Loosely translated, Alcatraz means ‘strange looking seabird’ in Spanish. Even today, the island is a bird haven. This time of year, the cacophony of the Western gulls has left and the background noises of the island become heard. The cheerful chirping of songbirds is apparent, especially along the west road that takes visitors through the inmate gardens. Anna’s hummingbirds are zipping around while black Phoebes can be seen perched on branch shrubs.
Speaking with the National Park Service wildlife biologist, Victoria Seher, she updated me on the latest songbird activity: “For many years the Natural Resource office did a monthly Alcatraz Bird Census of the island during the winter months, however, it hadn’t been done for several years. This year we decided to resurrect the count, modifying the protocols a bit. The island bird walks are conducted 2 – 3 times per month from October through January. Waterbird docents from the previous season are helping with the counts, but we are accepting new volunteers as well. The counts start at 9am on the dock and follow the Agave Trail up the stairs to the Parade Ground, around the rubble piles, behind Building 64 and up the path to the cell house, down the west road, through the Laundry Building and down the north road back to the dock. The counts have been about 2.5 – 3 hours long and we travel about 1 mile. All birds are counted (even the ones we see in the water or flying overhead).”
Victoria and her keen observers counted 26 different species of birds last week, a surprise count even for themselves.
Reading through the suspect list, I mean, bird list, I couldn’t help but wonder; which one of these guys is eating my marigolds and chrysanthemums? The marigold nibbling started innocently enough – first just the orange flowers, but next it was the orange flowers, then all the leaves disappeared. The chrysanthemums also proved to be a tasty treat – all the flower buds were gone in a few days.
The gardens are providing much more than just enjoyment and beauty for visitors, the gardens also provide food and shelter to the birds. The benefit of the gardens to the birds is, in a strange parallel, very similar to what the Federal Bureau of Prisons provided for the inmates. Regulation Number 5 stated “You are entitled to food, clothing, shelter, and medical attention. Anything else that you get is a privilege.” The gardens stop short of providing clothing for the birds but with Victoria with her team of volunteers and interns keeping watch over the birds, they do receive medical attention if needed.
Be sure to visit the island in the next month to witness these special jail birds.