E-Fauna BC: Electronic Atlas of the Wildlife of British Columbia

Phalacrocorax urile (J. F. Gmelin, 1789)
Red-Faced Cormorant
Family: Phalacrocoracidae
Photo of species

© Alan Wilson  Email the photographer   (Photo ID #6541)

E-Fauna BC Static Map
Distribution of Phalacrocorax urile in British Columbia
Details about map content are available here.


Status and Occurrence of Red-faced Cormorant (Phalacrocorax urile) in British Columbia
by Rick Toochin and Jamie Fenneman

Read the full article with photos here.

Introduction and Distribution

The Red-faced Cormorant (Phalacrocorax urile) is resident throughout the Aleutian Islands and east through the Alaska Peninsula and south coastal Alaska to the Seward Peninsula (Dunn and Alderfer 2011). It is also resident in the southern Bering Sea, including the Pribilof Islands (rarely ranging north to St. Matthew Island) (Causey 2002, Dunn and Alderfer 2011). Outside of Alaska, the species is resident in the Commander Islands and along the eastern coast of Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula, as well as through the Kurile Islands to northern Japan (Causey 2002). Vagrants have occurred in Asia, as far south as Honshu Island in Japan (Causey 2002).

The world population of Red-faced Cormorant is estimated at c. 200,000 individuals, with c. 75,000 occurring in the North American (Alaskan) portion of the species’ range. Population trends are not fully understood, but the species does appear to be prone to large-scale shifts in the distribution of breeding colonies in response to local oceanic conditions (Causey 2002, Davis 2005). For example, declines in Japan, the Aleutian Islands, and the Pribilofs appear to have been offset by increases in the Kurile and Commander Islands, the Kamchatka Peninsula, and south coastal Alaska (Force 2001, Causey 2002).

This species is accidental in southeastern Alaska, where it is known from a single record in February 1980 at Sitka following a decade of explosive range growth (Gibson 1980, Force 2001, Davis 2005). An adult or sub-adult bird in breeding plumage at the Elway River mouth in Clallam County, Washington on May 8, 1999 (Mlodinow and Pink 2000, WBRC 2012) is the only accepted record of the species along the Pacific coast south of British Columbia. Interestingly, this record is from the southern shoreline of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, a location that has produced three accepted records and additional unconfirmed reports on the British Columbia side of the strait (Toochin et al. 2014, see Table 1). In British Columbia, the Red-faced Cormorant is an accidental visitor but this status could easily change with more extensive coverage given by observers to the west coast of Vancouver Island, the north coast of British Columbia and especially the Queen Charlotte Islands (Toochin et al. 2014, see Table 1). There are no inland records of this species anywhere in northwestern North America (Causey 2002, Dunn and Alderfer 2011).

Occurrence and Documentation

The Red-faced Cormorant is a casual to very rare vagrant along the coast of British Columbia, but untangling its true status in the province from the numerous reports is a challenging undertaking. It is very similar to the common and widespread Pelagic Cormorant (Phalacrocorax pelagicus) and, as a result, it is often unclear as to whether a particular report pertains to a true Red-faced Cormorant or a misidentified Pelagic Cormorant. The characteristics that distinguish these two species are relatively poorly known by most observers and, even for those familiar with them, they are often difficult to observe on distant or flying individuals. Further complicating the identification of the species is the presence of the northern subspecies of Pelagic Cormorant (P. p. pelagicus) in northern and central coastal regions of the province (presumably ranging southward in winter) (Hobson 1997). These larger Pelagic Cormorants are intermediate in size between the southern subspecies Pelagic Cormorants (P. p. resplendens), which range north to southwest British Columbia, and the more northerly Red-faced Cormorant. This subspecies could potentially be misidentified as Red-faced Cormorant if seen in the company of members of the resplendens subspecies of Pelagic Cormorant. Due to the issues involved with the identification of this species in British Columbia, only those records that are accompanied by photographic evidence or detailed field notes that eliminate Pelagic Cormorant are included in this treatment.

The first report of Red-faced Cormorant in British Columbia is of an immature that was collected at Departure Bay, Nanaimo in 1910. Although Taverner (1927) considered the record valid, subsequent re-evaluation of the specimen determined that it, in fact, was of an immature Double-crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus) rather than of a Red-faced Cormorant (Campbell et al. 1990). Another report of the species from Nanaimo in 1987, which referred to a breeding-plumaged adult seen briefly at a colony of Pelagic Cormorants at Hudson Rock Ecological Reserve, was considered hypothetical by Force (2001) due to the brevity of the sighting. Although it was made by an experienced seabird observer, and is almost certainly valid, it is similarly excluded here as the initial observer was hesitant to confirm the identification as Red-faced without a more prolonged view (Force 2001). The first confirmed record of the species in the province is of a breeding plumaged adult that was photographed near Masset on Queen Charlotte Islands on April 10, 1988 (Campbell et al. 1990). The species was again reported at Masset on May 7, 1997 (Toochin et al. 2014), as well as two years later on June 20, 1999 at Learmouth Bank in Dixon Entrance (Force 2001). Several other records, one of which is accompanied by photographic evidence, have come from Queen Charlotte Islands, with the remaining three records from the Strait of Juan de Fuca off southwestern Vancouver Island. Additional anecdotal reports of Red-faced Cormorant from the Strait of Juan de Fuca, such as from Race Rocks in Metchosin, may also pertain to the species and suggest that the species may occur more regularly in that area than the current records indicate. Reports of the species on the coast of the province away from the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Queen Charlotte Islands, such as those from the Strait of Georgia, have not been properly documented and, as a result, are excluded in this treatment.

Most records of Red-faced Cormorant in British Columbia have been during the spring or early summer (mid-April to mid-June), although there are two records of birds during the winter months (December, February). All observations have been made on marine waters, generally within a kilometre of shore, and have been made along both exposed as well as more sheltered coastlines; several observations have been made on deeper waters far from shore (e.g., Strait of Juan de Fuca 5-6 miles south of Victoria; Learmouth Bank in Dixon Entrance). All accepted records have been of single birds, although a report from Hecate Strait on June 8, 1988, which is in all likelihood a valid record but was published by the observer as unconfirmed, referred to a group of three individuals together (Force 2001). Most records of the species have been of birds that were observed on a single day, although two records from Queen Charlotte Islands refer to birds that stayed for five and eight days. Birds have often been observed alone, but also regularly associate with other cormorant species. All confirmed observations have been of adult birds, most of which have been in breeding plumage, although immature birds may be overlooked along the coast of British Columbia due to their close similarity to immature Pelagic Cormorants.

Status Information

Origin StatusProvincial StatusBC List
(Red Blue List)
NativeSNAAccidentalNot Listed
BC Ministry of Environment: BC Species and Ecosystems Explorer--the authoritative source for conservation information in British Columbia.

Additional Range and Status Information Links

Additional Photo Sources

General References

Recommended citation: Author, Date. Page title. In Klinkenberg, Brian. (Editor) 2021. E-Fauna BC: Electronic Atlas of the Fauna of British Columbia [efauna.bc.ca]. Lab for Advanced Spatial Analysis, Department of Geography, University of British Columbia, Vancouver. [Accessed: 2023-09-24 2:46:06 PM]
Disclaimer: The information contained in an E-Fauna BC atlas pages is derived from expert sources as cited (with permission) in each section. This information is scientifically based.  E-Fauna BC also acts as a portal to other sites via deep links.  As always, users should refer to the original sources for complete information.  E-Fauna BC is not responsible for the accuracy or completeness of the original information.

© E-Fauna BC 2021: An initiative of the Spatial Data Lab, Department of Geography, UBC