial approach to Anacapa. If you squint your eyes you can just see the yellow ha… ah never mind.

The class at the boat dock.

It turns out that the island no longer look the way it did a couple of hundred years ago. The halo effect was the result of dense coverage by a large shrub called giant coreopsis that has lots of bright yellow flowers when it blooms. But when humans introduced sheep and later rabbits to the island, the giant coreopsis was devastated by the grazing of these introduced species. Today, many species of vegetation once common across the island have become rare, as the dominant plant has become red-flowered ice plant, an invasive species planted by the Coast Guard. These endemic (native) island species (plant and animal) are often particularly susceptible to being decimated by introduced species such as sheep and ice plant, as they have often evolved in an ecosystem without significant competition or predation.

The red-flowering ice plant, which was introduced to the island by the Coast Guard.

This vegetation has serious implications for the numerous organisms that depend upon the island. The protected area beneath the native shrubs that once dominated on the island offered quality nesting sites for sea birds such as the Scripps’ murrelet, which cannot nest under the low-lying ice plant. On Anacapa in particular, whose sea birds only just recently were able to recover following the removal of yet another human-introduced invasive species, the black rat, the mending of the island’s vegetation in favor of native shrubs is vital to bringing the island back to previous levels of viability for the numerous organisms that live on it. This is where Anacapa’s resident biologists and my class come into play.

Amelia and Jim, answering our post-dinner questions on life as a biologist.

Upon arriving at the island we met with the three resident biologists, Jim, Amelia, and David, who introduced us to the island and to one of their projects: restoring native plant species to the island. Using a small greenhouse as a nursery to grow seedlings of various native shrubs, the biologists then plant those growing shrubs in patches, so as to begin to the restoration of areas of native vegetation. This is precisely what my class and I did for our first afternoon on the island. As we planted we learned that the island’s native subspecies of deer mouse has been eating many of the shrubs they have been planted, due in part to a mouse population boom resulting from good rainfall in the last year. While I am not particularly fond of mice, being slightly phobic towards anything with buckteeth, hantavirus, and a tail, these mice are native to the island, and we hope that with more and more vegetation restoration, they will become a less prominent issue.

We managed to put in around 350 individual plants.

The hill upon which we did our planting. Each upturned plant pot is another native shrub planted!

Me, smiling (?) through the grime of our planting efforts.

After a much needed hop into the ocean for some snorkeling, we cooked dinner with Jim and Amelia (David rotated back to the mainland) and got some much-needed sleep. The next morning we met up again with Jim and Amelia and spent several hours working in the nursery, helping to transfer growing seedlings into individual nursery pots in which they could continue to grow before being planted. After lunch and another swim, we toured the lighthouse and lined back up for our ride home. Bouncing over the waves on our way back to Ventura Harbor, I think we all felt much increased appreciation for three things. First, the biologists who spend their lives working to maintain and restore the health of the Channel Islands ecosystems. Second, the importance of being ever vigilant in the maintenance of those fragile ecosystems and the devastating impacts of introduced species. And third, the extraordinary amount that some unskilled volunteers can accomplish to help both those biologists and the islands they tend to.

Clockwise from top left: Katie, me, Clark, Jack, and Prof K. We were able to swim and snorkel in the water of the boat dock. They were all very jealous of my wetsuit.

Our campsite on Anacapa.

Part of the class helping to transfer seedlings into their own pots on our second day on the island.

A picturesque sunset view from Anacapa.


Filed under: Channel Islands, News

Update from Sagehen on Seal Island

Posted by: nina-karnovsky | August 8, 2017 | No Comment |

Mid-July update from Clare!

Everything’s still going great here! Almost all of the chicks on the island are hatched, so we’ve been super busy with feeding studies. I think my favorite thing we do out here is tern feeding studies, where we sit and watch 6 nests for three hours and mark down when parents bring in food and what they bring in. I love just getting to observe their behavior, and you get to know the birds in the feeding studies really well. Our tern chicks are fledging right now, so it’s getting pretty crazy in the colony with all these new fliers!

An Atlantic Puffin with food for a growing chick.

Filed under: Puffin Project


Posted by: nina-karnovsky | June 26, 2017 | No Comment |

Clare received a Summer Undergraduate Research Grant to carry out seabird research this summer and sent in this update:

Right now I’m with the Audubon’s Project Puffin out on Seal Island, Maine, which is 25 miles off of the coast.  There are only 6 of us sharing our 65 acre island, which contains a cabin with a stove and a table and 6 tent platforms. We each have our own tent, and hang out there or around the cabin area during our downtime.

SEAL ISLAND, my tent does not have a tarp in this picture but it has one now.

While our main focus is helping restore puffins to Maine, we also work with all of the island seabirds- puffins, razorbills, common and arctic terns, guillemots, murres, and double crested and great cormorants.

A PUFFIN CHICK is the softest thing I’ve ever felt.

An average day starts with waking up at 5:45 to do the morning bird count at 6.  We then eat breakfast and have some coffee, and start working again at 8.  We’ll often do a blind stint in the morning, where we sit in a blind for three hours and try to read the bands on terns and puffins or conduct feeding studies where we keep track of what fish they’re feeding their chicks.  We’ll then break for lunch and leave the birds alone for the hottest part of the day, then start back up again around 2:30. We also do a lot of puffin and razorbill productivity checks, where we go around to their burrows in rock crevices and check to see if they’ve laid an egg, or if an egg has hatched.  We all take turns making dinner, then hang around in the cabin for a little bit chatting, before an early bed time of around 8:30.


Seal Island is absolutely beautiful, and I feel so lucky to get to work with such incredible birds every day!


Filed under: News, Puffin Project
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Allison Bailey’07 earns her PhD in Tromso, Norway. Her research was on the effects of ocean acidification on Arctic zooplankton. She studied little auks in Spitsbergen, Norway for her senior thesis.

Julia Gleichman’10 (middle) graduates from medical school! Julia studied stress in little auks foraging in different conditions in the Arctic for her senior thesis.  

Corinna Cook’07 finished her dissertation in History. As a senior thesis student she analyzed the rhetoric about the Pebble Mine in Alaska.

Filed under: Congrats to Students, News, Senior Thesis, Where are they now?
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SAGEHENS win awards at scientific meeting

Posted by: nina-karnovsky | May 12, 2017 | No Comment |

Gail’17 won an award for Best Undergraduate Presentation and Kyle’17 won an honorable mention for Best Undergraduate Poster at the Pacific Seabird Group Meeting!

Congratulations to Gail’17!

Congratulations to Kyle’17!

Filed under: Farallon Island, Sea Ranch
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Posted by: nina-karnovsky | February 26, 2017 | No Comment |

Gail’17 presented part of her senior thesis at the 44th annual meeting of the Pacific Seabird group.


Great job Gail!

Filed under: Farallon Island, News, Senior Thesis
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