While spotting whales and dolphins is usually the highlight of a whale watching cruise, San Diego boasts hundreds of bird species, including many species you may see during a Hornblower Whale Watching cruise. Below are the most common seabirds spotted in San Diego Bay and along the coast.
Western gull (Larus occidentalis)
This large gull is one of the most abundant and common gulls seen along the Southern California coast. Adults have distinctive dark gray and white plumage, a bright yellow bill and pink legs. Juveniles tend to have a more mottled brown and white coloration and a pinkish bill with a dark tip. Western gulls are excellent parents¬—both the mother and father bring food back to their young. The red dot on the parents’ bills provides a target for the young to peck at to queue their meal. Gulls are opportunistic predators, actively catching fishes and other aquatic animals, scavenging scraps and even stealing food from other gulls and seabirds.
Heerman’s gull (Larus heermani)
This striking gull has mostly light and dark gray plumage, a white head and a bright, reddish- orange bill tipped with black. Juveniles are an overall ashy brown with a much paler pinkish, dark-tipped bill. The Heerman’s gull nests on islands along western Mexico and then spends the non-breeding season farther north along the Pacific Coast of the United States and Canada. Since 90% of the species nesting occurs on a single island, Isla Rosa, the Heerman’s gull is a “near-threatened” species. It mainly eats fish; both fish that it actively hunts and also fish stolen from other seabirds and marine mammals.
Caspian tern (Sterna caspia)
This gull-size tern is the largest tern in the world. It has a white body with a black cap (without the shaggy crest seen in many other terns) and a stout, red bill with a dark tip. Terns are often seen flying and plunge diving for fish above the ocean.
Royal tern (Sterna maxima)
The royal tern is a large, orange-billed tern commonly found along the coast. The royal tern is mostly white with a light gray back, a short, forked tail and a yellow to red pointed bill. Adults have a black cap with a shaggy crest during the nesting season and a black band extending from each eye to the back of the head during the non-breeding season. Like other terns, this species plunge dives for fish.
Elegant tern (Sterna elegans)
This medium-sized tern is mostly white with a short, forked tail, a black cap with a shaggy crest and a thin orange bill, which slightly droops at the tip. During the breeding season, the entire top of the head is black, while in the nonbreeding season, the forehead is white. Since more than 90% of the population of elegant terns nest on a single island in the Gulf of California, the species is listed as “near threatened.” As with other terns, this species is commonly seen plunge diving for small fish.
Brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis)
The brown pelican is an iconic species, frequently seen along coastlines and bays throughout North and Central America and in the northern part of South America. This large, stocky seabird is grayish-brown, with a yellowish head, white neck and a distinctive, large yellowish bill. Juveniles are mostly brown with a white belly and a gray bill. During the nesting season, adults develop a striking reddish brown coloration along the back and sides of the neck and a dark throat-patch. Like other pelicans, brown pelicans plunge dive and scoop up small fishes in the large, flexible pouch of their bills.
Brown pelicans almost disappeared from North America due to use of the pesticide DDT in the 1960s and 1970s. DDT entered aquatic food chains through agricultural runoff and pelicans that ate DDT contaminated prey laid eggs with thin shells that cracked under the parents’ weight. Fortunately, brown pelican populations recovered after a ban on DDT in 1972.
Great blue heron (Ardea herodias)
The great blue heron is the tallest heron throughout North America; reaching a height of 4.5 feet (1.4 m)! Although it is tall, the great blue heron only weighs about 5 lb. (2 kg) due to its hollow bones¬—a trait shared by most birds. This statuesque heron is easily identified by its coloration, which is bluish gray overall with a white face, a dark stripe above each eye, and a crest of dark feathers. Like other herons, it uses its dagger-like yellow bill to spear fish while standing or wading in the shallows of the coastlines, bays and inland waterways.
Great egret (Ardea alba)
This tall, elegant egret has white plumage, a long yellow bill and long, black legs. It typically hunts by either slowly wading or standing still in water then striking out with its dagger-like bill at passing prey such as fishes, frogs and other small aquatic animals. Great egrets were hunted to the edge of extinction for their feather-plumes which were used to decorate ladies’ hats. Following a ban on plume-hunting in 1910, the great egret population has recovered across most of its range.
Snowy egret (Egretta thula)
Adult snowy egrets stand about 24 in. (0.6 m) tall. These white herons are easily identified by their slim black bill, long black legs and bright “yellow slippers”. Snowy egrets are commonly spotted on mudflats, shorelines, and wetlands where they feed on a variety of small fishes, crabs and other aquatic animals. When feeding, they wade in shallow waters and use their bill to spear prey. They often use a sit-and-wait technique to hunt, occasionally using their bright feet to stir up prey from the bottom and then swiftly spearing any startled prey. They also actively pursue prey by running through the water with their wings flapping.
Double-crested cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus)
This is the most commonly encountered cormorant found in saltwater and freshwater habitats throughout North America. They are a dull black seabird with a yellow facial patch just above the hooked bill. Juveniles have lighter overall coloration. This cormorant is named for the two feather tufts on top of an adult’s head during the nesting season. Cormorants swim at the surface then dive to catch fish, using their webbed feet to actively swim after prey. Following a dive, the double-crested cormorant dries out its wings by resting with its wings spread open in the sun.



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