Seabirds in Love

May 3, 2024 | Adventures, Animals, Nature, Ocean Life, Outdoors

Love is in the air—literally. Song birds chorus. Doves coo. Along the northern California coast, ocean-going birds court and breed.  Our mission as volunteers for the Seabird Protection Network is to monitor their numbers, nests, eggs, and chicks. But when visitors ask what I’m looking at through my binoculars, I simply say “seabirds in love.” 

My favorites are the Pigeon Guillemot (above). Despite their name, they are not pigeons but alcids, medium-sized birds bigger than sparrows but smaller than gulls.  Believed to be monogamous, pairs return to their preferred breeding grounds every Spring.   Shedding their dingy winter wardrobe, they sport velvety dark feathers set off by bright white wing patches and accented by lipstick-red legs, beaks, and mouths. 

One tres chic duo strikes me as so quintessentially French that I dub them Pierre and Gigi. In the air Pierre chases Gigi, sometimes continuing his pursuit underwater. (PIGUs, as birders abbreviate their name, are superb divers.) On land the dapper suitor bobs his head, points his bill, and raises his fancy feet high as he marches around Gigi.  Initially as blasé as a mademoiselle in a Parisian café, Gigi reciprocates by circling Pierre.  The lovestruck couple mutually admire  their colorful beaks and mouths,  take turns grooming each  other, and dive together into the sea—all with effervescent joie-de-vivre.

Black Oystercatchers  don’t need to gussy up to go courting. Their clown-bright  reddish orange  bills, yellow eyes, and pale pink legs stand out in any season—as do their shrill calls. In the Spring partners, who remain together year-round, screech even louder. They also fly, stride, and flap their wings side-by-side—a way of defending their territory as well as declaring their attachment. Some males, in what seems a gallant gesture, offer food to their partners.

Three species of cormorants,  large dark birds long regarded as vaguely ominous, breed on our coast: Pelagic, Double-crested, and Brandt’s. Each approaches courtship differently.

A male Pelagic Cormorant waves his wings to show off the white patches on his flanks. Flaunting iridescent blue-green feathers on his face and throat, he may puff out his chest while swimming around a female. As their bond intensifies, both sexes may entwine their long necks—literally “necking.”

Double-crested Cormorants go for a full-face fashion statement.  Their aquamarine eyes, encircled by turquoise dots, glimmer against their orange-yellow skin. Standing at a chosen nest site, the male stretches his neck, leans forward, and bows while holding his  crested head erect.  He also may wave his outstretched wings or open his bill to display his mouth’s blue interior.

Real estate may help woo a female Brandt’s Cormorant. Males arrive early to stake out a site and begin building nests. To further impress possible mates, they spread their wings, point their beaks upward, tilt their heads back, and inflate the turquoise skin on their throats known as a gular pouch. 

For seabirds, sentinels of the ocean’s wellbeing, feathered finery and fancy flights are more than dating games. Such displays evolved over thousands of years as indicators of a potential mate’s health, fitness, and commitment.  In certain species, the odds of survival may favor the flamboyant; in others, the promising providers.

As the weeks go by, we watch the birds pair off  and begin to construct nests. As much as we enjoy the sweethearts of Spring, we can’t wait to see the chicks of summer.  Stay tuned!

Photo credits: National Audubon Society, Wikipedia, Eastside Audubon, Djuna Bewley

Dianne Hales, a New York Times best-selling author, serves as a docent and research volunteer at the University of California, Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory and Reserve; a tide pool guide for the Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods; and a monitor for the Seabird Protection Network.

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