Hannah Atkinson, director of the Santa Barbara Audubon Society’s Eyes in the Sky program, with great horned owl Max.
Hannah Atkinson, director of the Santa Barbara Audubon Society’s Eyes in the Sky program, with great horned owl Max. The raptor-education program features six birds of prey that were rescued and rehabilitated. (David Levasheff photo)

From marine life to birds of prey, wildlife education programs and Santa Barbara-area natural history museums are committed to continued animal care during the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic.

Creatures of all sizes are receiving essential oversight while the facilities they call home are temporarily closed to human visitors — an order by local and state government amid the outbreak.

Eyes in the Sky, the Santa Barbara Audubon Society‘s flagship raptor-education program, features six birds of prey that were rescued and rehabilitated. The birds are housed in an aviary on the grounds of the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, which temporarily closed in mid-March to visitors.

The public health emergency prompted organizations across Santa Barbara County and beyond to dial down their human power operations.

The Eyes in the Sky volunteer-run program is functioning with a skeleton crew because of COVID-19, but volunteers remain on hand for the animals with which they work.

Pre-pandemic, nearly 50 volunteers worked with the birds in the morning and afternoon. One person covered the morning shift while the afternoon volunteers often numbered six or seven at the aviary at once.

Volunteer duties included letting the general public get a look at the native birds of prey and enrichment for birds, plus feeding them, cleaning the aviary and other activities during pre-pandemic life.

“That’s how it normally looks,” Eyes in the Sky program director Hannah Atkinson said. “Because of COVID-19 and because of the restrictions, we dialed it back to a skeleton crew.”

Instead of a group of people at the bird aviary at once, they tried having just one person in the morning and one person in the afternoon.

“We determined one wasn’t feasible to care for the birds adequately,” Atkinson said. “That just wouldn’t cut it, so we still have our skeleton crew, which is currently five volunteers instead of about 50.”

All volunteers are equipped with disposable gloves and face masks.

Pre-coronavirus, Eyes in the Sky volunteers would try to get all of the birds out of the aviary for about two hours, so the animals could get sunlight and enrichment. Recently, they had to make adjustments to volunteers’ schedules. Every day of the week, a different bird comes out, and it’s an opportunity to check on the bird’s health, plus a chance for the bird to get personal attention and quality outdoor time.

“We scaled it back, so instead of six birds coming out every day it’s just one,” Atkinson said.

Eyes in the Sky is the Santa Barbara Audubon Society’s main wildlife education program and offers birds of prey that can no longer live in the wild.

When the birds are out in public with their raptor-handler volunteers, the animals often capture people’s attention. Children and adults will ooh and awe at the spectacular birds just an arm’s distance away. It’s often a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for visitors.

The program’s focus is education, Atkinson said. Eyes in the Sky volunteers engage in public educational presentations across the Santa Barbara area.

In addition to the museum, Eyes in the Sky is featured in local classrooms, after-school programs, camps and events.

“We are eager to be interacting with the public again once things improve, but for right now we are essential in our holding pattern,” Atkinson said. “Our highest priority is to make sure the volunteers and birds are safe, so that’s why we had to scale back.”

Santa Barbara Audubon Society Executive Director Katherine Emery gave a shout-out to the organization’s volunteers and board leadership for their support and continued commitment.  

“We also greatly appreciate our partnership with the Museum of Natural History for its continued top-notch support of SBAS programs,” Emery said.

Like others that are dealing with the effects of COVID-19, potential financial struggles because of the shutdown and restrictions are the latest challenge facing many nonprofit organizations.

Birds that are part of the Eyes in the Sky program are supported by monetary donations to help cover, in part, food, veterinarian care and gear needed for the birds’ well-being, according to Dolores Pollock, president of the Santa Barbara Audubon Society.

“We fear that donations may be in short supply in the coming months,” Pollock said.

Click here for more information about the Santa Barbara Audubon Society or to donate.

Butterflies and Marine Animals

The Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History expects to receive its first shipment of 150 pupae/chrysalides next week and will get 450 butterflies over three weeks for now, said Kim Zsembik, the museum’s butterfly program manager. 

The butterflies are for the popular “Butterflies Alive!” exhibit.

Two U.S. Department of Agriculture-certified farmers in Florida supply the butterflies, and the museum has been working with both farmers for almost a decade. The insects travel by air overnight and usually arrive by 10 the next morning.

In preparation of the butterfly lab and pavilion, the staff took precautions by working alternating days and disinfecting common surface areas, wearing face masks and keeping at least 6 feet distance as often as possible, Zsembik said. 

“We’re still in the planning stages for how we will outfit our staff with PPE (personal protective equipment), but we want our staff to feel safe and comfortable working inside the pavilion, so we’re receiving their input and taking into consideration measures to do so,” Zsembik said. “Otherwise, I’m not concerned with handling butterflies differently.

“Due to our USDA permit regulations, I’m comfortable using bleach and alcohol to disinfect surfaces and take caution to not introduce non-native organisms into our local ecosystem.”

Farmers have seen a significant drop in their business around the country because of the pandemic’s effect, but Zsembik said she is confident they’re going to have the same high-quality insects like past years. 

“The only change thus far is it’s a little quieter around the museum,” Zsembik said.

The regular insect care usually includes a team of three who maintain the lab while managing the daily operational needs of the exhibit, Zsembik said.

“Due to our closure, it’s only myself managing the insect care,” Zsembik said. “I miss the buzz and sounds of our guests visiting our Santa Barbara gallery’s emergence chamber.”

Museum staff hope to reopen to the public soon after the statewide stay-at-home order is lifted. 

“I’m working with my team on different operating scenarios to keep our guests and staff safe in the most socially responsible way, but also trying to keep the best parts of our ‘Butterflies Alive!’ exhibit,” Zsembik said.

The Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Sea Center is home to marine animals, including rays, sea stars, sharks, sea anemones and sea urchins.

The public aquarium, located on Santa Barbara’s Stearns Wharf, has more than 1,000 individual animals, said Tommy Wilson, the Sea Center’s live collection and husbandry manager.

Animal care is an area that has continued as normal, according to Sea Center Director Richard Smalldon.

“We have been able to continue to care for our animals in much of the same way when we were open,” Smalldon said. “Aquarium staff has been coming in, feeding, cleaning and monitoring our animals just pretty much the same … that’s an essential act.”

Noozhawk staff writer Brooke Holland can be reached at bholland@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.