The Birds of Alcatraz Have Returned - Environment for the Americas
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This piece of graffiti is restored and preserved today. Seen once visitors get off the ferry.

The Birds of Alcatraz Have Returned

Whats up on Alcatraz?

Alcatraz island occupation graffiti on the federal penitentiary sign.
Alcatraz Indian Occupation graffiti on the federal penitentiary sign

I am still adjusting to life on the northern coast of California (realizing that my body is NOT adjusted to the humidity compared to the dryness of Colorado; for any and all field days, I break a sweat way too quickly haha) but I am loving it! So far, I have been able to explore many sites in Marin, San Mateo, and Alcatraz to conduct wildlife surveys, camera trapping checks, and assist with habitat restoration projects. In addition to the natural resource work that I have been exposed to, I have also learned a great deal about the historical significance of Golden Gate and Alcatraz, especially as it relates to the indigenous populations of the Bay area.

One of the most unique aspects of working on Alcatraz is the ability to engage with visitors even when conducting surveys for birds and seals on the island. Allowing me to inform visitors of the importance of restoration and preservation in our national parks!

The Island Before human contact...

Before humans stepped foot on the island, we now call Alcatraz, the entire rock was a haven for birds of all kinds. The first people to inhabit the island were several native tribes that would forage and hunt for birds and bird eggs. Spanish explorers reached the island in 1775 and called the island ‘Isla de los Alcatraces’ which translates to the Island of Pelicans or “big birds”. Historically, Alcatraz has been guano-filled and a resting and roosting area for migratory birds which is extremely important for migrations along coastlines. The disturbance of human activity on the island has greatly impacted migration and breeding patterns for many bird species.  This is why learning the history of the island is just as important as the natural history of the birds that inhabit it.

the indian Occupation of Alcatraz

The park’s goal to engage native traditional knowledge, restoration, and communities allows visitors to acknowledge and preserve such events. I hadn’t known much about the complex history of Alcatraz, aside from the horrors of the federal penitentiary, as efforts aimed at restoring historical artifacts and preserving natural landscapes on the island are diverse and fruitful. 

A Brief History of political actions

The activist group, Indians of All Tribes (IAT), selected their name to signify inclusivity among indigenous peoples. They argued that according to the Treaty of Fort Laramie, which was signed between the U.S. and the Lakota tribe, any federal land that was retired, abandoned, or no longer in use should be returned to the Indigenous communities who originally inhabited it. With Alcatraz penitentiary being closed on March 21, 1963, and deemed surplus federal property in 1964, many Red Power activists believed that the island met the criteria for Indigenous reclamation in 1969. 

The Alcatraz occupation had a brief but significant impact on federal Indian termination policies, setting a precedent for Indigenous activism. 

Indigenous Acknowledgment Today

Golden Gate National Recreation Area commemorates this occupation with a ‘Red Power‘ exhibit on the island. I believe it is important to have historical displays that are accessible to everyone because it allows for reflection of not only individuals but society as a whole, whether that be politically, economically, or socially. Most visitors don’t even know that these events took place which allows for teaching to be a lot more refined and interesting. 

Days of Occupation
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The birds of Alcatraz have returned!

Bird Monitoring Galore

Being a wildlife intern at Alcatraz means that birds are a BIG deal. Counting the colonies and overall bird populations for each species on the island allows the Golden Gate biologists to analyze how well the habitat for these birds has been restored and adapt management for their habitats to keep disturbances to a minimum. Nine main bird species are counted and monitored during the breeding and nesting season. Each species has a unique timeline when nesting, breeding, and fledglings leave the nest, which happens within the spring and summer months of March through August and even September. I love being able to see how the bird colonies become more active because it allows me to understand the different cycles of migratory and non-migratory birds in the Bay Area. Not to mention how cute baby chicks are! 

Below is a look at the migratory and breeding cycles of the bird species monitored on Alcatraz (with birds shown in the images above):

Scientific Name: Nycticorax nycticorax

Migration: Some populations migrate which the Alcatraz population does. 
Breeding Cycle: Breeds in colonies typically from April to July, with courtship displays and nest building occurring in early spring. Eggs are laid and incubated for around three to four weeks, with fledglings leaving the nest after about six weeks. Breeding in the thick foliage upon the island. 

Both the Black-crowned night heron and snowy egret were almost hunted until extinction in the 1900s due to the want for their decorative breeding plumes. Thankfully conservation efforts and The migratory Bird Treaty Act,  killing, capturing, selling, trading, and transport of any bird species is prohibited. 

Scientific Name: Haematopus bachmani

Migration: Generally non-migratory, but may move to wintering areas along the coast.
Breeding Cycle: Breeds along rocky shorelines, typically from April to July. Courtship involves vocalizations and displays. Eggs are laid in shallow scrapes in the sand or gravel and are incubated for about a month. Fledglings leave the nest shortly after hatching and are cared for by both parents.

Black Oyster Catcher foraging for mussels.The long bright orange bills of Black oystercatchers don’t only look funny but are great for foraging mussels to be able to break the muscles that hold the bivalves together. {Image from google – not my own.}

Scientific Name: Phalacrocorax penicillatus

Migration: May disperse over short distances but often remains near breeding areas year-round. Alcatraz is the only breeding site in the Bay for the Brandt’s and Pelagic cormorant.
Breeding Cycle: This bird species breeds colonially on the rocky cliffs of Alcatraz, typically from March to July. Courtship involves displaying and vocalizations. Eggs are laid in nests made of seaweed and guano and are incubated for about a month. Fledglings leave the nest after about 5-6 weeks.

Another cool project that has been ongoing between NPS Alcatraz biologists and Farallon Institute biologists is a diet study for the cormorants. Pellets and old nests are collected to dissect and identify otoliths (the inner ear calcium carbonate structure of vertebrates) of the prey being eaten by cormorants. This process has been pretty tedious but very fun to be a part of. I am certain that by the end of this year, I will be an expert at identifying fish ear bones! These dissections are being done to find the species of prey that are most abundant in the Bay area and how these fish may, or may not, be influencing overall breeding patterns of Brandt’s cormorants on the island.

.                                                Petri dishes full of fish eye lenses and fish otoliths from a 2023 Brandt’s cormorant pellet

Scientific Name: Branta canadensis

Migration: Migratory, often traveling in a V-formation.
Breeding Cycle: Breeds in various habitats including lakes, ponds, and marshes, typically from March to June. Usually, mates form long-term bonds and return to the same nesting sites each year. Though, 2024 has brought new pairs of geese onto Alcatraz with upwards of 10 different pairs! Eggs are incubated for about a month, with goslings hatching and fledging within 2-3 months.

Scientific Name: Ardea herodias

Migration: Some populations migrate, while others are year-round residents. The herons on the island are resident birds of the Bay often returning to the island for breeding only. 
Breeding Cycle: Breeds in colonies in various wetland habitats, typically from March to July. Courtship involves displays and vocalizations. Eggs are laid in stick nests and are incubated for about a month. Fledglings leave the nest after about 2 months but may return to the nest to be fed by parents for several more weeks.

Watch Studio Ghibli’s The Boy and the Heron for peak Great Blue madness! I will warn you… you will never see a GEBH the same ever again!

Peregrine falcon ‘Lawrencium’ seen in flight {Image credits to Morgan Barnes at NPS}

Scientific Name: Falco peregrinus

Migration: Migratory, with some populations traveling long distances, especially our fledglings on the island.
Breeding Cycle: Breeds on cliffs, tall buildings, and other high structures, typically from March to June. Courtship involves aerial displays and nest scraping. Eggs are laid and incubated for about a month. Fledglings leave the nest after about 6 weeks but may remain dependent on their parents for several more weeks.

Our Peregrine falcons on the island are year-round residents named Larry (short for Lawrencium due to being born at Berkeley) and Dick (just because he’s a male haha). For the past four years, this pair has had anywhere from 2-4 chicks with all of them being successful fledglings. They have a nest on the west side of the island that now has a camera installation that allows the biologists to monitor their feeding and growth habits, which just recently has been fixed to a live stream and will soon be available to the public!

 

Scientific Name: Cepphus columba

Migration: Generally non-migratory, but may disperse over short distances.
Breeding Cycle: Breeds in colonies along rocky coastlines, typically from April to August. Courtship involves elaborate displays on the water with the cutest high-pitched vocalizations ever heard! Eggs are laid in crevices or burrows and are incubated for about a month. Fledglings leave the nest after about 5-6 weeks.

These birds are by far my favorite, they are just too cute, round, plump, and gorgeous with their bright orange legs and inner mouth. Check out this cute video of the vocalizations here. 

Scientific Name: Egretta thula

Migration: Migratory, often traveling long distances.
Breeding Cycle: Breeds in colonies in marshes and wetlands, typically from March to July. Courtship involves elaborate displays, including aerial chases. Eggs are laid in stick nests and are incubated for about three weeks. Fledglings leave the nest after about 6 weeks but may remain near the nesting area for some time. Shown above in the collage are the nests and chicks of the SNEG in full force! Getting to those nests is a different story, and I definitely did not have to army crawl through Ivy, Fig trees, and Blackberry shrubs to get to them…

Scientific Name: Larus occidentalis

Migration: May migrate short distances but often remains in its breeding range year-round.
Breeding Cycle: Breeds colonially on coastal islands and cliffs, typically from April to July. Courtship involves displays and vocalizations. Eggs are laid in shallow depressions lined with vegetation and are incubated for about a month. Fledglings leave the nest after about 6 weeks.

Western Gulls are a character for sure! Next time you see a gull just stop to watch for a minute, and admire their bird drama, its quite interesting. 

Phenomenal work is being done by the natural resources team at Golden Gate that will not go unnoticed. It is such a pleasure to work on restoration projects that support the parks’ natural spaces, plants, and animals with staff and interns alike. Alcatraz has surprised me the most when it comes to wildlife abundance and the efforts being put in to protect the birds on island from disturbances and high visitor traffic. I have already learned a lot about seabirds (considering I didn’t know birding was a pastime before the internship) and the impactful natural history of Alcatraz Island on wildlife abundance and refuge in the bay area. I can’t wait to keep growing as an intern, student, and biologist at GOGA. Cheers!

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