GoLightly

Golightly uses radio telemetry and remote cameras to track elusive wildlife.

HUMBOLDT STATE'S GO-TO-GUY FOR wildlife crises got the call early on the morning of Nov. 8, 2006: a mountain lion was holed up underneath Warren House, and campus police were concerned about public safety. The area swarmed with police and game wardens as Professor Rick Golightly arrived to assess the situation. Some wanted to shoot the cat but Golightly, who has sedated hundreds of animals in the field, had a better idea. Immobilize it.

The crowd hushed as Golightly, holding a five-foot jab stick with a syringe at the tip, crept around the house and located the cat crouched in a dark corner. A thin wooden lattice separated the cat from Golightly, who could hear the animal breathing. As a police officer distracted the cougar, Golightly took aim and jabbed. He then crawled under the house and, after injecting another dose of sedative, pulled out the woozy lion, which was relocated by the California Department of Fish and Game.

The incident made headlines and Golightly was congratulated for his daring, but the mild-mannered wildlife biologist eschews praise. "It wasn't as big a deal as some people made it out to be."

Call it all in a day's work for someone who has studied and handled an astounding array of animals – lions, bears, elk, deer, raptors, foxes, coyotes, raccoons, fishers, martens and more – during 28 years at HSU. As director of the campus Marine Wildlife Care Center, Golightly helps rescue seabirds harmed by oil spills (see sidebar). "Rick always seems to be doing risky work or dealing with sensitive species," says Luke George, former Wildlife Department chairman. "I can't imagine too many people wanting to crawl under a house with a young, hungry mountain lion."

Now, after a long career filled with highlights, HSU's wildlife jack-of-all-trades is winning accolades for his cutting-edge use of remote video cameras to study seabirds. Golightly's work with elusive marbled murrelets is being funded in part by National Geographic. "Rick could toot his horn a lot more but he doesn't. He's humble," says retired Wildlife Professor Dave Kitchen. Adds Eric Nelson, manager of the Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge: "The guy goes about 350 miles an hour all the time."

Professor Rick Golightly ferries student researchers to Castle Rock, one of the largest seabird colonies on the California coast. Graduate student Katie Rian reaches for supplies as Golightly operates the boat.

One of Golightly's proudest achievements is the placement of video cameras on Castle Rock, one of the largest seabird colonies along the California coast. The island bustles with 100,000 birds during breeding season, but studying the birds is difficult. Castle Rock, two miles off the coast of Crescent City, is treacherous to reach and human presence can disrupt nesting.

Thanks to the robotic cameras installed in 2006, student researchers can zoom in on nesting common murres, puffins, cormorants, petrels and auklets to check for eggs and observe feeding habits without disturbing the birds. Microphones pipe audio to the mainland so students can eavesdrop on the activities of species that feed at night .

Twice a year, Golightly ferries student researchers to Castle Rock to perform maintenance on the cameras. A skilled Zodiac pilot, Golightly drives his boat to within a foot of the island and, as the craft rises on a wave swell, passengers leap onto the rocks. "Driving a Zodiac is tricky and Rick is one of the few people who does it well," says U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Gerry McChesney. "You don't want to bang against the rocks because these boats are inflatable and can pop."

Golightly occasionally has others drive so he can go onto the island. During one such visit, Golightly leaped from the boat but missed. "He short-stepped the landing and ended up in the drink," Nelson says with a chuckle. "It didn't faze him."

The Castle Rock project was inspired by a seabird restoration Golightly assisted with on Devil's Slide, south of San Francisco. The island's common murre colony had been wiped out by gill net fishing and an oil spill. Researchers wanted to revive the colony, but murres are highly social and will only nest if others of their kind are present. So Golightly, McChesney and colleagues used wooden murre decoys, mirrors and audio players that broadcast common murre calls to fool the birds into returning.

Clockwise from top left: Grad student Mike Cunha on the boat. "Driving a Zodiac is tricky and Rick is one of the few people who does it well," says biologist Gerry McChesney | Adjusting the antenna that transmits the video signal from Castle Rock, allowing observation of bird behavior. Solar panels power the microphones and cameras | Common murres roost below the camera. Photos courtesy of Stephanie R. Schneider

Golightly's latest seabird project is even more ambitious. Last summer, he and renowned HSU redwood expert Steve Sillett hoisted a camera up to a marbled murrelet nest in the redwood canopy – 270 feet aboveground. The camera has provided never-before-seen images of the birds. Murrelets are challenging to study because they fly at speeds over 50 miles per hour, spend much of their lives at sea and nest far above the eyes of researchers. "It's not an easy bird to get your hands on," Golightly says.

Watch real-time video of seabirds at Castle Rock: http://tinyurl.com/watchseabirds

To find the nest, Golightly and colleagues traveled offshore at night to net murrelets. They outfitted the birds with transmitters and used electronic receivers to track the little black speeding bullets back to their nests. Kitchen credits Golightly with pioneering many of these techniques. "In terms of using equipment and technology he is a cut above."

Golightly encourages students to become proficient with electronics and to develop real-world skills – handling boats, fixing computers, using a compass and GPS. "I call it Boy Scouts 101," he says. As a graduate student at Arizona State University, Golightly learned to string snowshoes so he could trek into snowy ponderosa pine forests to study the winter feeding habits of Abert's squirrels. "I stress to my students that biology is more than just handling animals," Golightly says. "In my day it was stringing snowshoes. Today it is servicing video equipment."

HSU's Wildlife Department has a reputation for producing technically savvy workers. Golightly currently has graduate and undergraduate researchers working on projects from Devil's Slide to Castle Rock to Big Sur to Yellowstone National Park. Graduates have landed jobs with wildlife agencies and learning institutions across the West – the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Survey, New Mexico State, Kansas State, Smithsonian Institution; the California, Arizona and Nevada fish and game departments.

Sometimes his students are too impressive, as Golightly discovered when he convinced an undergraduate to present a paper on marbled murrelets. Afterward, a professor from another university offered her a graduate post. With her bachelor's unfinished, the student was not ready to leave HSU. "We give undergraduates substantial responsibility if they have the skills," he says. "Research is an opportunity to get real-world experience."

"I consider myself lucky. We get privileged access to wildlife."

— Professor Rick GoLightly

Golightly's memorable experiences in the field are too numerous to count: catching murrelets on a moonlit night, watching coyotes play in the snow, seeing peregrine falcons spar with bald eagles, trapping kit foxes in the Arizona desert for his dissertation, exploring the scrublands of Paraguay for capybaras, sleeping on a boat for 10 days and venturing into sea caves while studying the storm petrels of Santa Cruz Island. "Landing on any seabird island is memorable. Those are magical places."

Wildlife biology has given Golightly a backstage pass to the greatest show on earth. "I consider myself lucky. Wildlife biologists get unique experiences that a lot of people would like to have. We get privileged access to wildlife." End Story

Video Courtesy Will Goldenberg, Wildlife Graduate Student

Top: Birds at the Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge, where students collect samples and observe bird behavior. Bottom: At the Marine Wildlife Care Center, veterinarian Greg Massey feeds rescued birds with assistant Yvette Hernandez (M.S. '09) after an oil spill in Eureka.

Saving Birds from an Oily Death

Oil spills devastate seabirds by matting their feathers and causing deadly hypothermia. When a spill hits the North Coast, Humboldt State's Marine Wildlife Care Center becomes a frenzy of life-saving activity. Experts and volunteers wash birds in soapy water, administer veterinary care and place the birds in swimming pools to feed and recuperate.

The second incident came two years later when a barge leaked oil into the bay and offshore waters. The spill hit common murres especially hard, as they had just left nesting areas with chicks, and oiled birds fell out of the sky onto the Arcata Plaza. Of the 642 birds treated, 44 percent survived to be released.

"You would see these birds gasping and covered with oil and your heart would just sink," says former Wildlife Department chairman Luke George, who gathered birds and brought them to the facility. "A few days later you would walk out back and see these beautiful clean birds diving for fish in the pools. It was inspiring."

The latest local response was in 2006, when 53 gulls were treated after getting into improperly stored oily fish offal at a Eureka processing plant. Officials at the center, part of the Oiled Wildlife Care Network, also respond to crises elsewhere. In 2008, coordinator Tamar Danufsky and local volunteers rushed to help clean birds oiled by a spill in San Francisco Bay.

The facility demonstrates HSU's commitment to preserving the North Coast's treasured natural resources, says the center's director, Wildlife Professor Rick Golightly. "These events are team efforts." Golightly credits everyone from Plant Operations staff to the campus engineer to students and faculty for providing crucial help at a moment's notice. "These events brought together the entire campus community."