Each winter, thousands of seabirds, seaducks, and waterfowl migrate from all directions to converge in the relatively calm and food-rich waters of Puget Sound. In summer, colonies of seabirds are busy attending their young. In spring and fall, the shorelines are full of shorebirds that stop to feed and rest during migration.
But Puget Sound is undergoing significant changes that impact birds. Some marine birds have suffered significant declines in Puget Sound, yet restoration projects are underway to improve ecosystem function. Professional scientists, citizen scientists, students are monitoring these changes and producing results.
Citizen science and monitoring in Puget Sound
The who, how and where of citizen science and monitoring in Puget Sound
Marine birds Vital Sign
The Puget Sound Partnership’s Vital Sign indicators for marine birds
- Salish Sea-reliant Birds
- Species of Concern in the Salish Sea (filtered by birds)
- Species of Concern in the Puget Sound Basin (filtered by birds)
Natural history and other resources
More than 70 bird species regularly utilize Puget Sound during some or all stages of their life histories, but only a portion of these are actively being investigated.
Notes from the field: The Illusion of abundance
Biologist and science writer Eric Wagner recently returned from a trip to observe pigeon guillemots on Protection Island. He wonders: How much do we really know about the health of seemingly abundant bird populations?
A tale of two islands: Resilience to a severe marine heatwave at two Pacific seabird colonies (author summary)
A 2023 paper in the journal Marine Ecology Progress Series examines seabird reproductive and dietary response to a severe marine heat wave affecting the California Current ecosystem from 2014 to 2016. The study involved rhinoceros auklet colonies on Destruction Island (California Current) and Protection Island (Salish Sea). The paper's first author Eric Wagner describes some of the findings from the study in this informal summary.
Whir! Chunk! Capture! The art of tagging rhinoceros auklets on Protection Island
Where do Protection Island's rhinoceros auklets go to find their food? Scientists hope GPS tags will offer new insight into the bird's still mysterious foraging behavior. Biologist and science writer Eric Wagner reports from the field.
Puget Sound Marine Waters 2020 Overview
The tenth annual Puget Sound Marine Waters Overview looks at marine water quality and other conditions in the region in 2020. According to the report, there were few extreme weather or ecological events in 2020, but overall, conditions in Puget Sound were generally warmer, sunnier, and wetter than in typical years. The overview also examines patterns and trends in numerous environmental parameters, including plankton, water quality, climate, and marine life.
Effects of season, location, species, and sex on body weight and blood chemistry in free-ranging grebes
An article published in the Journal of Avian Medicine and Surgery in 2021 describes the results of study comparing the effects of season, location, species, and sex on body weight and blood chemistry for free-ranging western and Clark's grebes.
2019 Puget Sound Marine Waters Overview
A new report from the Puget Sound Ecosystem Monitoring Program details the effects of a changing climate on Puget Sound in 2019, and documents how these changes moved through the ecosystem to affect marine life and seafood consumers.
A health check for seabirds
Scientists are still trying to understand what caused the deaths of thousands of rhinoceros auklets in the Salish Sea in 2016. Some studies point to disease as a central factor in that incident and potentially other large seabird die-offs along the coast. That is prompting a deeper look at what makes these birds sick, and how local populations are faring. We followed a group of researchers as they gave a health checkup to a breeding colony of rhinoceros auklets on Protection Island.
2018 Puget Sound Marine Waters Overview
A new report from the Puget Sound Ecosystem Monitoring Program says climate change altered the base of Puget Sound's food web in 2018, diminishing microscopic phytoplankton necessary for marine life. Scientists also observed lower abundances of fish, seabirds, and marine mammals.
Tracking the trash: Inside a marine debris survey
Volunteer researchers are tracking the plastic and other debris washing up on Puget Sound's beaches. They hope the data can be used to protect sea creatures from the growing amounts of trash littering the world's oceans. [A version of this article first appeared in the COASST blog.]
Unsung seabirds could help track Puget Sound health
Pigeon guillemots have attracted relatively little scientific attention compared to other seabirds in Puget Sound. That may be because their population is generally stable, but a group of citizen scientists is helping to put guillemots on the conservation radar. They hope the birds can be used as an indicator of Puget Sound health.
Video series features science and adventure in the Salish Sea
A new video series follows local scientists into the water, capturing the adventure behind the research. "Salish Sea Wild" is entering its second season and we interviewed the series host and producers. Among our burning questions: What's it like to have a Steller sea lion chew on your head?
Predator–prey dynamics of bald eagles and glaucous‐winged gulls
An unintended consequence of the recovery of bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) has been the impact on seabirds. The authors of a 2019 paper published in Ecology and Evolution suggest that the effects of bald eagle activity on a large glaucous-winged gull (Larus glaucescens) colony on Protection Island in the Strait of Juan de Fuca include the possibility of coexistence but also the possibility of gull colony extinction.
Nights in the lives of the rhinoceros auklets of Protection Island
More than 70 percent of the seabird population of Puget Sound nests on a single island in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. That includes a massive colony of rhinoceros auklets that has drawn the interest of scientists and birders alike. Our writer Eric Wagner visited the island this summer and reports on a long-term study of the auklets that is revealing new information about the health of seabirds in the Salish Sea.
Daily and annual habitat use and habitat-to-habitat movement by Glaucous-winged Gulls at Protection Island, Washington
A 2017 paper in the journal Northwestern Naturalist looks at distribution patterns for Glaucous-winged Gulls across associated habitats in the Salish Sea.
2016 Salish Sea Toxics Monitoring Review: A Selection of Research
A 2017 report from the Puget Sound Ecosystem Monitoring Program presents an overview of selected recent monitoring and research activities focused on toxic contaminants in the Salish Sea.
Puget Sound Ecosystem Monitoring Program
The Puget Sound Ecosystem Monitoring Program (PSEMP) is an independent program established by state and federal statute to monitor environmental conditions in Puget Sound.
2015 Puget Sound Marine Waters Overview
The Puget Sound Ecosystem Monitoring Program released its fifth annual Marine Waters Overview this week. The report provides an assessment of marine conditions for the year 2015 and includes updates on water quality as well as status reports for select plankton, seabirds, fish and marine mammals.
Salish Sea snapshots: Plastics in fish may also affect seabirds
Sand lance in parts of British Columbia are ingesting small pieces of plastic that may be passed through the food web.
Marine bird science in Puget Sound
Birds serve as useful indicators of ecosystem change and ecosystem health, biodiversity, condition of habitats, and climate change. Many people and organizations have their eyes on marine birds in Puget Sound.
The growing number of species of concern in the Salish Sea suggests ecosystem decay is outpacing recovery
The number of species of concern in the Salish Sea is growing at an average annual rate of 2.6%, according to a report published in the proceedings of the 2016 Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference in Vancouver, B.C.
Tufted Puffin (Fratercula cirrhata)
With its striking plumage and brilliant orange bill, the Tufted Puffin is an iconic seabird well known to native peoples, fishermen, and coastal communities throughout its range in the temperate and sub-arctic North Pacific. Though pelagic in winter, puffins gather on islands and headlands during spring and summer to breed and raise their young. They are members of the auk family, with stocky bodies adapted to “flying” underwater as they dive in pursuit of a wide range of fish and invertebrate prey. Nesting Tufted Puffins range up to 100 km from their breeding colonies to forage for their nestlings, and are famed for carrying 20 or more small fish at one time, neatly lined up and carried crosswise in their large, brightly colored bills.
Declines in marine birds trouble scientists
Why did all the grebes leave? Where did they go? And what does their disappearance say about the health of the Salish Sea? Seasonal declines among some regional bird species could hold important clues to the overall health of the ecosystem.