From feathers to fins, nature center studies ecosystem

The Vashon Nature Center is using citizen scientists to gather data on local wild populations.

  • Wednesday, August 28, 2019 11:46am
  • News
Pigeon guillemot cliff burrows at KVI Beach (Adria Magrath Photo).

Pigeon guillemot cliff burrows at KVI Beach (Adria Magrath Photo).

Citizen scientists serve as a volunteer militia for scientific research — civilian individuals organized to gather frontline field data. The Vashon Nature Center (VNC) is using citizen scientists to gather data on several local wild populations.

Last year, VNC partnered with Vashon-Maury Island Audubon and Whidbey Audubon’s Guillemot Research Group in an ongoing study of pigeon guillemots, an important indicator species for Puget Sound — one that reflects the health of the entire ecosystem.

Pigeon guillemots are black birds with conspicuous white wing patches during breeding season and bright red feet. The rest of the year they look more like pigeons. Their range extends along the Pacific coast from Alaska to California.

“We are interested in monitoring pigeon guillemots because they connect many pathways within the whole Salish Sea ecosystem and so can act as early warning signs for the health of multiple ecosystem processes,” says Bianca Perla, director of the Vashon Nature Center. “For example, they live here year-round, so their overall health is tied to the health and function of the Salish Sea in all seasons.”

Nine citizen scientists monitored the pigeon guillemot population on Vashon for a 10-week period during the spring/summer breeding season this year. They covered KVI beach, Point Robinson and the ferry docks, recording various behaviors including feeding, mating and courtship.

Pigeon guillemots are cliff-nesting birds. The goal of the study is not only to learn more about the feeding and nesting habits of these birds, but also to better understand the role of cliffs in our shoreline ecosystem.

“They integrate land and sea by living in marine waters but nesting on land, so they can tell us a lot about both the state of the marine and shoreline ecosystems and the strength of connection between them,” said Perla.

Occasionally, citizen scientists get to make important discoveries, and on June 10, Adria Magrath became the first person ever to record a sighting of pigeon guillemots entering a cliff-side burrow at KVI beach, confirming a long-held hypothesis that these birds not only feed in our local waters but also nest in our steep gravely cliffs.

While the pigeon guillemot monitoring season has wrapped for this year, another citizen science program is just gearing up: VNC’s Salmonwatchers season begins Sept. 30. Volunteer Salmonwatchers monitor the salmon and trout species in island creeks, collect and compare data on year-to-year populations of spawning salmon, and track how far they travel up the creeks.

Salmonwatchers also collect DNA by taking small clips from the fins to track how our fish are related to other populations in Puget Sound, or to what extent are they are unique. Perla will be talking about what the Vashon Nature Center has learned about local salmon populations during her Vashon Audubon talk on Sept. 12 at the Land Trust Building. Perla will share photos, videos, research data and explain ways to help salmon thrive.

Volunteers for the new Salmonwatchers season that begins on Sept. 30 can sign up at the talk or contact Kelly Keenan at

Thursday & Friday, Sept. 5 & 6

Stream Bug Surveys

Help VNC scientists gauge the health of our local creeks by monitoring aquatic macroinvertebrates. No prior experience necessary but must be able to walk on uneven terrain for up to 1 mile. Contact to sign up. 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.

Thursday, Sept. 12

Vashon Audubon Talk

Search for Salmon: an exploration of island streams and all they have to offer. Bianca Perla will share highlights from several long-term community science projects, explain how they help us understand island salmon,and outline what we can do to help local populations thrive. 7 p.m. at the Vashon Land Trust Building

Saturday, Sept. 14

Vashon Audubon Field Trip

Come birding on the island. Drop in, free and no experience necessary. Bring binoculars and scopes if you have them and wear walking shoes or boots. Children must be accompanied by an adult. Carpools encouraged and can be arranged at Ober Park. 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. Meet at Ober Park Park & Ride.

Saturday, Sept. 21

Catio Tour

VIPP, Vashon-Maury Island Audubon, and Vashon Nature Center are co-sponsoring a Catio Tour showcasing five different local catios. Learn how to keep your cats safe from danger and native songbirds safe from your cats. Volunteers are needed to staff tables at the catios. For locations and information, contact Jennifer Zeisig, 206-463-6445 or 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Thursday, Sept. 26

Land Trust Book Club

September selection is “The World in a Grain: The Story of Sand and How it Transformed Civilization” by award-winning journalist Vince Beiser. 6:30 p.m. at the Land Trust Building

Sunday, Sept. 29

Seed Saving Workshop

Learn how to harvest, process, clean and store seed for the winter. Noon to 3 p.m. at Matsuda Farm, 19201 Vashon Hwy SW

WSU Extension Forest Stewardship Planning Class

Class begins Monday, Sept. 23, and runs through Nov. 18. For more info and to register, go to

SWAG: Stormwater Action Group — Seeking on-call volunteers willing to collect creek water during the first fall storm to be analyzed for stormwater pollutants. Contact

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