Santa Barbara Island is a world apart. Only one square mile in area, it is the smallest island in the Channel Islands National Park. The island has no land predators, which makes it a haven for seabirds. One bird that makes Santa Barbara Island its home is the rare Xantus's Murrelet. In fact, Santa Barbara Island has the largest colony of Xantus's Murrelets in the United States. This bird takes the term seabird to new limits. Murrelet's spend almost their entire lives at sea, only coming to land to lay their eggs and hatch their young. Their chicks live up to being a seabird as well, by spending only two days on the island, after which they tumble into the ocean to join their parents-even before they can fly! Another species that once called Santa Barbara Island its home is the Cassin's Auklet. A member of the Alcid Family, the same grouping as the Xantus's Murrelet, this tiny seabird was almost completely eliminated from the island by feral cats that preyed on the adults and chicks.
MSRP is working to restore the populations of these rare seabirds and their habitats. DDT released into the ocean near the Palos Verdes shelf spread through the food chain and caused eggshell thinning in seabirds on the Channel Islands. The eggs became so thin that when the adults would sit on the eggs to warm them they would break. MSRP is using settlements funds to restore these threatened seabirds.
Murrelets and auklets need the structure and cover provided by native plant communities for nesting habitat. The native shrubs on Santa Barbara Island have been decimated by decades of introduced grazers, and non-native plants now prevent the few remaining native stands from recolonizing the island. One of the goals of this project is to remove the non-native plants at selected areas that serve as high quality nesting habitat. Biologists are then restoring the habitat by planting native species. This work is not easy by any means. All native plants are grown from seed on the island and it takes six to eight months to grow a mature plant. One of the challenges to growing these plants is that Santa Barbara is a desert island with no water source. All the water that is needed for the native plants must be transported by Park Service boat, and moved onto the island by crane in large 400 gallon tanks. Biologists then distribute the water by hand or helicopter to the nursery and then each restoration site. A permanent nursery was recently constructed on the island that incorporated water saving techniques to reduce the amount of water that needs to be sent to the island. The materials for this restoration project are transported by helicopter or on foot up a steep half mile trek.
It will take at least five years for the plants to be ready for seabirds to use as nesting habitat. Meanwhile, biologists are using a technique known as social attraction to encourage nesting of Cassin's Auklets on the island. This method involves broadcasting Auklet sounds using a system powered by solar energy. This important restoration work would not be possible without the assistance of our dedicated volunteers. To date, volunteers have contributed over 10,000 hours of hard work: weeding the restoration sites and planting native species. The amount of work accomplished since 2007 has been impressive-over 15,000 plants have been put in the ground and a total of five acres of habitat are being restored.
Although it will take several years before the native plants have grown enough to provide the best nesting habitat, there are initial signs of success. In 2009, biologists discovered the first nesting Cassin's Auklet on Santa Barbara Island since the 1990s! Biologists also documented Cassin's Auklets flying close to where sounds of these seabirds are being broadcast. The restoration work will continue over the next several years and with the on-going support of our volunteers and dedicated staff-the island will be returned to the seabird haven it once was.
MSRP Program Manager