Our region’s seabirds include loons, grebes, albatrosses, shearwaters, petrels, storm-petrels, pelicans, cormorants, phalaropes, gulls, terns, auks and puffins. Thirty-eight species of seabirds are regular breeders in the region’s islands, islets, rocky shores, beaches, and old-growth forest. Here are a few:
Star Traveler: Sooty Shearwater
Every spring and summer, millions of Sooty Shearwaters visit the coast of California from distant breeding grounds in New Zealand and Chile. This species is the most abundant bird in California, and can be seen close to shore in certain places such as Monterey Bay. Recent satellite tracking studies of individual birds have recorded seasonal migrations of 39,000 miles- the longest known animal migration. Satellite tracks show the birds can move in giant figure 8’s around the entire Pacific Ocean:
Sooty Shearwaters number about 20 million but is now listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as Near Threatened because “there are persistent signs of a current decline” due to some combination of fisheries by-catch, climate change and direct harvesting.
Iconic and endangered: Albatrosses
Albatrosses have long been revered for their large size, beauty, oceanic wanderings and importance to local cultures. Unfortunately, 19 of the world’s 23 species of albatross arethreatened with extinction due to fisheries interactions, invasive species on breeding islands,lead poisoning (one species), and possibly plastic and other pollution. Three species of albatross occur regularly in the California Current: Laysan and Black-Footed albatrosses, which breed in Hawaii and Mexico, and Short-Tailed Albatross, which breeds in Japan.
Elusive and rare: Ashy Storm-petrel
Truly our California seabird, the vast majority of this diminutive, elusive bird breeds in crevices on California’s Farallon and Channel Islands and eats small fish, krill and squid at the ocean’s surface. Notoriously difficult to study, there are thought to be less than 9,000 individuals in the world, with the population likely declining overall.
Well-traveled: Common Murre
This circumpolar species has an estimated global population of 4.3 million individuals. Murres dive up to 600 feet in pursuit of schools of small fish. In the mid-19th century, people collected about a half-million murre eggs per year to feed the growing city of San Francisco. Murres in the northeast Pacific have recovered from population declines associated with egging, oil spills, and gillnet fishing. Murres can be viewed at the FWS restoration site Devil’s Slide Rock south of San Francisco, and foraging in nearshore areas.
Big and charismatic, success story: California Brown Pelican
One of five sub-species of Brown Pelican, all found in the Americas, the California Brown Pelican nests on oceanic islands and roosts on islands and mainlands, and is commonly seen and easily identified on the coast in California. It stays in nearshore areas, plunge-diving for fish. All five sub-species suffered massive declines in the 20th century, due to chemical contamination and direct persecution, and in 1970 was listed as federally endangered, when the global population was as low as 10,000 individuals. Following listing, conservation measures were put in place, the global population climbed to over 650,000 individuals, and the California sub-species was removed from the Endangered Species list in 2009.
Old growth forest friend: Marbled Murrelet
Made famous by the battles over its old-growth forest nesting habitat, the “flying potato” is the only seabird known to nest in trees. Its population center lies in southeast Alaska, with about 700,000 individuals, but a tiny yet genetically distinct population persists in central California, centered in the much-loved and much-used Santa Cruz mountains. Populations in Alaska may be stable, but in Canada, Washington, Oregon and California are declining. This southern population segment is federally threatened.
Beach Buddy: California least Tern
This federally endangered sub-species of Least Tern was rescued from near-extinction by an army of dedicated volunteers and agency staff working to restore this beach-nesting species centered in southern California. It feeds on small fish and crustaceans in lagoons and estuaries and is highly vulnerable to predation by native and introduced predators, and human disturbance. There are about 7,500 California Least Terns, and the population is for the moment stable, but faces a litany of chronic threats associated with heavy human use of the western beaches where this bird makes its home.
Some of the key areas for seabirds are:
Farallon Islands, hosting 12 species including half the global population of the rare Ashy Storm Petrel:
Channel Islands, hosting 14 species of seabirds including half the global population of Ashy Storm Petrel:
Castle Rock National Wildlife Refuge
Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge:
Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge
The National Marine Sanctuaries
- Birds & Wildlife
- Birds Matter
- Citizen Science
- Key Species
- Bird of the Year
- Migratory Birds