Different birds in the sanctuary may live at sea, along the shore, or both.
Imagine a bird the size of a robin surviving on the open ocean. A bird like a Fork-tailed
Storm-petrel, which weighs less than a stick of butter and is covered with seemingly fragile
feathers, can weather winter storms, drink saltwater for refreshment and sleep comfortably on the
rollicking waves. Pelagic (ocean-living) birds live dramatic lives and seem to get along quite well
in harsh aquatic environments. They would shun land completely except for one critical period of
their lives - breeding.
Common murres gather on the sheerest of cliff edges.
Marine birds must return to the land in order to lay their eggs and during
this time, they crowd onto the most remote, severe pieces of real estate they can find - the
offshore islands and sea stacks. Some, like Rhinoceros Auklets, Cassin's Auklets and Storm-petrels
burrow into any available soil and deposit an egg deep underground. Others, like Common Murres and
the cormorants, choose exposed cliff sites to either build a nest, or merely lay and egg on the rock
and sit on it. But as soon as the young are developed enough to leave, all return to the relative
safety and bounty of the open sea.
Shearwaters are much more common here during the warmer months.
Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary is used by nearly 100 different species of marine birds and
shorebirds. Many of the birds that are here in significant numbers in the summer time are actually
not local breeders. Sooty Shearwaters, one of the most abundant birds found during the summer,
have colonies off South America and Australia/New Zealand but many spend their "winter" in the
Eastern North Pacific.
Black footed albatross catches an air current.
Black-footed Albatross, our most common albatross, nest in the central and
West Pacific (Hawaii and Japan) but many juveniles spend their formative years cruising relatively
near our offshore waters. Northern Fulmars breed much further north in places like the Pribiloff
Islands and the Alaskan Peninsula yet are a common sight in the Sanctuary once you get off shore.
Swimming tufted puffin.
Tufted Puffins, Common Murres and Rhinoceros Auklets are all in the family Alcidae and so, with
other species, are referred to collectively as "alcids" and several species of alcids breed in the
sanctuary. Each alcid species has a distinctive bill shape or color uniquely designed for fancy
food hunting (usually fish, although some species eat only plankton) and for mate recognition. All
seabird species, whether they nest in our region or only migrate or winter here tell us something
about the health of our marine ecosystem. They breed more successfully when food is abundant, they
are sensitive to water contamination such as oil, they respond to human disturbance and sometimes
suffer from intruders to their nest sites. By admiring, studying and observing marine birds we can
learn much about the ocean as a whole.
Bald eagle looks for prey on land and over sea.
Not all coastal birds are truly pelagic. Waves of thousands of migrating shorebirds use the
coastline like a road map. Their stop-off sites are few and far between yet critical to the success
of their migration. Shorebirds and other migrating birds like waterfowl need to congregate in
sheltered areas with abundant food to fuel their journeys. Loons, grebes and ducks abandon their
freshwater breeding grounds in the late summer and often spend their winters in the nearshore ocean
environment. Bald Eagle, Osprey and Peregrine Falcon nests dot the coastline, taking full advantage
of the fish and bird abundance to feed their young. These birds, though not truly pelagic, are
inextricably woven into the fabric of the ocean tapestry.
See a list of seabird species
in the sanctuary.
Contact for page content: Robert Steelquist