Every summer, thousands of California Brown Pelicans migrate north to the San Francisco Bay area from breeding sites on the Channel Islands and Mexico. As many as 8,000 have been counted on their favorite resting site in the Bay on the isolated breakwater barrier at Alameda Point, known as Breakwater Island or the outer rock wall.
From a distance, the birds blend into the alternating dark and light background of the rocks. A July 22, 2022, kayak excursion to the area provided a telephoto opportunity to share the colors, character, and peaceful demeanor of these iconic birds.
Below is a photo gallery showing some of the thousands that were on the north side of the rock wall that day.
About 100 California Brown Pelicans made an unusual appearance on the old wooden dock on the south side of Alameda Point near the U.S.S. Hornet on December 23. The visit provided a rare close-up view of this colorful and iconic bird, but also a reminder of their struggle to survive as a species. Only one of the pelicans could be identified as a one- or two-year-old.
During the past four years, the breeding rate for California Brown Pelicans has been dismal. This recent trend has been directly attributable to the dwindling supply of sardines along the California coast, according to a Brown Pelican status report issued in October by the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife. The sardine population has dropped so low that in April of 2015, the agency responsible for managing Pacific Coast fisheries banned commercial fishing of sardines until the end of June 2016.
In May, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service urged the same agency to consider additional management measures to stave off a decline in northern anchovy, another important food source for pelicans and other marine life.
Brown Pelicans were removed from the federal endangered species list in 2009 with great fanfare after recovering from the devastating effects of the agricultural pesticide DDT on their eggs. But they no sooner recovered from chemical contamination than they fell victim to a plunge in food supply.
“Although most essential nesting and roosting habitat throughout the subspecies’ range is protected, the California Brown Pelican has experienced unusual mortality events and a multi-year decline in breeding success since delisting, both of which appear to be due to the lack of adequate forage,” wrote the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to the Pacific Fishery Management Council on May 14, 2015.
About 10 percent of California Brown Pelicans nest on two islands in Channel Islands National Park off the coast of Southern California. The remainder nest and rear their young off the western coast of Mexico.
The University of California at Davis and the Mexican national conservation agency conducted a study of the 2014 nesting season off the coast of Mexico. The U.C. Davis news summary of the study results stated, “The scientists found that this year, areas that typically host hundreds or thousands of nesting pairs held only a few hundred at most, and in some cases zero nesting pairs.” Co-author of the study, U.C. Davis wildlife biologist Dan Anderson, is quoted in the story saying, “That’s what we call a failure, a bust. The bottom dropped out.” Anderson has been monitoring Brown Pelicans for 46 years.
Breeding normally begins in January. Whether the pelicans currently at Alameda Point will make the journey south is yet to be seen.
Breakwater Island along the south side of the Alameda Point Channel serves as the most popular resting site for Brown Pelicans on San Francisco Bay during the warmer months.
Immature Brown Pelicans are distinguishable by being entirely brown, except for their whitish underbelly. By their third year, the neck becomes white and the head yellow. During breeding season, the neck of adults becomes dark chestnut and the pouch under their bill becomes red.
Breakwater Island runs along the south side of the Alameda Point Channel. It was officially transferred from the Navy to the City of Alameda in June of 2013. It is the largest night roosting site for California brown pelicans in San Francisco Bay. During the warm months, hundreds of pelicans can be seen on the breakwater. An early September kayak trip past Breakwater Island found their numbers down to a few dozen, most likely due to good fishing elsewhere in the Bay Area. By December most of the pelicans will have migrated south to places such as the Channel Islandswhere they nest.
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.
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.
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.
Close-up photos of Breakwater Island pelicans were taken in October 2012 from a kayak.
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 thetwo clinics operated byInternational 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.