USGS Western Ecological Research Center

Home Who We Are Where We Are What We Do Products Search Outreach Jobs Contacts

Seabird Studies at WERC

Sooty Shearwater --Photographer: Josh Adams

Seabird research by scientists at the San Francisco Bay Estuary Field Station of the USGS Western Ecological Research Center (WERC) focuses on various aspects of seabird ecology with directives that are aligned with the 2008 US Ocean Action Plan. Of primary concern is research targeting vulnerable, threatened, and endangered species so that resource managers concerned with island and ocean conservation will have the best available knowledge to assess seabirds and their habitats—both at sea and on land.

Seabirds (and including sea ducks, grebes, and loons) are an abundant and ecologically diverse group. Species occupy all the World’s oceans from both poles, to the equator. Greatest diversities and abundances are concentrated near continental coastlines and seasonally within coastal bays and estuaries. Altered land use patterns (e.g., human occupation of isolated breeding islands, increasing coastal urbanization, and disturbances to critical nearshore foraging habitats, etc.) and altered marine ecosystems resulting from climate change, pollution, and industrialized fishing have combined to place stress on many seabird populations.

Project Details

The USGS WERC Seabird Program works closely with state, federal, and local partners (including academic institutions and NGOs). Current research includes:

Baird’s Beaked Whales (Berardius bairdii) --Photographer: Jonathan Felis, USGS Pacific Continental Shelf Environmental Assessment (PaCSEA): Distribution and Abundance of Seabirds and Marine Mammals off California, Oregon, and Washington.
Beginning in 2011, the USGS working with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) initiated new multi-year, seasonal surveys to describe the distribution and abundances for all marine birds and mammals encountered along survey transects that extend from Fort Bragg, CA through Grays Harbor, WA, and from the shore to the continental slope (2000-m isobath). Low-elevation aerial surveys follow strip-transect methods used previously throughout the Pacific Offshore Continental Shelf domain, and are designed to be compared with previous assessments conducted more than two decades ago during 1989-90. Particular focus is being given to offshore areas recently identified as potential sites for alternative ocean energy development (e.g., hydrokinetics).
Map plot showing marine mammals sightings   Comprehensive Seabird, Marine Mammal, and Fisheries Spatial Database
From 1999-2002, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and Humboldt State University (HSU) worked with Minerals Management Service (MMS) to quantify the at-sea distribution of seabirds and marine mammals. We flew >55,000 km, counted 485,000 seabirds (67 species) and 64,000 marine mammals (19 species). Seven client agencies provided matching funds or in-kind support, including the California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG), U.S. Navy (USN), NOAA Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary (CINMS), NPS Channel Islands National Park (CINP), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), Moss Landing Marine Laboratories (MLML), and the Wildlife Health Center (UC Davis). The study provided resource managers with updated information on distribution and abundance patterns and compared these to information from the early 1980s. The purpose of this study is to integrate the USGS-HSU seabird and marine mammal dataset with fisheries databases in a comprehensive relational database linked to a GIS, with a webpage version for public access.
Scorpio rock --Photographer: Josh Adams   Restoration of Scorpion Rock flora to benefit burrowing seabirds in the Channel Islands National Park 
Island habitat off California is ecologically important and extremely vulnerable to disturbance. We are working to re-establish a diverse, native floral community on Scorpion Rock, a small Islet off Santa Cruz Island in the California Channel Islands National Park. Invasive plants (primarily crystalline iceplant Mesembryanthemum crystallinum) now have the upper hand on Scorpion. Working with Growing Solutions, Channel Islands National Park, and the Montrose Settlement Restoration Plan Trustees, we are conducting an experiment to quantify two methods of non-native, invasive plant removal coupled with native out-planting. The ultimate goal is to return the island to a native-dominated flora, improve soil quality, and thereby ultimately benefit burrowing seabirds such as Cassin’s Auklet.

Sooty Shearwater --Photographer: Josh Adams


Tracking the movements and trans-Pacific migration of Sooty Shearwater (Puffinus griseus) 
During the boreal summer, Sooty Shearwaters are the most abundant seabird in the California Current System (and the North Pacific). Each spring millions of individuals arrive from southern hemisphere colonies in New Zealand and Chile. Off California, annual consumption of certain prey fishes such as anchovy, sardine, and juvenile rockfishes is approximately equivalent to the total amount of fish landed by commercial fishers. We have used satellite tracking techniques to quantify shearwater habitat use off the west coast of North America since 2004. During 2008-10, we will be integrating tracking data with new oceanographic measures to better understand how this dominant marine predator of key forage fishes interacts with the dynamic California Current System.

Black-footed Albatross --Photographer: Jeff Poklen


The Albatross Collaborative: exploring albatross movements
Black-footed Albatross (Phoebastria nigripes) is one of three albatrosses endemic to the north Pacific Ocean. The vast majority of Black-footeds nest in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (now included within the Papahanaumokukea Marine National Monument). During the non-breeding season (June through November), birds range throughout the north Pacific from California to Japan. As part of a collective effort to better understand important ‘over-wintering’ areas at sea and to better assess threats to albatrosses imposed by industrialized fishing and plastic pollution, we are combining satellite tracking, geographic information system (GIS) analyses, and satellite oceanography.

Cassin's Auklet --Photographer: Josh Adams


Wings under waves: the diving behavior of Cassin’s Auklet 
Cassin’s Auklet is an opportunistic zooplanktivorous (they eat krill) member of the Alcidae Family of seabirds (murres, guillemots, puffins, and auklets). Cassin’s nest on islands—mostly within earthen burrows—from the Aleutian Islands, AK through northern Baja California, Mexico. Breeding biology is closely-linked to environmental variability in local ocean oceanographic conditions (Pacific Decadal Oscillation, ENSO events, upwelling events). As part of continued research involving the ecology of Cassin’s Auklet off southern California, we are examining the diving behavior of chick-provisioning adults in order to gain a better understanding of the species’ foraging habitat and potential impacts to prey availability that are mediated by oceanographic climate variability.

Gray-faced Petrel --Photographer: Landcare Research, NZ


Grey-faced Petrel Ecology 
Known to the Hauraki and Ngati Awa Iwi (local communities) as Oi—after its pure-toned flight call, Grey-faced Petrel (Pterodroma macroptera gouldi) is revered as taonga (treasured). This gadfly petrel is abundant among the Ruamahua (Aldermen) Islands located off northeastern New Zealand where it is considered a keystone species on its nesting islands. Scientist Josh Adams is assisting Landcare Research, New Zealand with satellite telemetry, data processing, and interpretation.

Hawaiian Petrel --Photographer: Gordon Vickrey


Hawaiian Petrel Ecology 
Predation and habitat degradation by non-native species are principal terrestrial threats to endangered Hawaiian Petrel (´Ua´u, Pterodroma sandwichensis). High priority recovery actions include predator control, habitat restoration, and population monitoring. On the other hand, little is known about this species’ overall at-sea distribution, foraging range, and high-use areas, and thus we have scant knowledge of the threats these birds may face in the pelagic environment. Required prerequisites for conservation actions include (1) obtaining precise locations of remote, montane nesting areas, (2) refining techniques for population assessment, and (3) identifying at-sea habitat using satellite telemetry to track the movements of medium-sized (~400-g) ´Ua´u.

Research Collaborations
WERC seabird researchers are involved in collaborative studies with scientists from the USFWS, NOAA Fisheries, National Park Service, Minerals Management Service, Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, Oikonos Ecosystem Knowledge, and Landcare research, New Zealand.

Related WERC Products:

Related Links:

For more information, contact:

John Takekawa
Research Wildlife Biologist
USGS San Francisco Bay Estuary Field Station
505 Azuar Drive
Vallejo, CA 94592
Phone: (707) 562-2000
Fax: (707) 562-3001
View this person's web page

USGS Contact For This Project
Josh Adams
(831) 460-7566
Santa Cruz Field Station
400 Natural Bridges Drive
Santa Cruz, Ca 95060
View this person's Details


Accessibility FOIA Privacy Policies and Notices

Take Pride in America logo logo U.S. Department of the Interior | U.S. Geological Survey
Page Contact Information:

References to non-U.S. Department of Interior (DOI) products do not constitute an endorsement by the DOI.

* DOI and USGS link policies apply.