We conducted aerial at-sea and coastal surveys to examine the distribution and abundance of seabirds off southern California, from Cambria, California, to the Mexican border. From May 1999-January 2002, we flew 102 d, covered >54,640 km of transect lines, and conducted nine complete surveys of southern California in January, May, and September. We identified 54 species comprising 12 families and counted >135,000 individuals. Seabird densities were greater along island and mainland coastlines than at sea and were usually greatest in January surveys. Densities were greatest at sea near the northern Channel Islands in January and north of Point Conception in May, and lowest in the southwestern portion of the Southern California Bight in all survey months. On coastal transects, seabird densities were greatest along central and southern portions of the mainland coastline from Point Arguello to Mexico. We estimated that 981,000 ?? 144,000 (x?? ?? SE) seabirds occurred in the study area in January, 862,000 ?? 95,000 in May, and 762,000 ?? 72,000 in September. California Gulls (Larus californicus), Western Grebes (Aechmophorus occidentalis), and Cassin's Auklets (Ptychoramphus aleuticus) were most abundant in January surveys at sea, whereas Sooty and Short-tailed shearwaters (Puffinus griseus and P. tenuirostris), phalaropes (Phalaropus spp.), and Western Gulls (Larus. occidentalis) were most abundant in May and September surveys. On coastal transects, California Gulls, Western Grebes, Western Gulls, and Surf Scoters (Melanitta perspicillata) were most abundant in January; Western Grebes, Western Gulls, Surf Scoters, and Brown Pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis) were most abundant in May; and Sooty Shearwaters, Short-tailed Shearwaters, Western Gulls, Western Grebes, Brown Pelicans, and Heermann's Gulls (Larus heermanni) were most abundant in September. Compared to historical seabird densities collected in the same area two decades ago (1975-1978 and 1980-1983), abundance was lower by 14% in January, 57% in May, and 42% in September. Common Murres (Uria aalge, ???75% in each season), Sooty Shearwaters (55% in May, 27% in September), and Bonaparte's Gulls (L. Philadelphia, ???95% in each season) had lower densities. Conversely, Brown Pelicans (167% overall), Xantus's Murrelets (Synthliboramphus hypoleucus; 125% overall), Cassin's Auklets (100% overall), Ashy Storm-Petrels (Oceanodroma homochroa, 450% overall) and Western Gulls (55% in May), and Brandt's Cormorants (Phalacrocorax penicillatus, 450% in September) had greater densities. Our results indicate that seabird abundance has declined off the southern California coast in the past two decades, and these declines may be warning signs of environmental degradation in the region or effects of larger forces such as climate change.
Additional publication details
At-sea distribution and abundance of seabirds off southern California: A 20-year comparison