Keeping an Eye on Egrets
Connecting with John Kelly of Audubon Canyon Ranch
Photo by Kathleen Murphy.
John Kelly, Ph.D, is the Director of Conservation Science and Habitat Protection for Audubon Canyon Ranch. He develops and oversees programs in conservation research, ecological restoration, and natural resources management on Audubon Canyon Ranch preserves and associated ecosystems, particularly on Tomales Bay where he runs the Cypress Grove Research Center. His scientific interests focus on habitat relationships, foraging, and energetics of coastal and estuarine birds, and on the breeding biology of herons and egrets in the San Francisco Bay Area. John also works on local and regional conservation issues, and he serves on the Tomales Bay Watershed Council and the Tomales Bay Advisory Committee. John Kelly holds a Doctorate in Ecology from the University of California, Davis, and a Master’s in Wildlife from Humboldt State University.
BN: How long have you lived in the Bay Area?
JK: I spent a few years in the Bay Area in the mid 1970s when I was completing my student teaching in environmental education at the Point Reyes National Seashore, and I settled here permanently in 1984. I really do love how the proximity of natural and human-altered landscapes in the Bay Area provides opportunities to make a difference in local and regional conservation.
BN: How did you first become involved with Audubon Canyon Ranch?
JK: I’d been volunteering as a field biologist on the Farallon Islands for the Point Reyes Bird Observatory (currently, PRBO Conservation Science), and I decided to complete a master’s at Humboldt State. Once I had my master’s, I returned to work on the PRBO staff and then accepted a position with Audubon Canyon Ranch (ACR) in 1988.
BN: What do you do for the ACR?
JK: I measure the ecological values across large wetland landscapes and the effects of climate change on wetland birds, such as herons and egrets.
Then, with the help of my coworkers, I track the status and reproductive performance of nesting herons and egrets at all known colony sites in the northern San Francisco Bay area (there are over 100 of them). This work has led to the production of a detailed regional atlas of heronries, and has established ACR as an authority on the conservation of herons and egrets.
BN: What is the most interesting or unusual thing you’ve observed in your work?
JK: It is interesting to me that even the most urbanized parts of the Bay Area can contain vital elements of the natural world — like the nesting herons and seabirds that share Alcatraz with thousands of human visitors — and that birds and other wildlife in our region persist by finding the resources they need among widely scattered and degraded patches of habitat. But perhaps the most amazing and unusual thing I have witnessed is the restoration of over 500 acres of tidal marsh in the Giacomini Wetlands at the southern end of Tomales Bay. It is such a deeply emotional experience to see a natural landscape reappear so quickly where it had been almost completely obliterated. Now, we are doing a study to determine if this amazing restoration will help to fuel increases in the bird populations in Tomales Bay.
BN: What has been the focus of your work at ACR?
JK: ACR manages a system of wildlife sanctuaries in Marin and Sonoma counties and conducts programs in conservation science, habitat protection and restoration, and nature education. When I came to ACR, very little scientific work had been done on birds in Tomales Bay, so I immediately established research projects to assess the value of the bay’s bird habitats and to track abundances of wintering and migrant waterbirds and shorebirds. These projects have led to the development of ongoing, long-term databases that have provided key information for establishing conservation priorities in Tomales Bay. And now, Tomales Bay is recognized by the scientific community as a wetland of international importance.
BN: What are the main challenges you face in your work, and what sort of help do you need?
JK: Conservation science and habitat protection at ACR depend on dedicated and talented volunteers; we have some the best birders in California contributing data to our bird monitoring programs. And while we always need experienced birders for our shorebird and waterbird monitoring programs, you don’t need to be an expert to become a field observer of the reproductive activities of herons and egrets, because they are relatively easy birds to observe and we provide the necessary instructions and training. We also offer opportunities to help with habitat restoration on our sanctuaries. Anyone interested in volunteering should contact the Cypress Grove Research Center (415-663-8203).
BN: What’s your favorite place to go in the Bay Area?
JK: The beautiful wetlands of West Marin. The natural landscapes and diverse bird life in this area are an endless source of inspiration. My earliest connections with nature were with coastal waters — beaches, tide pools, and waves — so I also thrive on frequent visits to the beach, where the open ocean and waves feed my soul.