Although the sunny, spare isles of Baja California offer open shores and cold, fish-filled waters, they are nearly barren of the ashy storm-petrels, Cassin’s auklets, brown pelicans, and 14 other species of seabirds that used to nest there. For more than a decade scientists with Mexico’s Grupo de Ecología y Conservación de Islas (GECI) have been removing invasive predators from the islands, hoping to improve bird habitat. So far, however, only a few of the birds have returned. So now GECI is taking a new tack, borrowing from the groundbreaking work of Audubon’s Steve Kress, director of seabird restoration and vice president for bird conservation, to bring back the birds.
“What precludes nesting is that there are no birds there,” says Kress. So to give the impression that the isles are populated by birds, the GECI is employing decoys, mirrors, and recorded bird calls—Kress’s pioneering techniques, which have benefited 47 seabird species in 14 countries, starting with Atlantic puffins in Maine in 1973. Kress and his collaborators at the GECI and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology are adapting these tactics for Baja. Reestablishing nesting sites could be particularly crucial to the elegant tern and Heermann’s gull, which have become dangerously concentrated in one location. “The birds will sense, de aqui soy—‘I am from here,’ ” says Alfonso Aguirre-Muñoz, executive director of the GECI. “They used to belong to this place, and now we are reestablishing them.”
Audubon and the Cornell Lab are contributing training and equipment to the five-year, $4 million program. Among GECI’s biologists are Mexico natives Maria Félix Lizárraga and Marlenne Rodriguez-Malagón, former interns of Audubon’s Project Puffin, which has helped to boost Maine’s puffin population from one small colony to more than 1,000 pairs on five islands* in nearly four decades. Not only are the former interns applying their specific knowledge to this project, they’re also teaching fishermen and their families about the importance of conservation.
*The story has been corrected to reflect the accurate number of puffins.