Watching Seabirds on the Sonoma Coast: an Intimate Perspective

Hollis Bewley is a naturalist, photographer, seabird enthusiast, and partner of the Seabird Protection Network. Hollis coordinates citizen scientist surveys of seabirds on the Sonoma Coast with the Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods. Hollis recently received an award from the Madrone Audubon chapter for inspiring and training volunteer seabird monitors and for her own work for bird conservation. Following is an article by Hollis about her work and the endearing and sometimes amusing seabirds she loves to watch.

Photo by Hollis Bewley

Pelagic Cormorants on nest, Photo by Hollis Bewley

Volunteers have been monitoring seabirds nesting on three offshore rocks along the Sonoma Coast between Bodega Bay and Jenner as part of a program administered by Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods in partnership with the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary’s Seabird Protection Network and the Bureau of Land Management. Colonies of common murres, three species of cormorants, Western gulls, and pigeon guillemots have captivated observers throughout the breeding season. Although these rocks are distant and crowded, we get a feel for what is going on with a colony as a whole. Fortunately, monitoring sites near Bodega Head are close enough so observers can become intimately familiar with the individual personalities of these birds and study the interactions between family members.

Black Oystercatcher, Photo by Hollis Bewley

Black Oystercatchers are the favorites of many with their bright orange bills, raucous piping calls, vigorous protection of their territory and adorable fuzzy chicks who frequently stumble around while learning how to negotiate an uneven rocky surface with ridiculously large feet. Watching a parent patiently instructing a youngster on the intricacies of getting meat out of a mussel shell is fascinating. But they are easy targets for predators, are also sensitive to disturbance, and teach us heartbreaking lessons about just how precarious survival is for these young birds.

Pigeon Guillemot by Hollis Bewley

Pigeon Guillemot by Hollis Bewley

Pigeon guillemots are another favorite due to their playfulness and when viewed through a telescope we can more fully appreciate the intensity of the color of their feet and throats and the important role color plays in courtship and attraction for both sexes.

The loving affectionate nature of pelagic cormorants is a surprise to many who have been counting masses of birds in colonies on offshore rocks. Mates returning to the nest are greeted with joy and affectionate rubbing of necks and heads, reinforcing the bond necessary to the success of raising a family. The polite cooperation between siblings crowded onto a tiny ledge is in stark contrast to the sibling rivalry common to many other species. They patiently take turns exercising their wings and when it’s time to try out those wings for real, the more adventurous call and encourage siblings who are more reluctant to take the first plunge.

Pelagic Cormorants, Photo by Hollis Bewley

Pelagic Cormorants, Photo by Hollis Bewley

The fuzzy spotted heads of Western gull chicks are incredibly cute but they become increasingly gawky as flight feathers begin sprouting in patchwork fashion. Growing real feathers looks like an itchy irritating business as the youngsters are constantly scratching and preening with their bills. Growing chicks are hungry and demanding and the loving patience of the parents is beautiful to see. Flight school is a special treat as adults soar above the rocks calling and then demonstrate a perfect landing in a stiff wind. You begin to understand that these birds have distinct personalities and you are no longer tempted to refer to one as “just a gull”

Western Gull with chicks, Photo by Hollis Bewley

Western Gull with chicks, Photo by Hollis Bewley

Our volunteer monitors often view the offshore rocks in a completely new way after observing and recording the important activity taking place throughout a breeding season. Nor does one see the offshore colonies in quite the same way after becoming intimately familiar with individual families close up and personal.

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