Many visitors to the island have no idea that Alcatraz is a premiere spot for viewing colonial nesting seabirds. Most seabirds nest on inaccessible offshore rocks. The determined bird lover would need a boat and some fancy binoculars to get a glimpse. But Alcatraz visitors can see the mating, nesting and parenting behaviors of these charismatic creatures up close.
Long before humans set foot on the island, Alcatraz was home to thousands of nesting birds. The first humans to interact with these birds were Native Americans, who hunted and possibly collected eggs for food. The name Alcatraz itself came from a European explorer who named one of the islands in the bay “Island of the Seabirds” for the multitudes of avian life he observed.
Years after the prison’s closure in 1963, Alcatraz is now a sanctuary for seabirds such as cormorants and pigeon guillemots, and for waterbirds such as snowy egrets and black-crowned night herons. Nesting birds are censused on a yearly basis, and management actions are adjusted to avoid disturbance during this sensitive time (February through September).
Even if you’ve been to the island many times before, try a visit from late winter through early summer with an eye for birds, and you may see Alcatraz in a whole new way! Check out the Gull Shack, or take a Birds on the Rock checklist and learn more about these natural treasures.
Alcatraz was sometimes refered to as Bird Island or White Island in the early years. The original name “Alcatraces” was Spanish for the “strange birds” they saw. the birds of Alcatraz and fascinating behaviors of some of the most common breeding birds on the island – cormorants, gulls, night herons, egrets, and pigeon guillemots.
Other than fog and rain there is no source of fresh water on Alcatraz. the new rainwater catchment system on the Rock that is helping with the restoration on the island’s historic gardens.
“Island of the Seabirds” (AKA Alcatraz Island)
Alcatraz Island is located in San Francisco Bay, 1.25 miles (2.01 km) offshore from San Francisco, California, United States. The small island was developed with facilities for a lighthouse, a military fortification, a military prison, and a federal prison from 1934 until 21 March 1963. Beginning in November 1969, the island was occupied for more than 19 months by a group of Native Americans from San Francisco, who were part of a wave of Native American activism across the U.S., with public protests through the 1970s. In 1972, Alcatraz became part of a national recreation area and received designation as a National Historic Landmark in 1986.
Alcatraz Island is home to the abandoned prison, the site of the oldest operating lighthouse on the West Coast of the United States, early military fortifications, and natural features such as rock pools and a seabird colony (mostly western gulls, cormorants, and egrets). According to a 1971 documentary on the history of Alcatraz, the island measures 1,675 feet (511 m) by 590 feet (180 m) and is 135 feet (41 m) at highest point during mean tide. The total area of the island is reported to be 22 acres (8.9 ha).