6:00pm

Tue April 2, 2013
Health, Science, Environment

Birding on Alcatraz

Alcatraz Island is famous mainly for one thing: its prison. But it’s also a good place to lay eggs.

“A lot of nesting goes on in this one area where you have black crowned night herons in one thicket, snowy egrets in another thicket, and you have western gulls in much of the brush under that,” says Marie Cerda, who works in customer service for the Golden Gate Parks Conservancy, a non-profit that operates on Alcatraz.

We’re standing with our backs to the prison looking down at hundreds of birds.

“I always call this Fern Gully because that’s what it reminds me of. It’s so lush down there,” says Cerda – except for a pile of rubble nearby.

“Yeah, except for the pile of rubble that is a demolished building,” admits Cerda.

We’re with Cerda’s coworker Logan Bartling and his girlfriend Danielle Ricci, watching birds build nests, eat, and fight. It’s nesting season, which makes for a busy scene. Bartling points out some of the drama.

“There’s a night heron battling a gull over there,” says Bartling.

“Oh yeah. Oh, epic battles here,” Cerda says.

Bartling and Cerda have both worked here for about two years, up in the cell house. They hand out audio tours to visitors and answer their questions. They both like the job, but Bartling points out that it’s hard to get out of the shadow of Alcatraz’s past.

“People want to get their picture taken in Al Capone’s cell and that’s great, that’s part of history,” says Cerda.

But after the millionth time pointing out that cell, it gets old. What Bartling’s really excited about is the island’s ever-changing ecology.

“Out here it’s different every year, it’s new every year,” he says. “And there’s always something new to discover, to figure out, or study.”

So Bartling and Cerda started watching the birds that nest on Alcatraz. Then they began writing about them.

With the help of Ricci, they launched their Alcatraz bird blog, called Maganrord. Another friend helped them think of the name. It combines their names, Marie and Logan, with the words “rock” and “bird.”

Maganrord’s a pretty good read, even if you’re not a metalhead or a birder.

Bartling and Cerda are close observers of the lives, loves, and occasionally grisly deaths of the birds on Alcatraz—they were the first to notice that peregrine falcons had moved here. But the blog is not just a checklist of birds.

“One Alcatraz regular speaking to us in a thick Irish accent convinced us it would be dramatic and rad to have a peregrine falcon named Judas marauding around a lonely and decommissioned island prison at over 200 miles per hour chewing the heads off of invasive European starlings left and right. We found it hard to argue,” says Bartling.

We walk around to the other side of the island, toward a huge tree near the path up to the cellhouse.

“This tree on the right, that’s where the ravens live,” says Bartling.

Since ravens aren’t native to Alcatraz, the Park Service tries to keep them from breeding by oiling their eggs, which prevents them from hatching.

“Last year they did oil the eggs, but the ravens laid a second clutch and unexpectedly there were juvenile ravens. They’re actually pretty cool. They have a beak that looks way to large for their head and they just hop around because they don’t quite know hot to fly yet,” says Bartling.

During nesting season, the rocky island is covered in lush vegetation...and in birds. Entire sections, usually open to the public, are closed. They’re taken over by western gulls, black-crowned night herons, pigeons, guillemots, and geese. There’s a cacophony of squeaks, squawks, honks, and rattles as the birds fight for food, for space, and for water.

Bartling and Cerda aren’t the only ones on the island who are interested in birds. There are biologists who monitor them, especially during nesting season. And there are some docents who lead bird tours.

And there was a certain famous prisoner: Robert Stroud. He didn’t even have birds on Alcatraz. He raised birds and wrote about them while he was at Leavenworth Prison, before he was transferred here in 1942. The nickname Birdman of Alcatraz came from the title of a book and a subsequent movie about him. It was a marketing ploy.

As Cerda and Bartling head up to the cell house to go to work, we check on the raven’s tree one more time and see something new.

“But look, but look! Logan, turn around,” exclaims Cerda.

There’s a young raven in the tree. The adult ravens have successfully hatched an egg, again foiling the rangers’ attempts to keep them from raising young.

This story originally aired on July 26, 2010.  

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