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Connecting People with Birds on Alcatraz Island

The Bird People of Alcatraz

Melissa Pitkin

When I meet new interns, new PRBO biologists, or people enjoying birdwatching, and ask them how they got started caring about birds, I often receive the same answer. A person—a relative, a teacher, a park ranger, or a friend—showed them a bird in a way they had never seen before. Someone's passion for birds inspired them to learn more.
PRBO biologist Sarah Acosta (at left) scans the cormorant colony on Alcatraz Island. PRBO photo.

I thought about this when I went out to Alcatraz Island about a year ago, not to learn about the human history, for which the island is famous, but specifically to see the birds. Seabirds nesting in colonies on Alcatraz are easy to observe: you can connect with seabirds here without having to take a rigorous boat trip to see them up close! The many people who visit Alcatraz each year (1.4 million, according to the National Park Service) are largely unaware of this opportunity to see marine birds tending nests and raising chicks. As I realized this, a seed was planted in my mind: I needed to find opportunities for the many visitors to Alcatraz to connect with seabirds.

And that connection can be built through people—individuals whose passion for birds might inspire appreciation and caring in others. This spring and summer, a new corps of Seabird Docents will be stationed on Alcatraz Island, at key viewing locations, to show visitors the birds of Alcatraz up close and personal. On cliffs right below the public areas, hundreds of Brandt's Cormorants, Pelagic Cormorants, Western Gulls, and Pigeon Guillemots are nesting inside the San Francisco Bay Estuary. In the islands' trees are small colonies of Snowy Egrets and Black-crowned Night-Herons. The Seabird Docents, armed with spotting scopes, binoculars, and interpretive materials, will be standing by to show people the birds of "the rock. "

This is a pilot year for the Seabird Docent project. Coordinated and trained by PRBO biologist Sara Acosta and National Park Service Alcatraz biologist Christian Hellwig, seven docents have undergone a three-part training for the spring–summer season of 2007. Along with learning about the island's human history and the nesting seabirds' biology, the trainees received a complete orientation to the island. Funding for this project is provided by the National Parks Conservancy and PRBO individual donors.

I am very excited to see how this pilot year goes. Seabird Docents on Alcatraz have the potential for great effect, connecting a large number of people with the group of birds least familiar to most of us. This unfamiliarity may help explain why seabirds are subject to the impacts of so many human activities—plastic debris, oil spills, fish hook entanglement, and disturbance to nesting sites by boats and planes approaching too close. All these impacts might be reduced if people knew more, and consequently cared more, about the "canaries" of our oceans.

Alcatraz Island is an amazing place to gain this familiarity and concern. Not only can you see seven species of nesting birds on Alcatraz, but you can actually observe them courting, incubating their eggs, and feeding their young. Visiting with a trained docent can enhance your experience and understanding of these beautiful and fascinating seabirds.

Alcatraz Seabird Docents 2007

Daniel Due, Marguerite Finney, Rich & Terry Horrigan, Ryan Lask, Len & Charlotte Nelson, Felix Rigau, Art Robinson, Malinda Trimble