Brandt’s cormorants (Phalacrocorax penicillatus) are back on the sea cliff just west of Natural Bridges State Beach in Santa Cruz. They started using this ledge in large numbers in 2011 after the breeding habitat was improved by removing the non-native and invasive ice plant. The Brandt’s cormorants do not nest on top of ice plant and are sensitive to human disturbance. To breed, they need open ledges free of predators and safe from people walking, talking, or sitting to drink coffee.
In the photo above, you can see one Brandt’s cormorant on a nest (the greenish mound) and one empty nest. In April 2011, as part of the West Cliff Restoration Project, local ecologists Bill Henry, Josh Adams, Ryan Carle, and Jessie Beck cleared encroaching ice plant from this ledge. By the next day, a large group of Brandt’s cormorants started building their nests.
The cormorants incubate their eggs for ~30 days, and the chicks leave the nest when they 40–50 days old. When the birds fly from the ledge for the first time, usually in late August, they are not yet strong enough to fly back, so they hang out on the beach below for up to several weeks while the parents still feed them.
In 2011, after the ice plant was cleared, 21 nests were counted and 44–45 chicks were documented as hatching (Alayne Meeks, Oikonos). In 2012, the numbers of nests and chicks hatched were practically the same. The ledge was not used again for breeding from 2013 through 2015, but it was used again in spring 2016, with 35 birds and 14 nest sites as of May 17.
The reasons for the three-year hiatus are unclear. Fluctuations in the numbers of mating birds might be related to changes in ocean conditions, disturbances, presence of predators, or simply better habitat conditions elsewhere. In many years, the Brandt’s cormorants nest on the remaining Natural Bridges arch, less than 100 yards away. The same population might even alternate between the two sites.
Native Plant Restoration Is for the Birds
Although Brandt’s cormorants are not a threatened or endangered species, they are vulnerable to the loss of breeding habitats, including the erosion of offshore rocks, such as the remaining arch at Natural Bridges State Beach. Potential mainland breeding sites are heavily impacted by coastal development, coastal armoring such as sea walls, rip-rap (1– to 2–ton boulders placed in a group), invasive vegetation, and predators. Clearing of ice plant on West Cliff Drive provides more places for the birds to breed along the shore.
Bill Henry, a local scientist, has spearheaded removal of ice plant and restoration of native plants along West Cliff Drive since 2012. Henry’s goal is to restore plant biodiversity, increase habitat, and engage the public in stewardship of the coast. An example of this restoration work can be seen just a few hundred feet to the east of the Brandt’s ledge pictured above (just past Chico Avenue).
The plot was cleared of ice plant and replanted in spring of 2012. The native species planted include California sagebrush, coast buckwheat, dudleya, lizard tail, seaside daisy, sticky monkey flower, prunella, and yarrow, all grown from locally collected seed. These plants are typical of the northern coastal sage scrub habitat that was here before it was displaced by ice plant. The restoration sites are already supporting increased faunal diversity, including native bees and birds.
Restored coastal sage scrub vegetation also surrounds the Seymour Center at the Long Marine Lab.
The work was initially the West Cliff Restoration Project of the nonprofit Oikonos. Since 2012, partners and volunteers worked along West Cliff Drive (at Lighthouse Field, for example) and at the entrance to Seabright Beach. The project has since become a separate organization, Groundswell Coastal Ecology. Groundswell enhances coastal resources in Santa Cruz by pairing education, community activities, and science with ecological restoration. Sites include Seabright Beach, Lighthouse Field (across from the surfer statue), and Natural Bridges. Their 2016–17 plans include planting of more than 10,000 native plants along the Natural Bridges headland.
Volunteer for Restoration
If you are interested in participating in the coastal restoration process or want to receive Groundswell updates, please send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Groundswell ecologists are seeking volunteers to assist with seed collection and plant propagation, which will support the 2016–17 restoration season.
The Santa Cruz Chapter of the California Native Plant Society also leads restoration projects at Natural Bridges State Park and various places around the county. If you would like to get involved with them, check the meeting schedules and contact information on the Santa Cruz Chapter of the California Native Plant Society website.
- Groundswell Coastal Ecology website
- Oikonos ecosystem knowledge website
- Santa Cruz Chapter, California Native Plant Society website
Take the Self-Guided Mobile Tour
This piece is part of the West Cliff Drive Tour. Download the free app with many tours of the Santa Cruz area and beyond.
- Beyond the Ledge: Monitoring Cormorants at West Cliff Drive, Santa Cruz, by Alayne Meeks, Ryan Carle, Jessie Beck. Año Nuevo Island Restoration Project website.
- Carpobrotus edulis, by Christien Malan andAlice Notten. Plantzafrica website.
- Cornucopia II: A Source Book of Edible Plants, by Stephen Facciola. Vista, CA: Kampong Publications, 1998.
- Invasive Plants of California’s Wildland, by Marc Albert. California Invasive Plant Council website.
- Local Plant Communities. Santa Cruz Chapter, California Native Plant Society.
- Personal Communication with Bill Henry, Founder, West Cliff Restoration Project and Groundswell Coastal Ecology, May 2016.
- Personal Communication with Josh Adams, Seabird Ecologist, United States Geological Survey, Santa Cruz Field Station, May 2016.
- Restoring native beauty and diversity along West Cliff Drive, by Jackie Pascoe. Santa Cruz Sentinel, June 7, 2012.