Flying Seabird Safe During the Breeding Season

The waters surrounding the Farallon Islands support the largest concentrations of breeding seabirds in the contiguous United States. Year after year thousands of seabirds return to nest, breed, and rear their young on rocks and cliffs. Between the months of March and August it is the most sensitive time period for the reproduction and survival of seabird populations. Seabirds breed, lay and incubate their eggs, and rear their chicks. Seabirds are long-lived animals with low reproductive rates and are susceptible to climate variability, prey availability and oceanic conditions.

Because many seabirds lay only one egg each year, the strength of the population hinges on the growth and survival of that single egg. The healthy care and development of seabirds determine the sustainability of the species.

Many pilots are not aware of the effects low overflights can have on seabird colonies. It is against federal law to disturb breeding or resting seabirds. This is why there is a 2000 ft AGL recommendation for flying over California marine sanctuary waters, and there are specific 1000 ft AGL zones within California Sanctuaries. Currently the FAA recognizes the 2000 ft AGL recommendation on aeronautical charts. This notice to pilots provides information on these regulations and tips on how best to avoid wildlife disturbance during this particularly sensitive time of year.

Human-caused disturbances negatively effect seabird populations. Disturbance events, such as a low flying aircraft, can lead to increased stress levels, higher energy costs, and the disruption of critical seabird behaviors such as finding a nesting site, defending a nest, and feeding young. If seabirds are unable to perform these critical behaviors then it may cause chick death or abandonment, increased predation, or colony abandonment. Severe disturbance that causes abandonment of nests or colonies can potentially result in several years of lost reproduction. Signs of a disturbance include head bobbing, wing flapping, alert postures, and “flushing” or flying off the nest. However, pilots can minimize these impacts to seabirds by maintaining 2000 ft AGL when flying along the coast or remaining ¼ mile offshore.

Low overflights are not only harmful to seabird colonies but may also impact pilots. Birdstrikes can be particularly harmful to pilots and their aircraft, costing more than $600 million per year in damages. To prevent a birdstrike it is recommended to avoid areas with known risks such as marsh lands, seabird nesting areas, landfills and migration routes. It is important to avoid flying at low altitudes during the breeding season (March-August).

The Seabird Protection Network is working to improve the survival of seabirds on the North-central California coast by educating coastal users, such as pilots, on how they can help reduce disturbance. The Seabird Protection Network offers free presentations to pilot clubs, flight schools, or any interested parties. The network can also provide outreach materials for airports or pilot stores.

Please contact Sarah Ratzesberger at Sarah.Ratzesberger@noaa.gov, (415) 561-6622 x333, for a media packet, to schedule a presentation, or to request outreach materials. For more information on regulations, and maps please visit the program’s pilot page at http://farallones.noaa.gov/pilots.html.

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