Unexpected Wildlife

Across the country, some of the best opportunities to view birds and other wild creatures can occur in rather unlikely places; consider these four locations

  • Jun 01, 2008

Mention the name Alcatraz and most people think of a penal colony, not a bird colony. And in fact, the former maximum-security prison that once held the country’s most notorious criminals on a 19-acre island in San Francisco Bay is among the National Park Service’s most popular sites, attracting nearly 1.4 million visitors a year. Few of them realize that it also is one of the nation’s premier locations for getting a close look at the breeding behavior of seven species of seabirds—species that elsewhere along the Pacific Coast often appear as distant dots on inaccessible rocks during the nesting season.

From early spring to late summer, thousands of the animals gather on The Rock, as the island is known, to perform courtship rituals and rear their young. “It’s quite remarkable to see these species doing so well here despite the presence of so many people,” says Sara Acosta, a PRBO Conservation Science biologist who conducts field studies on Alcatraz. “Bird-watchers don’t realize what they’re missing.” A leading avian research organization based in California, PRBO has been investigating the effects of heavy tourism and other disturbances, such as last year’s oil spill in the bay, on the facility’s wildlife since the mid-1990s.

For birders, the star attraction is probably Brandt’s cormorant, a species that ranges only along the West Coast, primarily in remote places where people can’t see them. Three mated pairs of the birds first appeared on Alcatraz in 1991; by last summer, nearly 2,000 pairs were nesting on the cliffs there. “There is just one other colony of Brandt’s that breeds in this kind of estuarine environment—along the Columbia River in Oregon,” notes biologist Julie Thayer, who manages the PRBO project. But only Alcatraz provides people with a front-row-center view of these tall birds, as well as great opportunities to see pigeon guillemots, black-crowned night-herons, pelagic cormorants, snowy egrets, and western and California gulls.

When Spanish explorers sailed past the island in the late 1700s, they named it La Isla de los Alcatraces (“Island of the Pelicans”) for the large numbers of seabirds roosting there. By the time the U.S. government opened the prison in 1934, however, human activity had driven away almost all of the colonies from the site. Even the jail’s most renowned bird-watcher, Robert Stroud—the so-called Birdman of Alcatraz who spent 17 years on The Rock—saw few of the creatures there. The convicted murderer’s research, which resulted in two books on avian diseases, occurred during his earlier incarceration in Kansas. Only after the penitentiary was closed in 1963 did the birds begin to return.

During the breeding season, Acosta and other PRBO researchers spend long days recording nesting activities and compiling other data, often staying overnight on the island to get an early start. “For good luck, I sometimes sleep in Robert Stroud’s cell,” she says. “With the lights turned off and the wind howling through the cell block, it can be really creepy. But being able to wake up with the birds before the staff and tourists arrive is an amazing experience.”

Because it is so widespread, the second most numerous species on the island, the western gull, may not seem like a big draw for birders. But “no matter what people might think of gulls, when you show them the chicks up close, they tend to fall in love with these big puffballs,” says Christian Hellwig, a National Park Service biologist who has been monitoring gulls and keeping their nests out of tourist areas on Alcatraz for the past seven years.

In experiments conducted on the island in the late 1990s, scientists demonstrated that western gulls recognize individual humans by face and react accordingly. “Even if I wear a disguise, I seem to cause a much greater reaction when I approach the birds than does the average visitor,” says Hellwig. “They send out alarm calls, which is a drag because I’m their friend.” Gulls, he adds, are smart birds and a lot of fun to watch. “Tourists who walk right past them are missing out on some really cool experiences.”—Mark Wexler

Alcatraz is accessible from San Francisco year-round by ferry. For information, visit www.alcatrazcruises.com or call 415-981-7625. The best time to view breeding seabirds on the island is from March through August.

Fort Indiantown Gap (FTIG) in Pennsylvania is one of the busiest National Guard training sites in the country. With some 2,000 employees and more than 100,000 trainees rotating through the 17,000-acre installation each year, it may seem like an unlikely place for wildlife to thrive. In fact, the base offers refuge to more than 1,000 native plant and animal species, including the only viable population of regal fritillary butterflies in the eastern United States.

According to scientists, loss of grassland habitat to development and changing agricultural practices may be the primary cause of the regals’ near-disappearance in the East, a region where the insects were common only a half century ago. (Many populations still exist in the Midwest.) FTIG personnel support the butterflies by maintaining an environment suitable for them, one free from modern agriculture and public interference.

For years, some of the post’s prime regal habitat served both as a tank training ground and as a parachute drop zone where there was frequent use of tracer rounds and flares. These would occasionally spark wildfires that stimulated the growth of warm-season grasses and other native plants important to the species, such as arrow-leaved violet, a primary food of regal caterpillars, and nectar-rich milkweeds and thistles. Tanks, too, helped encourage violet growth by exposing the soil and spreading seeds “in a manner similar to the effect of large grazing ungulates,” says Joseph Hovis, a biologist with the Pennsylvania Department of Military and Veterans Affairs who directs FTIG’s wildlife management efforts.

“Although the primary purpose of the installation is the training of soldiers for their combat mission, we also place a very high priority on being environmentally friendly and conserving precious land and ecosystems for the future,” says garrison commander Colonel Robert Hodgson. A total of 219 acres, for instance, have been set aside for the safeguarding and study of regal fritillaries by Hovis and his team. Their work ranges from removing invasive vegetation to researching captive-rearing techniques to increasing awareness of their conservation efforts.

Wildlife species, says Hovis, require the same thing as soldiers: “large chunks of quality habitat in which to do their thing.” At FTIG, he adds, managing the natural resources and supporting the military mission go hand in hand.—Kelly L. Senser

During free, guided tours held at Fort Indiantown Gap each summer, visitors can see regal fritillaries—and other natural spectacles—up close. For information, call 717-861-2449 or visit www.ftig.state.pa.us. The National Guard training site is located near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, just off Interstate 81.

On posters and television nature shows, sea otters frolic and feed on abalone or sea urchins in clear blue waters surrounded by swaying fronds of giant kelp. A significant number of California’s otters, however, are found in a completely different kind of habitat: the mudflats of a seasonal estuary known as Elkhorn Slough, and this is by far the best place to get a good look at the rare and charismatic creatures in the wild. 

“Most people think of southern sea otters foraging along rocky coasts, but in fact soft-sediment ecosystems are equally important,” says Rikk Kvitek, a biologist at California State University–Monterey Bay who has studied Elkhorn Slough’s otters since the mid-1980s, when the animals first showed up in the 3,000-acre wetland. Kvitek believes otters initially entered the slough—located at Moss Landing, 15 miles north of Monterey—to escape rough seas, but that some of the animals stayed on.

Since then, their numbers have grown. “When I started leading tours 14 years ago, I’d get excited about seeing one or two otters,” says Yohn Gideon, who operates wildlife-watching boat safaris out of Moss Landing. “Now I’m disappointed if I don’t see at least 20.” In mid-winter, daily tallies of more than 90 otters—with individual groups of up to 60—are not uncommon. “Sea otters have found a safe little paradise here in Elkhorn Slough,” says Gideon. “It’s a great place to take a siesta and not have to worry about a thing.”

Otters are not all “Captain Yohn” and his passengers see on the two-hour tours. With its nutrient-rich marshes and mudflats teeming with hundreds of kinds of fish and invertebrates, Elkhorn Slough also provides habitat for California sea lions, harbor seals and more than 350 bird species, including loons (4 species), grebes (6 species), cormorants (3 species), ducks (18 species) and shorebirds such as the American avocet, dunlin, black-necked stilt, long-billed curlew and marbled godwit. Tom Stienstra, an outdoor writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, has called the slough “the number one spot for wildlife watching and outdoor adventure that anybody can take part in anywhere along Highway 1.”

For most people, otters are the biggest draw, says Gideon. Traversing calm waters by kayak or on his quiet, 27-foot pontoon boat, visitors can get close enough to observe the mammals’ behavior without interfering with it. (Often, the otters will approach people; in his column on the slough, Stienstra describes one that actually jumped onto the bow of a companion’s kayak.) Due to the species’ unique biology, much of that behavior consists of grooming (about 6 hours a day) and eating (about 8 hours a day). “Unlike other marine mammals, sea otters have no blubber,” explains Gideon. Instead, to keep warm they rely on thick fur: between 600,000 and 1 million hairs per square inch that trap insulating air bubbles at the skin’s surface. If their fur becomes dirty or matted, otters can quickly die of hypothermia.

Sea otters also have a high metabolic rate, so they need to eat a lot—25 percent of their body weight, or about 10 to 15 pounds of food, a day. In the slough, the animals dine primarily on large, mud-dwelling clams and worms, as well as snails, mussels and mud crabs. When the crabs scurry ashore to hide in their burrows, otters will even come out of the water and chase them, reports Gideon. “There’s no other place you can watch sea otters this close in their natural habitat,” he says.—Laura Tangley

Sea otters and other wildlife are abundant in Elkhorn Slough year-round. The highest otter counts occur during the winter months, with the number of pups peaking between January and March. The best way to observe the animals is by kayak (www.kayakconnection.com, 831-724-5692) or on one of Captain Yohn Gideon’s pontoon boat safaris (www.elkhornslough.com, 831-633-5555), which feature an onboard naturalist; reservations are required.

It will not be for everyone, especially anyone suffering from claustrophobia or a fear of heights. But if you’ve ever wanted to go birding 1,000 feet above the ground, surrounded by hordes of people from around the world, watching migrants at night from the top of the Empire State Building is probably your only opportunity. You can even combine the expedition with dinner and a Broadway show.

Each spring and fall, tens of thousands of migrating birds of more than 100 species fly above New York City at about the same height as the building’s 86th-floor observation deck. A drawback for hard-core life listers is that they will not actually be able to identify the majority of these birds. With lights illuminating them from below, “most of the migrants look like small shooting stars,” says Robert DeCandido, an urban ecologist and native New Yorker who leads nocturnal bird tours to the outdoor observatory during migration seasons.

DeCandido first discovered the iconic building’s birding potential four years ago. Prompted by concerns that migrating birds were being attracted to its bright lights—then crashing into it and dying—he launched a two-year-long study to tally the number of migrants passing by and record mortalities. Every night between sunset and midnight, from mid-April to mid-May and from mid-August to mid-November, DeCandido and a team of volunteers staked out positions on the deck’s northwest corner, peering up with binoculars while the crowds around them looked down. At the beginning of the study, “I cringed every time a bird approached,” he recalls. “Yet after seeing more than 30,000 migrants pass by, I’ve yet to see one smack into the building. Instead, my colleagues and I have enjoyed some of the most thrilling birding I’ve experienced anywhere.” 

Some evenings were particularly memorable. On one October night, the researchers spotted 3,387 small birds such as warblers, woodpeckers and sparrows between 7 p.m. and midnight. From 9 p.m. to 10 p.m. alone, they tallied one migrant every 4 seconds. Other highlights included watching weary birds—including northern flickers, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, common yellowthroats and black-throated blue warblers—land on the deck to rest, sometimes for an hour or more. Once, an eastern phoebe perched on the railing just above DeCandido’s head, sallying forth to catch insects attracted to the lights for a full 10 minutes.

On another night, the group watched in amazement as a peregrine falcon—ordinarily a diurnal predator—made 25 dives after migrants, catching 7 of them. “The falcon would catch a bird, then zoom out and hang in midair above the deck waiting for the next group of migrants to appear,” says DeCandido. Peregrine hunting turned out to be a regular occurrence; that fall, the researchers saw the raptors pursue migrants 111 times and make 37 captures.

An unexpected bonus of the research, says DeCandido, was inspiring future birders and conservationists. During the study, he estimates that at least half a million people—between 2,000 and 5,000 a night—visited the observation deck. Though most of them ignored the scientists, some became curious enough to look up at the sky themselves. Once they did, “these nonbirders stopped in their tracks to ask about what they were seeing,” says DeCandido. “Why were birds flying at night? Where were they going? How far would they get by morning? I left each night full of hope: Migrating birds had captured people’s attention, and once they were aware, they cared.”—Laura Tangley

Fall is the best time to spot nocturnal migrants from the top of the Empire State Building, especially the first half of October when winds are from the northwest. Plan to arrive on the observation deck by dusk. To save time, order tickets beforehand at www.esbnyc.com. For a guided tour with DeCandido or one of his colleagues, contact rdcny@earthlink.net.

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