Seabirds and 100 Years of National Parks

100 years ago today, the Organic Act became law: 

“Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, that there is hereby created … the National Park Service… to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

I’ve written on this blog about many of my adventures in national parks, the well-known iconic wilderness areas and historic sites. Recently, I’ve been appreciating the national recreation areas created to provide access to nature and history in urban areas, specifically my local Golden Gate National Recreation Area established in 1972.

In the middle of San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz Island in Golden Gate National Recreation Area hosts more than a million visitors a year who come to tour its infamous old prison. What is less known is that Alcatraz is an important sanctuary for nesting seabirds, egrets and herons. I find it unappealing to tour a prison that’s much like the inhumane places we still have, but it’s a treat to visit the island and find nature thriving in a place filled with broken structures and mobs of people.

Snowy egret adult and chick Alcatraz 6-2016 smallerSnowy egret chick and parent

Nesting bird count sign Alcatraz 6-2016 smaller
The census of nesting residents

Pigeon guillemot Alcatraz 6-2016 smaller
Pigeon guillemot, with just a tiny bit of her bright orange legs showing

Western gull with chicks Alcatraz 6-2016 smaller
Attentive western gull parent with chicks

Brandts cormorants Alcatraz 6-2016 smaller
Brandt’s cormorants

Egret feather in concrete crack Alcatraz 6-2016 smaller

Western gull and SF skyline 6-2016 smaller

On this 100th anniversary of the national parks, my wish for everyone is to have an experience in a park or historic site that is the heritage of all of us. Find your local treasures here.


Bird Extravaganza in California’s Central Valley

Every year from November through March, millions of migratory birds winter in California’s Central Valley. The Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge alone is the winter home for three million geese and one million ducks, nearly half of the birds on the Pacific Flyway. For the last few years, I have been visiting the refuges and the surrounding rice fields, flooded after the harvest, where many of the birds feed to take it all in. The sound of all that honking and quacking alone is amazing, and when a flock of thousands of snow geese takes flight at once… well, see for yourself in this video by Mitchell and make sure you have your sound turned on.

Here are some photos from our trips over the past couple of years, with captions identifying the species, followed by another video recorded two days ago during the spring breeding season.

All photos and videos by Mitchell Yee

Northern pintail

Cinnamon teal

Northern shoveler

Snow geese lifting off from their feeding zone in a flooded post-harvest rice field

Western meadowlark

Cooper’s hawk

Mitchell and I went back out to Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge a couple days ago, the first time we have gone in the spring. It was incredible to see the place in a different season.

For one thing, we weren’t buried in thick layers in temperatures just above freezing, a welcome change. And the brown grasses and leafless trees have come to life in all their shades of green. We got to see the birds that stay all year in the breeding season–everybody is paired off, the male waterfowl are in their bright colors, and the silence of winter for songbirds has transformed into the music of birdsong.

Our recent trip included a photography outing with a ranger. He took us to a couple parts of the refuge that aren’t otherwise open to the public, and we got to see a nesting pair of bald eagles. The male flew right above us.

After the guided tour was over, Mitchell and I went on our own on the auto tour, where you have to stay in your car. Because the birds don’t associate vehicles with people, they aren’t alarmed and therefore you can get quite close to them. Unlike the winter season when the place has many visitors observing the overwintering birds, that day we had the entire place to ourselves. We were fortunate to stumble upon an elusive bird that is quite hard to see hidden in the reeds, and even observed it booming in its spring call. Check out this American bittern.

Nature continues to amaze and inspire. All you have to do is be there for the show.