Every Bird Matters
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Guest Posts

March 29, 2018

The Amazing Albatross!

Editor’s Note: This piece was prepared by our long-time volunteer, Joanna Chin. Photos were provided by her husband, Byron Chin. 

Waved albatross and chick, Española Island, Galápagos- Photo by Byron Chin

 

Have you ever seen an albatross? Unless you’ve spent a lot of time at sea or have gone out specifically looking for them, you probably have not. Albatrosses are remarkable birds that spend the vast majority of their lives at sea, never touching land for years at a time. If you have seen an albatross, you’re not likely to forget it: they are large, strikingly beautiful birds.

Laysan albatross resting near its nesting colony, Kaua’i, HI – Photo by Byron Chin

 

They have incredible wingspans; the wandering albatross, in particular, can have a wingspan of 12 feet! Their long wings allow albatrosses to glide over the waves on the open sea without having to flap. Their gliding flight does not use much energy, which is what enables them to travel hundreds of miles per day. The downside to this style of flight is that they need brisk winds in order to take off, and sometimes need to run into the wind with wings outstretched to help them generate the lift required to take off.  While ungainly on land, they are incredibly graceful in the air.

 

Black-footed albatross “running” across the sea while taking off, off the coast of Half Moon Bay, CA – Photo by Byron Chin

 

Albatrosses are members of the tubenose family, so named for the little tube-like structures on their bills (see below photo). Unlike many birds, albatrosses have a keen sense of smell thanks to their tube noses – they can smell fish oil from miles away.  They cannot dive deeply, so they obtain their prey from the surface of the sea. They eat fish, squid, and invertebrates, and will also scavenge waste from fishing vessels.

 

Note the ‘tube nose’ of this black-footed albatross, off the coast of Half Moon Bay, CA – Photo by Byron Chin

 

Black-footed albatross and young Western gulls with Garibaldi fish head, off the coast of Half Moon Bay, CA – Photo by Byron Chin

 

Albatrosses mate for life and have an exceedingly low rate of “divorce” so long as both partners are still alive. They have wonderful “dances” that are specific to each species; these dances are used to find mates and reinforce the pair bond. A pair of albatrosses will typically lay a single egg every other year, and it takes an entire year for both parents to raise that one chick.

A waved albatross “sky-points” as part of its dance for its mate, Española Island, Galápagos – Photo by Byron Chin

 

Laysan albatross chick, Kaua’i, HI – Photo by Byron Chin

 

Both parents contribute equally to brooding and chick-feeding duties. Laysan albatrosses have been known to travel 1,600 miles over the course of 17 days to find food for their chicks! Once the chick fledges, s/he will spend the next 5-7 years at sea before returning to land to look for a mate. During their time at sea, the birds will never once touch land. Once young albatrosses return to land and find a mate, their first attempts at chick rearing are often unsuccessful. Most breeding pairs do not successfully fledge a chick until the age of 8 or 9 years. Birds who are still too young to breed but who return to the colony are very curious and social, and often “visit” the nests and chicks of other birds!

Northern royal albatrosses greeting each other on their breeding grounds, Dunedin, NZ – Photo by Byron Chin

 

Albatrosses are long-lived birds; some individuals are known to be over 60 years of age. The most famous (and possibly the oldest) is a Laysan albatross known as Wisdom, who was banded on Midway Atoll in 1956 when she was estimated to be five years old based on the fact that she had returned to land. She’s been raising chicks at the same nest site ever since. Interestingly, while most albatrosses raise a chick every other year, Wisdom and her mate have fledged nine chicks since 2006! She’s laid yet another egg as of December 2017, at the age of 67. You can read more about Wisdom’s amazing life here.

 

Laysan albatross soaring near its nesting colony, Kaua’i, HI – Photo by Byron Chin

 

With albatrosses having such slow rates of reproduction over the course of their long lives, it’s easy to see where any threat could absolutely decimate their population. Sadly, albatross species worldwide face a number of dire threats:

  • Poor fishing practices: Longline fishing, gill nets, and drift nets kill astonishing numbers of albatrosses and other seabirds each year. It is estimated that longline fishing kills 300,000 seabirds every year. One study estimates that the number of albatrosses killed just by Japanese longline fleets in the Southern oceans is 44,000 per year. Improvements in fishing practices can dramatically reduce seabird deaths. For example, weighting long lines so they sink out of reach of birds more quickly and installing bird-scaring streamer lines (which birds interpret as a barrier between them and baited hooks) reduce the number of albatrosses ensnared and killed by longline fishing. Fishing at night has also been helpful, as albatrosses locate their prey by sight as well as smell. There is promising data on a device known as the Hookpod that covers the barbed end of a baited hook until it has sunk to a depth of 10 meters, where albatrosses can’t reach it. Tactics that reduce seabird deaths are beneficial to fishermen as well; a hook that catches a bird is one that does not catch a fish, and seabirds can pluck bait off many hooks before they themselves are ensnared, thus wasting bait from the perspective of the fisherman and further reducing the odds that a line will catch a fish. The USA has adopted these tactics, as have several other countries, and they have reduced the number of seabird deaths. However, because albatrosses have such a wide range over the seas unless every country does this, there will still be needless deaths.
  • Plastic waste in the ocean. You’ve probably heard of the Pacific garbage patch, and that’s only the start of the problem. We, humans, use a shocking amount of plastic, and a lot of it ends up in our waterways, and ultimately, the ocean. All seabirds are impacted when they mistake plastic debris for food, or when they become entangled in plastics, such as six-pack rings or fishing line. Tubenoses, and especially albatrosses, are disproportionately impacted for two reasons. One is that they pluck their prey from the surface of the ocean, and plastic floats. The second is that floating plastics grow algae, and there is a compound in algae that, as it breaks down, emits a particular sulfur odor. This same odor is emitted by krill, which eat algae. Seabirds love to eat krill, and because the tubenoses are so driven by scent, they mistakenly eat algae-covered plastic thinking that it is food. The adults feed plastics to their chicks, which can cause gastrointestinal blockages, toxicity from chemicals leached from the plastics, and starvation because a stomach full of plastic cannot accommodate actual food. A recent study found that 90% of the world’s seabirds have eaten plastic, and that number will only rise if plastic pollution increases.
  • Introduced predators. Albatrosses have evolved to nest on small Pacific islands where no mammalian (or marsupial) predators existed. The introduction of dogs, cats, rats, mice, stoats, mongoose, possums, etc. has been catastrophic to albatrosses and other ground-nesting seabirds. Dogs and cats kill the adult birds and chicks, while rats, mongoose, and possums will eat their eggs. There has been a disturbing trend recently of mice eating Tristan albatross chicks alive on Gough Island where they breed, causing catastrophic nesting failure. Further, starting in 2015 on Midway Atoll, mice began attacking, eating, and indeed sometimes killing adult albatrosses as they nested. The adults seem unable to defend against such attacks; horrifyingly, they faithfully sit on their nests as they are eaten alive.
  • Climate change. The majority of albatrosses worldwide nest on small islands in the Pacific, many of which are just barely above sea level. As global warming progresses and the ice caps melt, sea level is going to rise. At first, nesting colonies will be vulnerable to powerful storms that destroy their nests and chicks. This is happening now – scientists agree that the extremes in weather we are seeing right now are directly driven by human-caused climate change. Eventually, as sea level rises, the islands albatrosses nest on will be completely underwater. Albatrosses have extremely high nest site fidelity: they will stubbornly continue to return to the same nesting site, regardless of how inappropriate it might come to be. This was illustrated on a US Naval base on the island of Kaua’i. In recent years, conservation programs have collected a number of chicks from nests in low-lying breeding colonies and reared them on higher ground in hopes that the chicks, when they return from their years at sea, will return to the place they were raised to start a new nesting colony on safer ground. This has been done with the black-footed albatross, the Chatham Island albatross, the short-tailed albatross, and the Laysan albatross, and may be done with other species in the future.

 

Here’s What You Can Do To Save These Beautiful Birds:

  • Buy ONLY sustainably caught seafood! The Monterey Bay Aquarium runs the Seafood Watch program, which has compiled an enormous amount of information to help consumers select seafood that is sustainably caught. They don’t just tell you which fish to avoid, they tell you why you should avoid it. It encourages consumers to avoid all fish caught using poor longline techniques and other fishing practices that kill seabirds, including albatrosses. You can search by species of fish or your favorite kind of sushi! http://www.seafoodwatch.org
  • Reduce your use of plastics, particularly single-use plastics. The Natural Resources Defense Council has an excellent list here: https://www.nrdc.org/stories/10-ways-reduce-plastic-pollution. Especially try to avoid single-use plastics. These are things you use once and throw away, including plastic drinking straws, water bottles, coffee cup lids, stir sticks, plastic bags, plastic wrap, plastic packaging, anything with “microbeads” – the list goes ON! There are excellent alternatives to pretty much every single-use plastic item. Every piece of plastic you don’t use is a piece of plastic that can’t end up in the ocean, or in the belly of an albatross chick.
  • Support predator eradication efforts. Introduced predators on Pacific islands have absolutely no place in the ecosystem there and do untold harm. If you live in a country that is lucky enough to have nesting colonies of albatrosses, make sure you vote for people and policies that will support them and fund their conservation. You can also donate directly to groups that are working toward predator eradication on Pacific islands. Such efforts are ongoing in Hawaii (including Midway Atoll), New Zealand, Gough Island (via the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds), the Galápagos Islands, and many other places. While we’re at it, don’t forget to keep your cat indoors! While you probably don’t have seabirds nesting nearby, outdoor cats are an introduced mammalian predator in any ecosystem. Outdoor cats are estimated to kill between 1.3 and 4 billion birds per year in the USA alone! Indoor kitties live longer, healthier lives to boot.
  • VOTE! While we can all take steps to reduce our carbon footprint, the biggest impact comes from national policy. We need to elect representatives who will advocate and legislate for a healthy planet and a sustainable future. We need policy shaped by people who believe that climate change is a real and imminent threat to our planet and all the species that live on it. We need leaders who believe in and encourage science, and who know that change is necessary and possible to preserve our natural world for generations to come. No election is too small. Even a single citywide plastic bag ban has a measurable impact on plastic waste. Vote early, vote often, and tell your friends and family to vote. The lives of albatrosses, and of all creatures, depend on it.

White-capped mollymawks resting on the sea outside Dusky Sound, NZ – Photo by Byron

 

Sources:

 

 

March 24, 2018

The Dazzling Diversity of Gull Behavior

Editor’s Note: Thank you to our long-time volunteer, Joanna Chin, for preparing this wonderful piece and to her husband, Byron Chin, for the beautiful photography. A special thank you to guest photographer, Amar Ayyash as well.

A Western gull parent tends to its chick. Alcatraz Island, San Francisco, CA, June 2017. Photo by Byron Chin.

When most people picture gulls, they think of gray and white birds squawking while soaring at the seashore, possibly also trying to steal food from beachgoers. While hanging out at the shore and pilfering food is surely part of the gull lifestyle, gulls are a wildly diverse group of birds with lots of different and fascinating behaviors! Here are just a few:


Bonaparte’s Gull: The only tree-nesting gull
While all other gulls nest on the ground, on rooftops, or on rocky outcroppings, the Bonaparte’s gull builds its nest in the branches of conifers in Canada and Alaska. Instead of wandering around on the ground like other young gulls do, their chicks stay in the nest until they’re ready to fledge. A picture of a Bonaparte’s gull in its nest can be found here: https://www.arkive.org/bonapartes-gull/larus-philadelphia/image-G120205.html

Bonaparte’s gull in non-breeding plumage. Don Edwards NWR, Fremont, CA, January 2013. Photo by Byron Chin.

Swallow-tailed gull: The only nocturnal gull
While most gulls are diurnal, or active during the day, the swallow-tailed gull does all its hunting at night. This gull is endemic to the Galápagos islands, and its preferred food is squid. It makes sense that the swallow-tailed gull is nocturnal, as squid come to the surface of the water at night, where the gull can get at them (since gulls can’t dive well at all). The swallow-tailed gull has particularly large eyes to help it see better at night, and it has a white tip to its black bill, to help the chicks find it when they feed at night. This gull spends most of its day resting, and it has a white ‘eye spot’ on its lower eyelid, so from a distance you might think the bird is awake when really it is sleeping.

Swallow-tailed gull, Española Island, Galápagos, July 2016. Note the very large eye and light bill tip, both adaptations to its nocturnal lifestyle. Photo by Byron Chin.

Sleeping swallow-tailed gull, Española Island, Galápagos, July 2016. Note the eyespot on the lower eyelid – you might think this gull is awake and watching you, but it’s not! Photo by Byron Chin.

Heermann’s gull: Likes to steal a meal
Heermann’s gulls are renowned kleptoparasites: that is, they derive a large portion of their diet from fish they steal from other birds, usually brown pelicans. If you’re ever lucky enough to see a brown pelican plunge-diving for food off the California coast in the fall or wintertime, look closely: you’re liable to see Heermann’s gulls following them at close range. Sometimes they go so far as to land right on the pelican’s head, so they can reach into the pouch for a fish! Most gull species will steal food from another bird (or even another gull) given the opportunity, but some, like the Heermann’s gull, are particularly troublesome to other birds. The laughing gull also frequently kleptoparasitizes brown pelicans on the southern and eastern coasts of the USA.

Heermann’s gulls harassing brown pelicans, Half Moon Bay, CA, July 2017. Photo by Byron Chin.

Heermann’s gulls closing in on a brown pelican that just dove for fish. Crescent City, CA, September 2015. Photo by Byron Chin.

California gulls: A different kind of fly catcher
California gulls enjoy eating brine flies, but they aren’t really maneuverable enough to catch tiny flies on the wing. Fortunately for the California gull, brine flies tend to alight in large groups on salty marshland shores. The gulls will run along the shore at full speed with their beaks open, snapping up flies as they go! This is referred to as “ram feeding.”

California gull ram feeding on brine flies, Don Edwards NWR, Fremont, CA, September 2012. Photo by Byron Chin.

Starfish strategists
Large white-headed gulls are important predators of starfish here on the West Coast. They have two general strategies for eating these echinoderms. When they encounter a large starfish, gulls are more likely to flip it over and peck and tear at its underside. They have also been noted to take advantage of the starfish’s tendency to shed arms when attacked. A gull will bash the starfish against the ground until it breaks off all the arms, then swallow the arms and center separately. For smaller starfish, a gull might pick up the entire starfish and cram two or three arms into its bill. It will then push the remaining arms together with its gape as it forces the starfish into its mouth, making it into a compact rectangular shape that the gull eventually swallows. Different strategies, but same result: gulls are a major predator of starfish along the west coast.

First cycle Western gull pecking at a starfish. Monterey, CA, December 2013. Photo by Byron Chin.

Olympic gull cramming a starfish into its bill. Crescent City, CA, September 2015. Photo by Byron Chin.

Western gull taking off with the center of a broken-apart starfish. Monterey, CA, February 2018. Photo by Byron Chin.

 

Opposites attract
As if identifying gulls weren’t challenging enough, with many species looking similar and multiple plumages within a species, they like to hybridize. One of the most common hybrids on the west coast is the Olympic gull: this is a hybrid between Western and glaucous-winged gulls. They are large birds with characteristics between the two: they’ve got pink to orange orbital rings (ring of colored flesh around the eye), speckled heads during winter, gray backs that are lighter than Western but darker than glaucous-winged gulls, and wingtips that are darker than their backs. Other gull hybrids found elsewhere in the USA are the Cook Inlet gull (glaucous-winged x herring), Great Lakes gull (great black backed gull x herring), and the Appledore gull (lesser black-backed gull x herring). There have even been hybrids between the laughing gull and ring-billed gull; two medium-sized gull species that look little alike, but do occasionally hybridize!

 

Olympic gull, Half Moon Bay, CA, March 2018. Photo by Byron Chin. Note the lighter back than the Western gulls below and the wingtips that are darker than the back, both characteristic of Olympic gulls.

 

Laughing gull x Ring-billed gull hybrid, Calumet Park; March 6 2011. Photo courtesy of Amar Ayyash.

 

Appledore gull, Florida, January. Photo courtesy of Amar Ayyash.

 

Cook inlet gull, Tukwila, WA. December 30, 2011. Photo courtesy of Amar Ayyash.

 

Great Lakes gull, Lake County, Illinois. 03 January 2018. Photo courtesy of Amar Ayyash.

 

Home is where the gull is
Most gulls exhibit strong nest site fidelity; that is, they nest in the same spot year after year, particularly if they’ve been successful in previous years. They also exhibit strong pair bonds, with the vast majority of gulls mating for life, so long as both partners are still alive. Gulls have also been known to form same-sex pairs, with female-female pairs often raising chicks! This happens because gulls have a fairly high rate of “extra-pair copulations,” that is, while they maintain the pair bond with their chosen partner, they’ll sometimes mate with another bird. This helps keep genetic diversity high while maintaining all the benefits of stable pair bonds. If you frequent an area where gulls nest, pay attention: odds are very good that you will notice nests in the same spots year after year. If you do, it’s very likely you’ll be seeing the same individual birds year after year as well!

 

We have been watching this Western gull family nest every year in the same exact spot since 2013. Here they are with young chicks in June 2013. San Francisco, CA. Photo by Byron Chin.

 

Here they are with young chicks again in June 2017. Photo by Byron Chin.

 

They even hold their territory when it isn’t nesting season. Here they are doing the “choking” display, where they puff out their necks and point their bills at a spot they’d like to nest while making a low-pitched sound. This is, not surprisingly, exactly the spot where they build their nest each and every year. San Francisco, December 2017. Photo by Byron Chin.

 

One good preen deserves another
When a bird cleans its feathers with its beak, this is known as preening. When one bird preens another, this is called allopreening. Allopreening serves both a social and a practical purpose: it is used to reinforce social bonds, and it also helps birds preen their head feathers and remove lice, which is difficult for a bird to do by itself. Interestingly, small gulls tend to allopreen, but the large white-headed gulls such as Western, glaucous-winged, and herring gulls, do not. They have on occasion been observed foraging for parasites on the feathers of another bird, but this is not the same as allopreening. The bird being foraged upon in these situations typically finds the other gull to be an unwelcome annoyance, whereas allopreening is an enjoyable activity for both birds involved. No one quite knows why large white-headed gulls don’t seem to allopreen, but it’s fun to watch the smaller gulls engage in this behavior.

 

A pair of California Gulls and their two chicks at the Baylands. The male is giving the female a nice preen. Photo by Byron Chin.

 

Swallow-tailed gull allopreening her chick. Española Island, Galápagos, July 2016. Photo by Byron Chin.

 

A Swallow-tailed Gull preening her mate on Isla Espanola. Photo by Byron Chin.

 

Hatch-year red-billed gull allopreening its sibling. Dunedin, New Zealand, December 2017. Photo by Byron Chin.

 

Dance, dance!
Going around with gulls “dancing,” that is, tapping their feet quickly on the ground. The gulls aren’t really dancing, what they are doing is paddling for worms, also known as worm charming. There are a couple of theories as to why this works. Some believe the vibrations mimic the movement of a digging mole, a major predator of earthworms, so when the worms feel the vibration they come to the surface to escape. Others think the tapping of the gulls’ feet mimics rain, and worms naturally surface when it rains. Either way, gulls have figured this out, and many species perform this foot-tapping behavior. When the worms do surface, the gulls eat them. The New Zealand Department of Conservation has a wonderful video of red-billed gulls paddling for worms here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kgw-Z0NQsW0

Now that you know some of the strange and wonderful things gulls do, keep an eye out next time you’re in an area they frequent! You never know what you might see these intelligent and beautiful seabirds do.

March 26, 2017

They’re Not “Seagulls”— and Other Fun Gull Facts!

Western Gulls and their three chicks at their a nest at the Ferry Terminal in San Francisco.

By Joanna Chin
Photos by Byron Chin

I have been a fan of gulls for over fifteen years. Amusingly enough, what piqued my interest was the gulls in the movie Finding Nemo. While those gulls were not the brightest, and thus their portrayal not the most accurate, I was so amused by them that I started paying more attention to the gulls around me. When you really look at them, gulls are beautiful, with their crisp white and gray feathers. They’re also adaptable—equally at ease on land, in the air, and on the water. While anyone can look at a gull and identify it as such, defining them is a challenge: My guide to North American Gulls defines them as a “widespread group of frequently gregarious, web-footed birds characteristically found near water.” I’ve learned a lot about gulls over the years, and though there is still so much for me to learn, I want to share some of my favorite gull facts so that you, too, might appreciate these intelligent and resourceful seabirds more.

• While many people refer to them as “seagulls,” this is a misnomer. Some gull species travel far inland, such as the Ring-billed Gull, and others are quite satisfied to hang around large lakes, rivers, and shipping channels.

• Gulls have an intricate system of communication. They’re big, strong birds that nest close to one another, and their extensive “vocabulary” helps to minimize fighting that could injure them or their chicks. This video from the Cornell Laboratory identifies and explains many of their calls. Next time you’re around a group of gulls, see if you can hear them making these calls—each species sounds a bit different, but they all have the same range of calls.

A pair of California Gulls and their two chicks. The male is giving the female a nice preen.

• Gulls have impressive site fidelity. They will return to the same area year after year to build their nests and raise their chicks. In the case of migratory gull species, many of these are faithful to their wintering sites, returning to the same territory winter after winter. If you pay attention to your local gulls, you will likely start to notice individuals hanging out in the same place every year!

• Gulls are monogamous. Most will stay with the same mate for many years, though “gull divorce” has been documented, often when there is conflict over nest-site or brooding duties or when one member of the pair is late returning to the nesting grounds. In addition, both males and females sometimes mate with birds other than their mate; these so-called “extra-pair copulations” occur with varying frequency amongst gull species.

Juvenile Western Gull by the Ferry Building takes a curious approach to a fisheye lens.

• Gulls are excellent parents. Both parents participate equally in incubating, guarding, and feeding the chicks well past fledging. They are fiercely protective and readily attack (including dive-bombing) people and other animals (including other gulls) that get too close to their nests. It is wise to keep your distance from gull nests, and to pay attention to the calls of the parents. If they’re vocalizing, they are telling you to step back from the nest!

• It takes time for a gull to grow up. All gulls require more than one year to reach maturity. If you’ve ever watched gulls for any length of time, you’ve probably seen gulls that were the size of adults but were completely brown. These are the “first cycle” gulls, the ones that hatched within the past year. Smaller-sized gull species may require as few as two years to reach adult plumage, whereas the larger gull species need four years. As they mature, gulls lose their brown feathers, replacing them with white/gray/black feathers. Many gulls also have color changes in their bills and feet.

Seagull Monument, Salt Lake City, Utah. Photo: Wikipedia

• Gulls can be heroes. According to Mormon legend, in the spring of 1848, the first group of Mormons in what is now Salt Lake City planted their crops, only to have a swarm of insects (now known as Mormon crickets) descend upon their fields and begin eating everything in sight. Soon after, large numbers of California Gulls arrived and began consuming vast numbers of the insects, thus saving the crops and ensuring the survival of the Mormon settlers. Thus, the California Gull was designated as the state bird of Utah. In addition, the Seagull Monument was erected in Salt Lake City in honor of the California Gull.

• Gulls thrive where humans reside. Most people are well aware of this: Anyone who’s been to the beach has likely seen (or been the victim of) gulls scavenging food. Gulls are intelligent and patient scavengers. They know our habits and where to find an easy meal. Instead of getting upset, consider that we are the ones making this behavior possible. We must change our behavior to change theirs. Gull overpopulation has become a serious issue in some areas, including having a negative impact on other bird species, particularly ground-nesting shorebirds, as gulls eat their eggs and chicks.

The Western Gull is a scavenger and temptations abound when human garbage is plentiful.

Ways you can help:

– Never, ever feed the gulls! In addition to teaching them bad habits, much of our food is harmful to their health.

– Dispose of food waste appropriately, in a covered bin. Don’t leave food unattended, such as in an open bag on the beach. Even a sealed bag of chips is easy pickings for a hungry gull!

– Reduce the amount of food you discard from your home. Instead of sending food scraps to the landfill, consider composting! Your plants will thank you, too.

Now, head out there and watch some gulls! Most places, especially along the California coast, feature multiple species of gulls. Read more here about basic identification of  common gull species!

 

November 30, 2013

Guest post: Keeping watch over Brown Pelicans

Banded Brown Pelican Coming Down

Anna WeinsteinBy Anna Weinstein, Audubon California

The Brown Pelican is California’s iconic coastal bird and one of the great success stories of the Endangered Species Act. While pelicans have dramatically recovered in the last 30 years, they have since suffered unprecedented breeding failures and starvation events in California and Oregon, likely due to poor availability of prey. Audubon California is leading a set of concerned groups urging the Fish and Wildlife Service to complete key tasks required under the Endangered Species Act in order to secure the future of these beloved birds.

Globally, there are six subspecies of Brown Pelican. Most California Brown Pelicans breed in the Gulf of California (MX), and the rest in Southern California, mostly at the Channel Islands. In 2009, three subspecies including the California Brown Pelican were triumphantly removed from the Endangered Species List — a great success story populated with conservation heroes who worked to remove harmful chemicals from the pelicans’ environment and protect breeding islands.

Also in 2009, the Service issued a draft plan for monitoring pelicans following delisting. These “post-delisting monitoring plans” (PDM’s) are required by the Endangered Species Act in order to “monitor effectively for not less than five years” the status of a species following delisting. In the words of the Service, “the intent of this monitoring is to determine whether the species should be proposed for relisting, or kept off the list because it remains neither threatened or endangered.”

However, the Service never finalized or implemented the draft plan and no systematic monitoring has taken place, which undermines protection of pelicans in the Gulf of Mexico, the Gulf of California and the west coast. In the meantime, Brown Pelicans in California and Oregon have been showing signs of stress. At the U.S. Channel Islands, the most important U.S. breeding colony for this subspecies, biologists have noticed a decline in nest success starting in 2010, culminating in near-total nest failures in 2012 and 2013. These failures have been attributed to a lack of prey in proximity to the islands.

Additionally, unusual mortality events of Brown Pelicans in Oregon and California in 2009-2012 have been attributed to starvation. Many Audubon chapter members and leaders, including Dave Weeshoff, President of the San Fernando Valley Audubon Society and a volunteer with International Bird Rescue, have observed first-hand the unusual number of starving and disoriented pelicans, especially in Southern California.

Scientific studies have shown that breeding pelicans in California and in the Gulf of Mexico require anchovies and sardines to feed their young. In Peli IMG_0221-Mrecent years, both sardines and anchovies have been scarce or absent from this region due to a variety of factors including overfishing, climate change, and underlying natural variability. The Service is obligated to work with fisheries managers to ensure that sufficient prey is available to breeding and non-breeding pelicans. Right now, with no plan in place to guide monitoring and coordination, these essential activities are not taking place.

Audubon California and the Center for Biological Diversity submitted comments calling for the Service to act on its obligation to Brown Pelicans by finalizing a post delisting monitoring plan as required by the Endangered Species Act, and undertaking critical steps to better understand and track breeding success of Brown Pelicans at the U.S. Channel Islands, among other things. The Pacific Seabird Group, the scientific body for Pacific seabirds, also weighed in with similar concerns. The Service has responded by acknowledging the need to finalize the PDM and undertake focused monitoring and conservation activities for California Brown Pelicans. We will keep you updated as we work with the Service to reach these important objectives.

Anna Weinstein is a conservation biologist with over 15 years’ experience in policy analysis and advocacy, ecology, strategic planning and program development. In 1996 she co-founded Island Conservation, and later worked as a biologist at the San Francisco Estuary Institute, and as a program officer at the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. In 2008 she joined Audubon California to lead the seabird and marine program, focused on protecting seabirds and their habitats, and raising public awareness about the west coast’s seabirds and marine environment.

Guest post cross-linked from Audublog. Lead pelican photo by Marlin Harms. Pelicans in flight photo (right) by Bill Steinkamp.

Related:

Associated Press: “Sardine crash may be hurting Brown Pelicans,” November 28, 2013