Rich Stallcup, a renowned and beloved leader in the world of bird biology, dubbed the Brown Pelican, Heermann’s Gull, and Elegant Tern “The Three Amigos,” You might not understand why he referred to these seabirds as friends when you observe the mischievous Heermann’s Gull sitting directly on top of the Brown Pelican’s head, stealing fish straight out of its pouch. However, what Rich knew, and what many Californians may be seeing right now, is that these three winged marvels really do have quite a bit in common. The Three Amigos can currently be found in Northern California on their migration north, a journey that began in along the beautiful shore of Baja California Sur, Mexico.
So, let’s meet our three amigos.
The California Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus, is the smallest pelican of its species with a seven-foot wingspan. You can spot its brown body, white head, yellow crown, long bill, and distinctive throat pouch along the California coast all year long. In 2008, while taking a natural history course on Isla Espiritu Santo, I found myself mesmerized by the Brown Pelicans, spending hours watching them glide 60 feet above the Sea of Cortez, and then suddenly plunging straight down into the water to scoop up 3 gallons of water and prey into their pouches.
The Heermann’s Gull, Larus heermanni, can be identified by its bright red bill, grey back, and white head. It has countless ways of obtaining food: plunging, hovering over waves, picking from the surface, and stealing from others. Although it travels north during non-breeding seasons, its breeding habitat is limited. In fact, 95% of the Heermann’s Gull population breeds on one specific island in Baja, Isla Raza.
The final actor of our Three Amigos is the Elegant Tern, or Thalasseus elegans. Perhaps it has been dubbed “elegant” for its long and slender yellowish reddish bill, or its acrobatic aerial dives. This medium-sized tern can be seen along the California coast pointing its bill straight down and then plunging into the water for fish. During breeding season, the Elegant Tern nests in colonies along with its amigo, the Heermann’s Gull.
You may be wondering what these birds are doing in California this time of year. The short answer is that they are here for food. These three magnificent seabirds depend on a process called upwelling, the cycling of the water from the deep ocean to the surface at certain times of year. This cooler, nutrient-rich water is a crucial food source for these seabirds after breeding season.
As climate change alters when upwelling occurs in our marine ecosystem, these birds’ migratory routes are also threatened. Imagine being on a road trip and depending on certain rest areas to refuel yourself and your car, but when you get there, the gas stations and restaurants have moved to a different location. That is essentially what could happen to the Three Amigos, as they have depended for generations on the plentiful food found in the water along our Pacific Coast at a specific time of year.
The Three Amigos indicate the health of the ocean. If we see less and less of them on the Northern Californian coast, that would indicate that the fish, marine invertebrates, and phytoplankton are all in trouble as well. So go out there and wave to our plunging and diving amigos as they rest for a feast during their long journey.