Waterbird nest monitoring program in San Francisco Bay (2005-10)

Open-File Report 2012-1145

ORCID iD and



Historically, Forster’s Terns (Sterna forsteri), American Avocets (Recurvirostra americana), and Black-necked Stilts (Himantopus mexicanus) were uncommon residents of San Francisco Bay, California (Grinnell and others, 1918; Grinnell and Wythe, 1927; Sibley, 1952). Presently, however, avocets and stilts are the two most abundant breeding shorebirds in San Francisco Bay (Stenzel and others, 2002; Rintoul and others, 2003). More than 4,000 avocets and 1,000 stilts, roughly 20 percent of their San Francisco Bay wintering populations, breed within the estuary, making San Francisco Bay the largest breeding area for these species on the Pacific Coast (Stenzel and others, 2002; Rintoul and others, 2003). Forster’s Terns were first observed breeding in the San Francisco Bay in 1948 (110 nests); they had increased to over 4000 individuals by the 1980s (Sibley, 1952; Gill, 1977; Harvey and others, 1992; Carter and others, 1990) and were estimated at 2000–3000 for 1998–2002; (Strong and others, 2004).

It is hypothesized that the relatively large size of the current waterbird breeding populations is a result of the creation of artificial salt evaporation ponds from the 1930s through the 1950s (Gill, 1977; Goals Project, 1999). Until recently, these salt ponds and associated islands used by waterbirds for nesting have been managed relatively similarly and have supported large breeding waterbird populations. Recently, the South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project has implemented plans to convert 50–90 percent of the 15,000 acres of salt ponds in the South San Francisco Bay back to tidal marsh habitat. Therefore, there is concern that the Restoration Project, while benefiting other native species, could negatively influence local breeding populations of waterbirds that are reliant on salt pond habitats for both breeding and foraging. A primary goal of the South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project is to maintain current breeding waterbird populations (South Bay Salt Pond Long-Term Restoration Project, 2004); thus, specific efforts are planned to ensure that the Restoration Project enhances the habitats of the remaining salt ponds for breeding waterbirds.

Here, we provide a summary of nesting ecology data for Forster’s Terns, American Avocets, and Black-necked Stilts, collected from 2005 to 2010 in the areas of the South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project, including lands managed by the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge and Eden Landing Ecological Reserve. These results provide baseline conditions for breeding waterbirds prior to implementation of most restoration actions and can be used to both guide future restoration actions as well as to determine the effect of the South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project on breeding waterbirds. It is imperative to continue to collect nesting waterbird data annually to assess the response of birds to the South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project.

Study Area

Additional publication details

Publication type:
Publication Subtype:
USGS Numbered Series
Waterbird nest monitoring program in San Francisco Bay (2005-10)
Series title:
Open-File Report
Series number:
Year Published:
U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location:
Reston, VA
Contributing office(s):
Western Ecological Research Center, California Water Science Center
iv, 16 p.
United States
San Francisco
Other Geospatial:
Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge, Eden Landing Ecological Reserve;South Bay Salt Pond
Online Only (Y/N):