Posted by: atowhee | June 18, 2009

Starvation along the Pacific Coast

From a fellow birder, “I visited the newly renovated Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito today; they are seeing more extremely emaciated CA sea lions than ever before, and many more abandoned baby harbor seals.  No food in the ocean?  At least they get lots of fish mash at the MMC.”

The lack of coastal fish generally seems to be confined to a limited area of the Northern California Coast.

White Pelican–I am told they’ve abandoned many of their former nest sites. Those were on islands now connected to land by fallen water levels in Great Basin lakes across the western U.S. Now there’s a year-round resident population of White Pelicans at Point Reyes and elsewhere in the San Francisco region. That’s not a good sign. These birds no longer migrate out to breed. Even a long-lived species like this needs regular reproduction. The birds now resident in the Bay Area do not breed and as far as we know this species has never bred along the coast. As recently as four years ago the White Pelican was seen in the area only at the end of each breeding cycle.
Brown Pelican–This oceanic species is showing up emaciated, some dying this summer from lack of fish in San Francisco region. No fish for the pelicans means no pickings for the Heermann’s Gulls which follow the pelicans into the north Pacific each summer. A birding friend who’s along the San Francisco and Marin Coast frequently tells me he’s seen only a couple of feeding frenzies all year. That’s when cormorants or Brown Pelicans find a school of fish. Their fishing actions soon draw gulls, terns, even murre and guillemot. The feeding frenzy in a normal year would be a daily, if not constant sight along the Northern California Coast.

Brandt’s Cormorant–Have been turning up dead along the Nor Cal coast for weeks. Starvation is the diagnosis. They feed primarily on schooling fish.  No schools, no feeding frenzies, ultimately no bfreeding Brandt’s Cormorants.  None are nesting on Seal Rocks off San Francisco where often there are dozens of nests.  Here’s the Wildcare info on the die-off.

Western Grebes–also part of the die-off.

Double-crested Cormorant–They nest near freshwater Lake Merced in San Francisco. Dan Murphy tells me the number of nests this year is below 100, less than half of peak years even for these birds which can survive by fishing in fresh water unlike their oceanic cousins the Pelagic and Brandt’s.

Western Gull–I counted a half dozen nests on Seal Rocks where normal years would find well over 100. And these are birds that can find food in parking lots and parks. They are not entirely dependent on food from the ocean as many other coastal species are.

Black Oystercatcher–Apparently their earlier nesting attempts at Seal Rock have been abandoned for this season.

Shearwaters–What happens when a half million Sooty Shearwaters arrive in the northern Pacific from the Southern Hemisphere and find no fish to eat?

Cassin’s Auklets: Point Reyes Bird Observatory reports this krill-eater is having a healthy breeding season on the Farallones.

A BRIGHT NOTE: Bandon, Oregon is happy to welcome Puffins back to one of the three large offshore rocks where they’ve typically bred.  This rock off Coquille Point had been sans puffin in recent summers.




Yellow-billed Magpie–Decimated by West Nile Virus which seems particularly deadly among Corvids. This limited range species cannot be replenished from outside an infect area after a die-off. It is especially hard-hit in areas with rice-growing and other intense irrigation in the Central Valley. Doing best in arid areas where there is little surface water in hot months, like Livermore. A California endemic,there is no outside population to reinhabit areas that have lost magpies.

Great-tailed Grackle–Breeding in Monterey area, being found ever-further north. Found this spring near Medford.

Eurasian Collared-Dove–Has rapidly expanded its range since invading Florida less than forty years ago.  Now breeding in California and southwestern Oregon.



  1. Thanks for pulling this together. You make a strong case. I hadn’t heard about this out in Iowa.

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