Los Angeles Times

Webcam captures secrets of endangered birds

He didn't expect to be staring at his computer screen for hours on end, but Brian Pavloff caught himself doing just that.

Pavloff, president of Variable Speed Solutions in Huntington Beach, had just finished working on a web camera project for the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve. Even before it started broadcasting live online on March 11, he couldn't help but stop and stare at his screen.

"I never watch webcams in any length. And then after this project, all of a sudden I find it sitting next to me at night and I can't look away and I'm constantly going back to it," he said. "It's gotten to the point where my wife is telling me, 'Get off the webcam!' And I tell her that I'm only looking at birds."

The birds he's looking at are the western snowy plover and in a month's time, he will be also be looking at the California least tern. They are listed as two of the state's endangered bird species.

And for the first time, these birds will be under the careful watch of a camera, recording all of their nesting habits until the summer. The footage will then be used by researchers and universities to come up with better ways to help these birds get off the endangered species list, said Jayson Ruth, a board member of the Bolsa Chica Land Trust.

"It's fabulous for people all over the world that are interested in these endangered birds," said Mayor Connie Boardman, who is also a board member of the land trust.

Ruth, who is also a science teacher at Huntington Beach High School, has spearheaded this project from the beginning and after seven months has seen it go from an idea to reality.

"It's the first of its kind. Nobody's ever filmed long-term studies of the plovers or the terns," Ruth said. "It's not just a nest camera; it's really a nest site. We're filming an entire colony. We have the remote capability to film the nesting sites. We can zoom in on a nest when they form."

Ruth can change the position of the camera to focus in on a specific location using his laptop.

"We can actually follow them around. We've been monitoring their behavior and doing counts," he said. "There's a small wetland next to the nest site, so we're looking at what's happening at the night time versus the day time and the different types of animals that are using this area. We're looking at the big picture."


Educational Aspect

With advances in technology, studying a specific species of bird is merely a click or screen tap away.

"Instead of bringing students on a field trip, you can bring the field trip to the students," Pavloff said.

With the non-intrusive camera installed at the nest site, it will give researchers a better understanding of these two species.

"You're right in there with them without disturbing them, so you're learning all about behaviors, really specific points of information that a researcher or a grad student might want to be able to use as they're trying to better understand the nature of these birds," Ruth said.

The footage also helps Ruth with his lesson plans for this class, giving his students an opportunity to watch something that has never been done before.

"Instead of just talking about it, they can see it," he said. "So instead of me just standing up and lecturing and giving them notes, I gave them a list of questions they have to answer [as they watch the live stream]."


The Camera and Location

Pavloff's company, Variable Speed Solutions, usually builds speed drives and pumping systems for commercial businesses.

But since Ruth had known Pavloff for more than 10 years and he is an expert in remote-operated systems, it was a no-brainer for him to ask his friend to work on the project.

"The idea was that we need to build something that that two people could carry anywhere in the site, it had to have a low impact on the environment and it had to accomplish the green side of the project — which was remote access and a small footprint environmentally," Ruth said.

He said the project was solely funded by grant money, given by the Employees Community Fund of Boeing and Southern California Edison.

The nearly 20-foot-tall unit contains a high-definition camera, night vision, an audio microphone and is powered by a solar panel.

It wasn't built any taller because it would have become a perch for hawks and other air predators to sit on, Ruth said. And to further prevent them from perching, wind-driven deterrents spin atop the camera and solar panel.

Plovers and terns don't build their nests in trees, but rather in the soft, Bolsa Chica sand. The birds have three nesting sites: one along the western side of the reserve, another on the north side and a third in the southeast region of the reserve.

Ruth and Pavloff placed the camera in the third nest site, which can't be accessed by the public and, according to Ruth, saw a fair amount of activity last year.

"The public can't see this site, but now we can," Boardman said.

To better protect the nest site, a fence was built to prevent coyotes and other predators from getting in, Ruth said.

"That's why we put the camera there because we want to film the nesting," he said. "Although the predation would probably be exciting and my high school boys would love to see it, the purpose really is to observe and monitor the nests. And if you can eliminate the potential of predation by coyotes, that's a good thing."


Going Live

Building the camera and making sure it was functional was a task, but the more difficult task was getting that feed to the masses, Pavloff said.

"I thought the biggest obstacle would be to get from where it's broadcasting to a trailer to everywhere else," he said. "If Jayson hadn't pulled together the whole group, it would have never happened."

Working with Verizon, the camera uses a router that uses the company's 4G network to send a radio signal to a trailer.

Another friend of Ruth and Pavloff works for Trinnos Technology and worked on the infrastructure of the data transfer from the camera to the hard drive offsite. That data is then sent to the surf forecasting website Surfline.

Surfline live streams surf cameras from around the world, and having worked for the company while in college, Ruth was able to use his contacts there and got them to host the live stream of the plover and terns, http://www.bolsachicalandtrust.org.

"With all those steps, you can image how everything needs to be in place for everything to work," Ruth said.


The Common Core

Ruth has a history of thinking outside the box when it comes to teaching. He was the one to get Huntington Beach High School's science department iPads for the students to use, providing them with a more hands-on experience.

He's pushing to teach his students the common core, where instead of covering a broad spectrum of topics and going only surface deep, he picks a specific subject and dives into it deeper but still fulfilling the students' curricular requirements, Ruth said.

"For the past 10 years or so, it's all about teaching the standards. They cover information that's a mile wide, but an inch deep," he said. "With regards to a project like this, the common core says let's focus on some key concepts and then go deep with the information."

Ruth added that by teaching the common core, it gives students "something tangible" and allows them to learn about local topics, he said.

"It's been a long process to get to this point, but I'm really happy that we're here and it's working out," Ruth said.


Twitter: @acocarpio

Want to Watch?

To watch the nest camera, go to http://www.bolsachicalandtrust.org.

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