By Julia Reis
Staff Writer, Half Moon Bay Review
On the surface, Patrick Kobernus’ job has all the elements of an action-packed blockbuster. He’s been privy to epic battles, love scenes, you name it. But as a wildlife biologist for Coast Ridge Ecology, the San Francisco-based company he started seven years ago, he is merely a highly trained voyeur. One day he may be conducting surveys of the endangered California red-legged frog or San Francisco garter snake; the next he’s checking out bats in the Sierras.
Lately, many of his mornings have involved a trip to the recently opened Devil’s Slide Trail, where he has been tasked with observing whether a pair of peregrine falcons is being adversely affected by the dog walkers, joggers and bikers who frequent their habitat.
San Mateo County Parks Department entered a $6,500 contract with Coast Ridge Ecology when the trail opened. The contract runs through July or whenever the young birds yet to be born fledge, or leave, the nest.
The contract came out of a partnership between the county, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and California Department of Fish and Wildlife. An agreement between the parties allowed the county to open the trail in March during nesting. It’s the time when a nest is built and the female birds incubate the eggs.
“Our main task here is to monitor them to see if they’re impacted by anybody using the trail and document their behavior so we can see if that change occurs,” Kobernus says. On a clear weekday morning, Kobernus walks past visitors with a spotting scope hoisted on one shoulder. He dons a highlighter-yellow vest and a pair of binoculars.
Kobernus didn’t have designs of being a biologist until after he got his bachelor’s degree in English. An interest in the environmental movement led him to get involved with conservation organizations. That’s when he realized he didn’t understand the science behind the arguments these groups were making. He went back to school, got his second degree, this time in biology, and graduated with a master’s degree in ecology from California State University, East Bay, in 1998.
Now, he jumps between projects throughout the Bay Area. Many of them involve observing endangered or protected species.
“I’m kind of a jack-of-all-trades with different wildlife species, but it keeps it interesting,” Kobernus said. “This has been an amazing project to work on.”
At Devil’s Slide Trail, Kobernus aims to get a bird’s-eye view of the peregrine falcons, a fully protected species in California. That means it’s illegal to take the birds, the nest or its eggs for any reason. He hikes up to different perches along the trail, scanning around for the peregrine pair with binoculars and using his 80mm scope to monitor their activity.
“We need to stay some distance away so we don’t bother them, and the scope allows us to do that,” Kobernus said.
A bird protection fence installed before the trail opened also helps to minimize disturbance by keeping visitors from approaching the birds. Steps were also taken to acclimate the falcons to the noise. Those efforts included bringing small groups through to get a sneak peek before the trail’s opening.
Kobernus said it doesn’t appear the birds are being disturbed by trail users. But a few weeks ago the birds abandoned a nest with eggs inside, which Kobernus theorizes was due to stormy weather. Based on their current behavior, however, Kobernus believes the falcons are nesting at a new cliffside location.
“We’re pretty sure she’s sitting on eggs; we just haven’t figured out where it is,” Kobernus said.
The 49-year-old Kobernus is in his 20th year in this line of work and says he enjoys being in nature and “learning from being still.” He hopes that more people realize the importance of protecting the habitats of rare species.
“I learn new things about species that can help in the conservation of that species,” Kobernus said. “It’s awesome to do this for a living.”