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Bay Nature magazineApril-June 2017

An Atlantic Bird Makes a New Home in California — Maybe Because of Melting Arctic Ice

by Alison Hawkes on March 28, 2017

Photo by Dan Maxwell
Photo by Dan Maxwell

A powerful seabird, renowned for compressing its svelte body to make torpedo-like dives for fish, the northern gannet is an Atlantic species. In spring, it nests in massive colonies along the rocky coast of Newfoundland up to the Arctic reaches of Spitsbergen. But five years ago this April, a male arrived on the Farallon Islands, becoming the first northern gannet ever recorded in California.

Morris, as Bay Area birders dubbed him after the species’ scientific name, Morus bassanus, probably ended up here due to melting ice in the Arctic Ocean. Northern gannets winter at sea and can travel as far as the ocean is ice-free in search of mackerel and herring. A passageway between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans is opening for the first time in more than 100,000 years and species long isolated on either side are now crossing over. A recent paper in Global Change Biology identified more than 70 species of birds and mammals that will likely journey between the two oceans in the years ahead.

Now a year-round resident of the Central California coast, Morris still reliably visits the Farallones’ Sugarloaf islet, though more recently he’s taken to perching on a guano-covered rock off Mavericks Beach in Half Moon Bay among a flock of Brandt’s cormorants. And while Morris is just one lonely vagrant offering his mating call and dance to no avail each spring—“The cormorants aren’t impressed,” notes Russ Bradley of Point Blue Conservation Science—the fact that he’s here at all is another sign that ecosystems are changing.

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