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Mel Preston, a field biologist with Point Blue Conservation Science, gently examined a colorful Wilson’s warbler (Cardellina pusilla) before starting her measurements. She was standing along the banks of Honsinger Creek, beneath towering Douglas fir and fragrant bay laurel east of Pescadero. There was a careful patience in her hands, a commitment to the fragile life she was working to understand and quickly set free.
After more than ten years of field work, Mel still beams with enthusiasm. She possesses a genuine optimism – something I’m especially appreciative of given the barrage of exceptionally grim news in recent months.
Mel demonstrates her expertise, finding a balance between working quickly and staying calm.
In September, a study published in Science reported that North America has lost nearly a third of its birds since the 1970s, primarily due to habitat loss. Compounding the threat, the National Audubon Society’s climate report the following month claimed that two-thirds of America’s remaining birds are at risk of extinction from climate change.
It’s difficult for me to fully comprehend this loss and the enormity of the challenges that lie ahead. It’s also easy to feel somewhat helpless in the face of such seemingly unstoppable trends. But I’ve found hope in people like Mel, committed scientists fighting to understand and ultimately protect our threatened feathered friends.
Recently, I joined Mel for a day of field work along Honsinger Creek, which winds through the 1,800 acres of TomKat Ranch before spilling into the much larger Pescadero Creek. As the on-site ecologist for the property, Mel’s work helps to keep tabs on the regenerative rangeland management practices, for which the ranch is so well-known.
In addition, her research is a part of Point Blue’s Rangeland Monitoring Network, a team of 11 partner biologists working in 24 counties across California to gather data on soil, plants and birds. With this information, they are helping landowners like POST implement sustainable solutions on the land.
Since monitoring began on the Peninsula in 2014, populations here have remained stable. In fact, Point Blue’s research has found that San Mateo County has more Grasshopper Sparrows (Ammodramus savannarum) than almost anywhere else in California, a population listed by the state as a “Bird Species of Special Concern.”
Grasshopper Sparrows are considered an “indicator species,” providing scientists like Mel with an indication of the health of the entire grassland ecosystem. They require relatively large, contiguous habitat, so if they have enough room to thrive, it’s likely a whole host of other critters do too.
Mel’s research on the Grasshopper Sparrow tells us that we have protected and maintained a refuge in the grasslands of the San Mateo Coast, not just for small migrant birds, but for a wide range of species dependent on that ecosystem. By this measure, our protection and careful management of this landscape seems to be working.
But that’s not to say the work is over. As the climate continues to warm, more pressure will be put on our local ecosystems as they are altered by this change. And as the latest news from the birding community has made clear, it’s more important than ever for us to continue to protect and connect landscapes, providing birds like the Grasshopper Sparrow with the grasslands they need to thrive.
Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST) protects open space on the Peninsula and in the South Bay for the benefit of all. Since its founding in 1977, POST has been responsible for saving more than 78,000 acres as permanently protected land in San Mateo, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties. Learn more