The human history of Alcatraz captures the imagination, but its natural history is just as fascinating. Long before people set foot on The Rock, it was home to thousands of nesting birds. In the 1770s, Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala named either this island or neighbouring Angel Island—no one is sure—Isla de los Alcatraces, or “island of the pelicans,” due to its abundance of seabirds. Human activities from 1850 onward drove out the birds, but soon after Alcatraz Prison closed in 1963, the avian residents returned. Today, more than 5,000 nesting birds call Alcatraz Island home.
What birds you will see depends on the month of the year and what parts of the island are open to visitors. Seabird nesting season begins around February 1 and continues until August, although the greatest activity occurs between April and June. Depending on your timing, you might see courtship rituals, nest building, and/or parents rearing their young.
In February, Western gulls return each year to claim their territory and raise their young on the island’s historic parade grounds below the Alcatraz lighthouse. Gulls build more than 500 nests on Alcatraz each year, making this one of the largest nesting sites for Western gulls on the West Coast. By June, the crumbling concrete is covered with chicks.
In April and May, black-crowned night herons and snowy egrets build their nests in shrubs, trees, and bushes around the island. You can often see them near the parade grounds or along the island’s West Road.
For most birders, the coveted prize is a sighting of Brandt’s cormorant, a West Coast seabird that spends most of its life far out to sea, diving into the ocean for food. The male’s breeding plumage includes a gorgeous blue throat patch, which he shows off by pointing his beak up toward the sky. As many as 2,000 pairs nest on Alcatraz’s rocky outcrops every spring.
Want more? Walk anywhere on the island and you might get a front-row-center view of pelagic cormorants, Canada geese, and mallards. Pigeon guillemots are easily seen near the island’s dock; they nest in broken piles of concrete and masonry. You can spot plenty of songbirds, too: White-crowned sparrows, golden-crowned sparrows, and song sparrows make their homes in shrubbery and decaying concrete. Yellow-rumped warblers and Townsend’s warblers are also common island visitors.
In 1854, the West Coast’s first lighthouse was built on San Francisco Bay’s Alcatraz Island to guide the ships coming and going through the Golden Gate. Government officials quickly decided that the tiny, 22-acre island aptly nicknamed “The Rock” was also an ideal location for a federal penitentiary—so close and yet so far from bustling San Francisco. The island’s sheer cliffs were surrounded by perilous currents, extreme tides, and hypothermic water temperatures, so escape from this prison seemed impossible.
Alcatraz served as a military prison from the time of the Civil War until 1934, when it was converted to a civilian penitentiary. Although it operated for only three decades, The Rock remains fixed in the American psyche as the ultimate penal colony—thanks in part to Hollywood films such as the Clint Eastwood classic Escape from Alcatraz. The prison housed some of the country’s most notorious bad guys: Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and “Bird Man” Robert Stroud, a murderer who became an expert in ornithological diseases.
Take a ferry to the island and explore the abandoned prison by day or by night. The 20-minute boat ride is reward enough with its invigorating salt spray and expansive bay views, but your ferry ticket also covers admission to the island, an optional ranger-led tour, and a 40-minute self-guided tour of the cell house with an audio headset. The narrated program, “Doing Time,” weaves together voices of actual inmates and prison guards with actors’ reenactments, making the prison’s empty walls come to life with tales of food riots, solitary confinement, and escape attempts. A total of 23 prisoners tried to break out of Alcatraz, but all were killed or recaptured except for three men who escaped in 1962. Their whereabouts are still unknown.
As you tour, step inside the open cells and imagine the tedium and loneliness. Walk around the guardhouse, exercise yard, and the surprisingly lush gardens that surround the buildings. Alcatraz may seem sinister from the inside, but outside you’ll find dazzling views of San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge, lush Marin County to the north, and nearby Angel Island, a California state park.
Insider tips: Get to The Rock via the Alcatraz Cruises ferry from Pier 33 on San Francisco’s Embarcadero near Bay Street. Ferries usually fill up on weekends and holidays, so book your tickets at least three weeks in advance. Plan on two or three hours for the entire trip. Wear comfortable shoes for the steep walk from the dock to the prison, and bring a jacket or windbreaker for San Francisco’s famously cool weather.
—Ann Marie Brown