Ocean Gliders: California Brown Pelicans

Cover Photo: © Frank Schulenburg, 2016, some rights reserved.

Brown pelicans have made a dramatic return from their critically low numbers in the 1970’s due to the effects of DDT. However, the fight for the brown pelican is far from over: today, they face threats from food scarcity as Pacific sardine and anchovy numbers have shown declines.

Cover Photo: © Frank Schulenburg, 2016, Flickr Photo Album, some rights reserved.

Places to See California Brown Pelicans

natural bridges circle

Natural Bridges State Beach

California brown pelicans faced critically low numbers in the 1970’s from the effects of DDT and endrin.

From the 1950’s to 1970’s, the brown pelican almost disappeared from North America due to the effects of pesticides, namely endrin and DDT. DDT weakened the strength of breeding birds’ eggshells, resulting in failed breeding attempts as parents crushed eggs while trying to incubate.

The plummeting populations resulted in the species being federally listed as endangered. The ban of DDT in 1972, as well as the decrease in use of endrin, allowed pelican numbers to recuperate. By 2009, the species had recovered enough for its endangered listing to be lifted.

On the west coast, pelican populations face declines from lack of food availability.

Today, all brown pelicans still face threats from oil spills, entanglement in fishing gear, and disruption during their breeding season.

On the west coast in particular, however, pelican populations face starvation due to a decrease in the availability of Pacific sardines and anchovies. Overfishing and unusually warm waters have caused declines in the two fish populations, which has in turn negatively impacted brown pelican populations. In 2010, emaciated pelicans were reported at California wildlife centers. Younger pelican individuals were even recorded going after murre colonies in Oregon, grabbing chicks and shaking them until they regurgitated fish for the pelicans to eat.

In response to low fish numbers, the commercial fishing of sardines was banned from April 2015 through June 2016. To help monitor the populations of brown pelicans along the west coast, citizen scientists and biologists conduct surveys to assess pelican numbers from Mexico up north to Washington.

Moss Landing Brown Pelicans
Source: © Don DeBold, 2015, Flickr Photo Album, some rights reserved.

Juvenile California brown pelicans appear brown overall, whereas adults sport more rich coloration.

Non-breeding adult pelicans have yellowish faces and white necks. The rest of their bodies are brownish gray.

During the breeding season, the necks of adult brown pelicans turn reddish-brown in color. On the west coast, breeding adults also develop a red throat. Birds in breeding plumage can be seen from December through August.

Juvenile brown pelicans are brown above and whitish below, with grayish bills.

California brown pelicans can be found resting along California’s coast.

Brown pelicans can be found foraging in shallow waters. When they’re not searching for food or breeding, they can be found resting in areas near the coast.

While in flight, birds will typically form lines. Their flight is extremely graceful, as they glide and flap in unison.

California brown pelicans feed by diving in the water.

They feed primarily on fish, diving head-first into the water from 20 – 40 feet in the air to capture their prey. Before swallowing the captured fish, pelicans empty their pouches of water. The California brown pelican and the Peruvian pelican are the only two pelican species that plunge dives for food.

Gulls, particularly Heermann’s gulls, are known to steal fish from the pouches of brown pelicans that have just returned from a dive.

California brown pelicans nest colonially on the ground.

Brown pelicans breed on the Channel Islands in Southern California from March to early August.

To breed, brown pelicans form colonies, meaning that they nest in large groups with members of the same species. Their nests are usually constructed of sticks.

They lay 3 eggs on average, which hatch after 4 weeks of incubation. Once the eggs hatch, the young are cared for by both parents.

Cool facts about California brown pelicans:

  • The largest roosting site for brown pelicans in the Bay Area is in Alameda on Breakwater Island. Breakwater Island is an L-shaped island in Alameda, built from rocks to help reduce wave action in the area.
  • Brown pelican pouches can hold up to 2.6 gallons of water.
  • Brown pelicans can live to be up to 30 years old.
  • Brown pelicans are incredibly large, with wingspans of 6.5 to 7.5 feet.
  • Brown pelicans weight 8 to 10 pounds.

Resources to learn more:

5 Ways Birdwatching Has Changed My Life

There are very few hobbies that I can say have changed my life for the better, and birding is at the top of that list. Here are just a few ways that birding has influenced me.

I have many hobbies that have enriched my life: reading, cooking, and dancing hula all come to mind as interests that make me feel happy and fulfilled. That said, there are very few hobbies that I can say have changed my life for the better. Here are just a few ways birding has influenced me.

1. Birdwatching taught me how to pay attention.

Birding has completely transformed my day-to-day activities by teaching me how to pay attention. While birding has allowed me to further develop my attention span, it has also taught me how to integrate nature into my day-to-day activities by simply paying attention.

Take walking from your parked car to a building as an example. Before I learned the sights and sounds of individual bird species, a walk from my car was just another task. Learning how to watch birds has flipped an irreversible switch in my mind, turning every moment outside into an opportunity to see or hear new things.

Today, even when doing something as simple as watering my plants outdoors, I passively pay attention to who’s around. Dark-eyed junco hopping underneath my gardening shelves, looking for spilled seed. House finch singing from a perch on the ornamental tree across the street. It’s an incredible gift that I’m grateful to have learned.

2. Watching birds got me to spend more time outside.

I’ve always loved the outdoors, but birding has presented me with the incentive to explore as many new habitats as possible, in hopes of observing more bird diversity.

Since I’ve begun birding, I’ve travelled to habitats ranging from rocky seashores to the edges of lush agricultural fields in search of a particular species. I’ve gotten to know a diversity of places, thanks to the journeys that birdwatching has brought me on.

10550845_838073406204265_3951027189586661986_n
Birding on the rocky shores of the Isles of Shoals, off the coast of Maine and New Hampshire.

3. Birds were a gateway to learning about other incredible wildlife.

Birds, like all other life, interact with a myriad of other species in their day-to-day activities.

As an avid birdwatcher, you sometimes can’t help but wonder who else is in the picture as you’re watching a particular bird. What kind of shrub is that California towhee scuttling under? What kind of plant is that song sparrow using as its singing perch? What kind of mammal did that red-tailed hawk just snatch up? 

These are common questions running through my mind as I watch birds, and are all musings that prompt me to jump on my computer once I’m back home to do some research. This cycle has led me to discover the names and life histories of many non-bird species, thus allowing me to become a more well-rounded nature lover.

Baylands 1 Mark.jpg
Shorebirds gather at the Palo Alto Baylands Nature Preserve.

4. Birdwatching has brought me to an amazing, tight-knit birding community.

Joy loves company, as proven time and time again in the friends that I’ve made through birding. Whether I’m living in the San Francisco Bay Area, upstate New York, or in the suburbs of Australia, there isn’t a single place that I haven’t found a tight-knit and supportive group of birdwatchers and nature enthusiasts. By joining local birding email listservs, local Audubon chapters, or even visiting a local nature center, I’ve met many new, welcoming faces.

5. Watching birds has allowed me to deepen my knowledge and involvement in local conservation issues.

Being a part of the birding community also meant joining forces with incredible advocates and leaders in environmental grassroots movements. Because of my involvement in the birding community, I’ve been able to learn more about important local conservation issues and projects that impact the habitats of native species.

In the Bay Area alone, I’ve been exposed to the wonders of wetlands restoration for native species, the declines of raptors such as American kestrels and burrowing owls, and the impacts that even a single crumb left behind at a campsite can have on the dynamic between Steller’s jays and marbled murrelets. While I would have likely read about these issues before becoming a birder, being an avid birdwatcher brings you that much closer to the battlefront of local conservation concerns.

(Bonus) 6. The excitement doesn’t stop at watching birds.

Birding has brought me happiness beyond just watching birds – it has allowed me to find other outlets for my passions, whether it be science education and outreach, science writing, photography, or travel.

Letting birds into my life has given me an incredible sense of purpose and belonging, and I can only hope that it will do the same in yours. Cheers to your next (or first!) birding adventure.

1553304_785900691421537_963546150457126999_o
Me doing a bird banding demonstration with an American goldfinch to a group of young girls at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Migration Celebration.

For more information on local bird species in the Bay Area, check out our wildlife resources on birds.

Mysterious Declines: The American Kestrel

Cover photo: © Gregory “Slobirdr” Smith, 2007, some rights reserved.

Learn about North America’s smallest falcon and its mysterious decline across the United States.

Cover photo: © Gregory “Slobirdr” Smith, 2007, Flickr Photo Album, some rights reserved.

Places to See American Kestrels

Pearson-Arastradero Circle

Pearson-Arastradero Preserve

American kestrels are experiencing declines throughout the United States, including coastal California.

Data from the Peregrine Fund’s American Kestrel Partnership suggest that the coastal California population has been experiencing declines since the 1960’s.

Scientists do not know the “one true cause” of kestrel declines in the United States; rather, they believe that multiple causes could be working together to depress populations. Possible causes include habitat loss, the use of neonicotinoid insecticides, and local threats from the use of anticoagulant rat poisons.

Many local organizations are working to construct artificial kestrel nesting boxes to help the numbers in their area. For more information on how to construct a kestrel nesting box, check out this page by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s NestWatch.

American kestrels are North America’s smallest falcon.

They are about the size of a mourning dove, measuring in at 8.7 – 12.2 inches in length. Male American kestrels have beautiful slate-blue wings and rusty backs/tails. Females, on the other hand, are more subtly-beautiful – they have rusty wings and backs. Both males and females have black “slashes” on their faces.

You can often recognize American kestrels by looking for a bobbing head or tail. This charming behavior makes these birds distinctive on telephone wires, even at a distance.

American Kestrel 3
Male American kestrel; Source: © Matthew Buynoski, 2018, all rights reserved.

American kestrels eat large insects, small reptiles and amphibians, and even the occasional small bird.

American kestrels are raptors, meaning that they subdue and kill their prey using their feet. They hunt by swooping down on small prey and grabbing it in their talons.

Kestrels will sometimes cache, or store, extra food to keep it for later consumption or hide it from other animals.

American kestrels are secondary cavity-nesters, meaning that they build their nests in cavities excavated by other animals.

Once established at their nest site, female kestrels lay 4 – 6 eggs that are incubated by both parents. After about a month, the eggs hatch. The young and the female are fed by the male for a couple of weeks, after which the female leaves and begins to forage as well. The young begin to fly about a month after hatching.

Matthew_Kestrel
American kestrel at Pearson-Arastradero Preserve; Source: © Matthew Buynoski, 2018, all rights reserved.

Cool facts about American kestrels:

  • American kestrels are also known as “sparrow hawks” or “mousers”.
  • Only the northern populations of American kestrels migrate south during the winter. Central and southern populations are permanent residents.
  • American kestrels have a very distinct and excitable call, making these birds easy to locate by sound. To hear the American kestrel call, check out this page.

Resources to learn more:

American Kestrel 2
Male American kestrel in flight; Source: © Matthew Buynoski, 2018, all rights reserved.

Colorful Corvid: The Yellow-billed Magpie

Cover photo: © Marcel Holyoak, 2011, some rights reserved.

Did you know that our site logo is a yellow-billed magpie? Learn more about why we chose this stunning bird.

Cover photo: © Marcel Holyoak, 2011, Flickr Photo Album, some rights reserved.

Yellow-billed magpies are the inspiration for Bay Area Naturalist’s logo as bright, personable birds that are only found along California’s coasts and Central Valley. While their restricted range makes them very special to see, it also makes them susceptible to the threats that climate change poses to our planet’s life. They inhabit open oak woodlands – a specialized habitat that could mean that this species will not be able to adapt well to changes brought about by our changing climate.

For more information on why we chose the yellow-billed magpie as our logo, check out our Site Logo page.

Yellow-billed magpies are found in California’s Central Valley and along the coast.

This species is endemic to California, meaning that they are only found in our state. Its range is quite restricted, covering an area just 500 miles long and 150 miles wide. They are found in open oak woodland habitats, usually near bodies of water.

Although they’re not found in the heart of the Bay Area, they can be seen in parts of the East and South Bay. Coyote Valley Open Space Preserve and Joseph D. Grant County Park are excellent places to see yellow-billed magpies in the Bay Area.

Yellow-billed magpies have a diverse diet.

They eat insects, fruits, seeds, and will scavenge for food. They have also been known to be kleptoparasitic, or steal food from other animals.

Yellow-billed magpies construct large, dome-shaped nests.

Often found on oak limbs, their nests are lined with mud on the inside. They nest in colonies of 3 to 30 pairs that maintain loose association with one another. They lay 5-8 eggs on average.

The female incubates the eggs, sustained by food brought from the male. After 18 days of incubation, the young hatch. Both of the parents will participate in feeding and caring for the offspring.

erdf6c6gprfoq8ro.jpg
Yellow-billed magpie nest; Source: DavisWiki

Yellow-billed magpies were hit hard by West Nile Virus.

In 2004 when West Nile Virus established itself in California, yellow-billed magpie populations suffered. It is estimated that the virus killed half of their population in just two years. Habitat loss and pesticide-use also threaten this species.

Cool facts about yellow-billed magpies:

  • The oldest yellow-billed magpie ever found was just shy of 10 years old.

Resources to learn more:

Birdwatching Bonanza at Palo Alto Baylands Nature Preserve

Palo Alto, Ca – Some of the best birdwatching in the entire South Bay is right in your backyard. Learn more about bird diversity and plan your visit to the Palo Alto Baylands.

About the Park

Palo Alto, Ca – Nature Preserve

Science Spotlight: Bird Diversity at Baylands

The Palo Alto Baylands Park is a favorite of mine and Dan’s in the area. Considered one of the best places to go birding in the South Bay, the Baylands Nature Preserve offers tremendous bird diversity no matter the month. When visiting, we’ve found that the entrance near San Antonio Road is a great starting point.

As you enter the park, scan the tall vegetation around the creek to your left for a belted kingfisher in flight. As you continue, cliff and barn swallows can be found darting across the skies around the forebay just beyond the bathrooms to the right. In the spring and summer, be sure to look out for their mud nests on the linings of the small building near the San Antonio Road entrance. In the later stages of nesting, small fledglings can be seen waiting outside the nest for parents to swoop in with food.

Just beyond the swallow-dense area, you approach the Charleston Slough to your right. Here, we’ve seen tons of awesome shorebirds: long-billed curlews, American avocets, black-necked stilts, marbled godwits, willets, and many more in large numbers. To your left, scan the browning reeds for unusually-shaped clumps. These “clumps” are most likely black-crowned night herons.

Along your walk, check out the edges of the water for great egrets and snowy egrets. Various species of waterfowl can also be found here, depending on the season. In the distance, you may be lucky to see northern harriers – recognizable by the white patch on their rumps (just above their tail on the top side of the bird).

As if the amazing waterbirds and raptors weren’t enough, peek in the vegetation dotting the sides of the path for smaller songbirds. We’ve seen all kinds of sparrow species, house finches, and the occasional yellow-rumped warbler.

Grab your notebooks and binoculars – there’s a world of discovery at the Palo Alto Baylands!

Park History

At 1,940 acres, the Palo Alto Baylands Nature Preserve is one of the largest protected marshland habitats in the San Francisco Bay Area. The area itself has a history in waste disposal, from landfill to recycling plant. In 2012, these operations were shut down.

Visit the Park

Please note that there is no entrance fee to enter the park. Dogs are allowed on leashes.

When visiting, we recommend starting at the entrance near San Antonio Road.

Here are some helpful resources to help plan your visit:

Gallery

Treetops to the Ocean: Marbled Murrelets

Cover photo: © Aaron Maizlish, 2017, some rights reserved.

Marbled murrelets are full of surprises – defying all expectations of a seabird, they nest high up in redwood trees. Learn about their nest discovery in 1974 and their close ties with coast redwoods.

Cover photo: © Aaron Maizlish, 2017, Flickr Photo Album, some rights reserved.

Places to See Marbled Murrelets

Marbled murrelets are seabirds.

By nature of being seabirds, murrelets spend the majority of their lives out at sea in search of food. They eat mostly fish and crustaceans.

Marbled murrelets are very unique amongst seabirds in that they nest high up in redwood trees.

Most other seabirds, including their close cousins puffins and murres, nest on rocky cliffs along the shore. The marbled murrelet defies all expectations of a seabird by nesting high up in redwood trees. They will sometimes travel 30 miles inland to nest.

Their solitary nests up in old-growth trees makes them very difficult to find – a tactic that’s thought to help discourage predation. Parents will also only fly to the nest to switch who’s incubating or to feed young very early in the morning or late at night to avoid detection by predators.

Marbled murrelets are different colors in the breeding and non-breeding season to camouflage with their different habitats.

Marbled murrelets are small, robin-sized birds. They are black on top and white on bottom during the non-breeding season (any time when they’re not attracting mates or nesting).

Marbled murrelets adopt mottled brown plumage during the breeding season – a unique transition that’s not found among their close relatives. This brownish color is thought to help them camouflage with the redwood trees that they nest in.

Marbled murrelets live along the northwest coast of the United States.

Their range extends from southeastern Alaska to northern California.

The marbled murrelet is listed by the state of California as endangered.

In Oregon and Washington, the species is listed as threatened. Factors such as habitat loss, predation by other birds (namely Steller’s jays), and low food availability have affected their population.

Image result for crumb-free sign marbled murrelet stellers jay sign
A common sign at campgrounds, featuring a Steller’s jay and a warning to clean up all traces of food. Source: Save the Redwoods League.

In many California state and national parks, you’ll notice a campaign urging visitors to keep their space “crumb clean”. This movement is to discourage the number of Steller’s jays and other scavenging birds that are attracted to food that people leave behind.

Why be worried about attracting Steller’s jays, when it’s a charismatic and attractive bird? Well, in addition to eating human leftovers, Steller’s jays will also eat the eggs and young of other birds. One such species is the marbled murrelet, whose numbers are negatively affected by Steller’s jay predation.

Cool facts about marbled murrelets:

  • The marbled murrelet’s nest was discovered in 1974 by accident, when a tree climber in Santa Cruz stumbled upon its nest.
  • Marbled murrelets are the most recent species to have their nest discovered in North America.
  • Marbled murrelets are also known as “fog larks”, since their keer-keer call was heard early in the morning high up in redwood forests. It wasn’t until their nest was discovered in the 1970’s that people put together who was vocalizing.

Resources to learn more: