September 28, 2013
On a recent ferry ride from Seattle to Vashon Island a birdcall was heard consistently as the ferry crossed the Puget Sound. It clearly wasn’t a seagull, which is often heard flying around ferries in motion. It appeared to be some other type of bird following the boat.
A Pigeon Guillemot (Cepphus columba) had built a nest in a recess of the ferry’s superstructure, above the car deck and below the observation deck. The photo above shows the parent taking a break on the ferry, after flying alongside it for an extended period of time, while the inset photo shows the fledgling peeking out of the hole its nest is in.
If you look closely you can just see the adult bird’s bright red feet as it rests on the ferry, hiding its similarly bright red legs. Their legs and feet, along with patches of white with black bars on its wings are two of the most well-known ways to identify these lovely little birds. Another distinguising feature is its particularly thin bill, which the fledgling displays well from its hiding place.
Pigeon Guillemots usually nest in cavities and crevices, typically on a cliff or in a boulder field on an island, which protects the nest from predators. Ranging from the Bering Sea to California, they are often seen in the Puget Sound hunting small fish and invertebrates. Large numbers of breeding Pigeon Guillemots can be found on the Farallon Islands in California and on Russia's Chukchi Peninsula.
They come ashore only to breed or to get a cup of coffee on a ferry. Male Pigeon Guillemots have been known to excavate their own nest burrow, repurpose an abandoned one, or select a cave or crevice on a shoreline or cliff. Nest sites can be used repeatedly over many years by the same pair. Once a nest site is found, the male makes the nest and the female lays one or two eggs. Incubation is provided by both parents. They feed hatchlings small fish. After four to seven weeks, during the dark of night, fledglings fall, scramble, or fly to the water, now able to dive and swim.