California Brown Pelicans roosting at Alameda Point

L-shaped Breakwater Island – largest brown pelican roosting site in San Francisco Bay – with San Francisco in background. Breakwater rocks in foreground extend back to Encinal Boat Ramp.  Former Naval Air Station is located to the right.

The successful recovery effort for the once endangered California brown pelican is evident every summer through fall on Breakwater Island, an area which forms the beginning of the Alameda Point Channel leading to the ship docks and Seaplane Lagoon.  The breakwater is a wall of boulders built up from the Bay floor to reduce wave action in the harbor.

California brown pelicans were listed as an endangered species in 1970.  The pesticide DDT was identified as the cause of their decline.  It caused reproductive harm, and altered the birds’ calcium absorption, which led to thin eggshells that would break under the parents’ weight.  Use of DDT was banned in the United States 1972. 

A recovery effort was launched in the 1970s on Channel Islands National Park off the coast of Santa Barbara. The only breeding colonies of California brown pelicans in the western United States are within Channel Islands National Park on West Anacapa and Santa Barbara islands.

California brown pelican preening on Breakwater Island.

In the summer and fall, the brown pelicans can range from nesting colonies in Mexico and the Channel Islands all the way up to British Columbia.  Alameda Point’s Breakwater Island is the largest roosting site in San Francisco Bay. A safe, secure roosting area is essential for pelicans to rest, preen, dry their feathers, maintain body temperature, and socialize.

When the Naval Air Station was still active, the Navy enforced restrictions against boats landing on the Island and posted signs that warn against disturbing the birds.  Since the base closed, there has been no one to enforce regulations against disturbing the pelicans. 

California brown pelicans relaxing on Breakwater Island on sunny fall day. Their mouth sack is the largest of any bird and is used to scoop fish when they plunge into the water.

The California Brown Pelican was removed from the Endangered Species List in 2009 after an almost 40-year recovery.  There is currently no plan to look out for the welfare of these magnificent birds after the base is transferred out of Navy ownership.  One way to ensure adequate protection and provide public education and appreciation of this unique ecological asset is to have it be part of an “Alameda Point Wildlife Conservation Area.” The East Bay Regional Park District would be an excellent agency to manage it; they already have a marine conservation area at nearby Crab Cove.

Young California brown pelican with leg band.

Young brown pelican
Old-timer. Brown pelicans can live to 30 years.

Close-up photos of Breakwater Island pelicans were taken in October 2012 from a kayak.

View more Breakwater Island pelican photos in the Flickr photo set.

More information is available on the Channel Islands National Park website.

This story is reprinted on the Golden Gate Audubon Society’s blog Golden Gate Birder.

Update – October 23, 2012

The brown pelican pictured above with a leg band reading “K69” was brought to the International Bird Rescue clinic in Cordelia near Fairfield, CA on July 9, 2012 in a thin and weak condition.  It is less than a year old.  After a one-month rehab, it was released at the Elkhorn Slough Estuarine Reserve near Watsonville on August 10.  A blue band on a pelican leg means it was given a helping hand at one of the two clinics operated by International Bird Rescue – located in the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles. Some of their released pelicans have been spotted in Oregon and Washington.  If you see a pelican with a blue leg band, they’d like to hear about it.

Wildlife refuge activist nominated for KTVU award – Vote online

Alameda resident Leora Feeney is one of three finalists in KTVU’s annual Cox Conserves Heroes contest.  KTVU, owned by Cox Media, is partnering with The Trust for Public Land to honor local environmental activists for their work and inspire others.  The winner will be determined through online voting that is underway now through September 24.

KTVU will donate $10,000 to the nonprofit of the winner’s choice.  Feeney’s choice will be the Friends of the Alameda Wildlife Refuge, a committee of the Golden Gate Audubon Society.  Feeney hopes that some of the money will go toward a video camera system on the perimeter of the Least Tern nesting area that would help with monitoring activity and public education.  The Friends of the Alameda Wildlife Refuge helps maintain the site during the non-nesting season and conducts educational programs in schools.

You can vote for Feeney, and help our wildlife refuge, by going to KTVU’s Cox Conserves Heroes page  and clicking on the headline ***Vote now through September 24***.

Feeney first got involved with the Least Terns at Alameda Point in the 1980s when it was still an active naval air station.  She was managing a small California Least Tern colony on the Oakland Airport property when she offered to help the Navy’s biologist overseeing the recently established tern colony at the Navy base.

When the announcement came down in 1993 that the base was closing, Feeney helped organize a symposium at the College of Alameda on “Alameda Naval Air Station’s Natural Resources and Base Closure.”  This symposium was instrumental in laying the groundwork for setting aside over 500 acres for a wildlife refuge in the 1996 Community Reuse Plan.

Horned Larks arrived shortly after weeds were pulled from this area near the tern nesting site in early 2012 to forage for food.

The Friends of the Alameda Wildlife Refuge became an official committee of the Golden Gate Audubon Society in 1997, the same year that Navy lowered the flag for the last time.  She has been working to protect the terns ever since.  She, along with other experienced birders, began doing twice-monthly bird surveys on the refuge in 2004, which she shares with the US Fish & Wildlife Service and the Navy.  One object of the surveys is to document predators of the Least Tern.

To date, Feeney has seen over 176 different species of birds on the refuge.  About 26 of these species, according to Feeney, have been documented as breeding on the refuge.  One of her most unusual sitings was of a Golden Eagle that came in one spring to eat goslings.  “When the eagle was hunting at the refuge, adult geese would be out on the Bay waters,” Feeney said.  “That was our clue to look for the eagle.”

The wildlife refuge property is slated for transfer to the US Department of Veterans Affairs next year.

Read more and watch a video:  “Protecting the California Least Terns at the Alameda Point Wildlife Refuge”  posted on the Alameda Point Environmental Report on May 3, 2012.

Semi-palmated Plover at Runway Wetlands – Alameda Point wildlife refuge
Plants growing between pavement cracks are a popular hiding place for Kildeer at Alameda Point’s wildlife refuge.
Great Blue Heron nesting in cypress tree on Alameda Point wildlife refuge – April 2012.

Young osprey at Alameda Point leaving soon

Parent osprey landing with fish as fledgling waits on right, with parent looking on.

This is the third year that a pair of ospreys has nested on the old light stand at the entrance to the Seaplane Lagoon.  This year’s mating effort produced one fledgling. 

As June draws to a close, the fledgling can been seen standing on the nest and going through a series of wing calisthenics as one of the parents looks on.  Occasionally a parent will fly in a circle around the nest as if to say, “Look, this is how it’s done.  It’s easy.”   Spending most of its time hunkered down in the nest, often with brisk winds coming in across the Bay, the fledgling waits patiently for the high points of the day – its parents returning to the nest with a fish.  It won’t be long before this osprey family will be winging their way back to the wild.

Fledgling osprey watching and waiting for its turn as parent eats fish.

Fledgling osprey exercising its wings above, while parent looks on.

Above and below – parent osprey appears to be giving flight demo as it circles nest with fledgling looking on.

Parent osprey lifting off from nest as fledgling sits, with other parent looking on.  Note juvenile colors and wing spots.

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See also 2011 osprey nesting at Alameda Point.

Protecting the California Least Terns at the Alameda Point Wildlife Refuge

Volunteers distributing oyster shells on nesting site in April 2012

The California Least Terns are arriving back at Alameda Point’s wildlife refuge to lay their eggs and raise their young.  The volunteers, who help maintain the site, and the US Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) biologist responsible for the tern colony, have never left.  They carry out maintenance tasks during the non-nesting season – September to early April – as well as help monitor bird behavior during the nesting season.

California Least Tern, with chick under tile, at Alameda Point

The California Least Terns return to California every April from Central America.  The old Navy runway area at Alameda Point is among the limited number of sites where these endangered birds come to nest.  Driven to adapt to a loss of undisturbed beach habitat, they began nesting at Alameda Point decades before the Naval Air Station closed in 1997.

While Navy jets would be disturbing for humans to live next to, for the terns the movement of the jets was predictable and easy to avoid.  That’s not the case on an increasing number of beach areas where people and pets can easily trample eggs in the sand and frighten the adult birds.

The Alameda Point colony is considered the most successful for this bird.  It is believed that the success at Alameda Point has led to new colonies elsewhere in California.

Looking south on a rainy day in April 2012 on the Alameda Point nesting site for CA Least Terns
Oyster shells on Alameda Point nesting site for CA Least Terns

Volunteers are recruited by the Friends of the Alameda Wildlife Refuge, a committee of the Golden Gate Audubon Society.  Activity at the Least Tern nesting site started ramping up in January this year as it always does, with guidance from the USFWS biologist.  Volunteers perform tasks such as removing weeds, repairing the mesh barrier that keeps chicks from wandering off or getting injured in the chain link fence around the nesting site, and distributing oyster shells to confuse hawks and other flying predators that often circle overhead during the nesting season.

Every year the US Fish & Wildlife Service re-positions all of the numbered cinder blocks that establish a grid pattern for recording bird behavior.  The blocks, along with all the other “tern furniture” – wooden A frames and clay tile that chicks shelter under and in, oyster shells, driftwood – are gathered up and set to the side after the nesting season.  This allows for easier weed control and for the sand and gravel surface to be graded.

The grid blocks are placed into position using a global positioning system for complete accuracy.  When Tern Watch volunteers or the Fish & Wildlife biologist observe activity, they record the data according to a grid letter/number.  Without a grid system, it would be difficult to record accurate data for hundreds of eggs and chicks, i.e., did a predator steal an egg last night, or is that the nest that had only one egg?

This year there are two training sessions for the Tern Watch program.

The public is invited to take a bus tour to the site on June 16th.  The annual event is hosted jointly by USFWS and the East Bay Regional Park District.  The bus tours leave from the Crab Cove Visitors Center in Alameda.  Advance registration is required and is handled through the park district.  (See comment below.)

Adaptive reuse of trash at Alameda Point

Lizards go rogue on city’s adaptive reuse plans, setting up multi-family housing complex outside of the adaptive reuse area.

The lizards hope that a tire pile discarded in the last century will be grandfathered into reuse plans because of their low-impact, eco sustainable practices.  Capturing rainwater, reducing global warming with plants, and keeping carbon-based tires out of the waste stream are cited as benefits.

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