Webcam helps monitor area birds

Constant chirping from dozens of birds might get on some people's nerves, but the noise is music to science teacher Jayson Ruth's ears.

The educator from Huntington Beach High School listened and watched dozens of varying species of terns from the comfort of his home on a recent Friday morning, thanks to the camera he installed at the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve.

"Some people find it totally annoying. I kind of find it soothing," Ruth said. "It makes me feel like I'm really there when I listen to all that."

He launched the second season of his live web camera project April 9 to monitor the endangered California least tern, the threatened western snowy plover and seabirds commonly found in the wetlands.

The biggest change this year is the camera's location. It now sits near the southern end of an area called nest site one, which is in the western portion of the wetlands. Ruth said the new spot provides an "ecosystem approach" to monitoring Bolsa Chica, capturing the marshes, mudflats and two tern islands rather than a single nesting site.

The old location, in the eastern portion of Bolsa Chica, in an area called nest site three, wasn't as exciting as he'd thought, Ruth said.

"It just featured a few snowy plover nests, as well as any visitors in the area," he said. "But because we're right here in the heart of the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve now, it's been a pleasure to be able to show more of the whole ecosystem."

Footage recorded from March to July of last year provided California Department of Fish and Wildlife environmental scientists a look at the mating and nesting habits of the least tern and plover, as well as the predators that threaten them.

Kelly O'Reilly, state environmental scientist and reserve manager at Bolsa Chica, said it's as easy as using her computer to move the camera around to see if any red-tailed hawks, sea gulls or even other species of terns are attacking the nesting sites.

"We have the potential to document which specific predators might be taking chicks," she said. "There are gull-billed terns, which are rarer than least terns and plovers, that prey on the chicks of plovers and least terns, which is unfortunate."

She added that surveying the area has helped scientists protect the nesting sites.

Although O'Reilly and her staff can monitor the birds from afar, she and others go to the sites daily to tally the number of nests and eggs and perform any tasks to ensure the chicks have fledged — matured enough to begin flying.

While scientists used the webcam to monitor the birds, Ruth thought the footage would be a great addition to the classroom.

He had his students use a tablet app from the Audubon Society to identify the plovers and terns by their tweets.

"[The app] has audio recordings of their vocalizations, so what I did was turn up the sound coming from the Bolsa Chica [live stream] and just had everybody listen," he said.

Ruth hopes to take the nesting camera project to a new level this year with experts discussing birding and the environment in Google Hangouts or other chatrooms while watching the Bolsa Chica live stream.

"We just have a public forum where people can log in and participate in discussions," he said. "We'll have the experts there to answer the questions, and I'll be at the helm of the camera, zooming in and out and contributing to the overall discussion wherever it takes us.

"If they want to talk about Caspian terns, then I'll go over to Tern Island. If they want to talk about plovers, I'll zoom into one of the plover nests. It should be fun."

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