Sunday, November 02, 2014

Happy Halloween from the Farallones

Perhaps you were wondering whether four biologists isolated from civilization on the Farallon Islands would take the time to celebrate Halloween. Well never fear, with a little face paint, we attempted to emulate our favorite warblers. Can you figure out which warbler species we were?

* Hint: two of the warblers breed on the West Coast, and two breed on the East Coast; however, all migrated this fall to the Farallones (scroll to the bottom for answers).

Unfortunately, we were not able to go trick-or-treating since we are the only humans on the island. So instead, we admired our Jack-o-lanterns and enjoyed watching our favorite spooky movie, the Addam's Family.

Halloween Warblers, clockwise from top center: Magnolia, Black-throated Gray, Townsend's, and Cape May.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

23rd Annual Farallonathon

From September 19 to September 25, the fall crew conducted our annual fundraiser called the Farallonathon. Initiated in 1992 by then biologist Peter Pyle, the Farallonathon was created to recognize the truly unique elements of the Farallon Islands, while at the same time participating in Point Blue’s Annual Bird-A-Thon. This event is similar to a Bird-a-thon, except it lasts for a full week, and instead of counting just species of birds, we count all of the vertebrates we encounter including birds, fish, marine mammals, and even a few types of insects (butterflies and dragonflies only). We even assign points for rare and interesting wildlife events such as shark attacks and birds never before seen on the Farallones. The way Farallonathon works is we get one point for each vertebrate species, while extremely rare birds that require a review by the California Bird Records Committee (CBRC) and each shark attack awards us five points, and species new to the island are rewarded with ten points.

FARALLONATHON DAY 1 – On Sep 19th, the visibility was limited to less than a kilometer at dawn due to a bit of fog; fog is not good either since the birds cannot find the island. However, the visibility rapidly increased and the birds descended upon the island. The most abundant species in descending order were Lesser Goldfinch (35), Hermit Thrush (20), Yellow Warbler (17), Golden-crowned Sparrow (10), and Ruby-crowned Kinglet (7). The highlights for the day included the now resident Northern Gannet (still the only record for the Pacific Ocean), a Black Swift (30th island record), two Red-throated Pipits (a species that breeds in Asia and overwinters in Africa and SE Asia), a Tennessee, Magnolia, and Blackburnian Warbler, and a Bobolink.  So, on this fine first day of Farallonathon, we found a total of 79 points, which included 60 migrant bird species (3 of which were CRBC review species), a hoary bat, a minke whale, and 3 dragonfly species (green darner, black saddlebags, and wandering glider).

FARALLONATHON DAY 2 – More light winds out of the south produced another busy day on the island, with a good number of migrants found at the lighthouse at dawn, including the island’s 3rd Plumbeous Vireo, an American Redstart, Ovenbird, and Chestnut-sided Warbler. Incredibly, a Connecticut Warbler (just the 64th island record and a CBRC review species) ended up inside the lighthouse, which was then trapped and banded. Although, this skulking species is very rare in the state of California, 54% of all the state’s records have been seen on SE Farallon Island, where there is little vegetation for them to hide. Other new species for Farallonathon included a flock of ten White-faced Ibis, a Chimney Swift, a Black-and-white Warbler, a Northern Waterthrush, and a Mourning Warbler (another CBRC review species). At the end of this magnificent day, we found we had added 36 points and raised our overall total to 116.

FARALLONATHON DAY 3 – The winds on this day turned more out of the west, which seemed to slow the numbers of migratory birds heading out to the island. Still, we managed to add 9 more species of migrant birds, which included a Sage Thrasher (86th island record), Common Loon, Buller’s Shearwater, Sanderling, Cassin’s Vireo, Cliff Swallow, and a Lark Sparrow. Since this was a relatively slow day, we decided to add on some of the remaining breeding birds, which included a juvenile Double-crested Cormorant flying around their breeding colony on Maintop, and a puffin carrying a fish to a crevice on Lighthouse Hill. And we took points for the five breeding pinniped species. We also added another dragonfly with a Variegated Meadowhawk, and added a cetacean point when a group of three Humpback Whales were spotted. These points raised our total to 139.

FARALLONATHON DAY 4 – The winds remained calm this day, but the visibility and bird numbers dropped off a bit more. The wind also switched a bit more to the north, which allowed 5 Sharp-shinned Hawks to investigate the island before turning around and flying the 20 miles back to Point Reyes. A few other new bird species included a Pectoral Sandpiper, Least Flycatcher, and a Rock Wren. A Painted Bunting (CBRC review species) also provided a nice surprise. Finally, our first shark attack of Farallonathon occurred off Saddle Rock to bring our total up to 155.

FARALLONATHON DAY 5 – Excellent visibility all day meant that we did not see many birds arriving. However, it did allow us to see a group of 45 Risso’s Dolphins and a group of 10 Harbor Porpoises – these dolphins are common, but the Harbor Porpoises rarely venture this far off shore. Only four new species of migrant birds were found this day: a Northern Fulmar, Pacific Golden-Plover, a Palm Warbler, and the return of one of the two adult Blue-footed Boobies (another CBRC species). This brought our total up to 165.

FARALLONATHON DAY 6 – More of the same weather meant that we could not find any new bird species this day. Thankfully we were able to add five points from a morning shark attack off Saddle Rock on an immature elephant seal. And we also got two points from an exploration of a cave on Corm Blind Hill, which discovered 20 Arboreal Salamanders and a Cassin’s Auklet. This brought our total up to 172.

FARALLONATHON DAY 7 – More visibility and reduced cloud cover on this final day of Farallonathon helped many birds leave the island once they could see the stars and navigate to whatever destination genetic recombination had put in their brains. Unfortunately, big departure days do not bring many new migrants, so all we managed to find were three new bird species: a Cackling Goose, Northern Harrier, and a pair of Northern Rough-winged Swallows. With that, our Farallonathon total ended up at 175. This was the 23rd Farallonathon, and our results tied us with 2002 for 11th place.

The main reason to have our Farallonathons is to have fun and raise money for our research. If you can, please consider supporting our research by pledging either a per-point amount or a flat donation for the event. To make a donation, please go to our Farallonathon website at:  And lastly, thank you very much for making our research possible.

Monday, October 06, 2014

Early Fall Migration Summary and Highlights - Lots of Highlights!

The Fall Crew arrived on Southeast Farallon Island on 16 August to find two adult Blue-footed Boobies, an adult Brown Booby, and the continuing adult Northern Gannet, all on Sugarloaf and right above where we conducted the switchover with the Seabird Crew. Three species of birds from the family Sulidae at one location in California is highly unusual, since none of these species breed in the state. Thankfully, this was to be an auspicious start to a bountiful August and September.
Over the past several years, the weather during late summer (Aug-Sep) has been mostly foggy or windy, with just occasional light winds and high overcast days that are conducive to allowing migrants to the find the island. This year, however, was quite the opposite, with fog noted for brief periods on only 7 days, and winds stronger than 10 knots on only 10 days, and never stronger than 20 knots.

Our first surprise of the fall occurred on just our third day on the island, when an adult male Painted Bunting showed up outside of our kitchen window during breakfast time. Although we have seen several Painted Buntings over the past decade, this is the first adult male that has ever showed up on the island. Numbers of western migrants began increasing a few days later, including Baird’s and Least Sandpipers, Yellow, Hermit, Wilson’s, MacGillivray’s, and Black-throated Gray Warblers, Chipping and Savannah Sparrows, and Lazuli Buntings. A few highlights from late August included our 12th record of Virginia Rail, three Least Flycatchers, our 17th fall record of Gray Flycatcher, our 51st record of Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, 74th record of White-tailed Kite, a Northern Waterthrush, an American Redstart, a Baltimore Oriole, and an Orchard Oriole.

The weather throughout early September was even more conducive to migration – high overcast skies and very light winds nearly every day – resulted in still greater numbers and more diversity. Yellow Warblers and Townsend’s Warblers were most abundant, especially compared to recent years, with 54 and 40 arrivals respectively. Highlights from this period included our 36th record of Green Heron, a flock of four White-faced Ibis (just the 3rd occurrence of this species at the Farallones), our 28th record of White-winged Dove, our 46th Chimney Swift, our 22nd and 23rd Acorn Woodpeckers, possibly our 4th Alder Flycatcher (DNA analysis will be required to separate it from eastern Willow Flycatcher - until then, it is considered a Traill's Flycatcher), our 11th Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, 69th Mourning Warbler, 77th Bay-breasted Warbler, 70th Prairie Warbler, and an adult male Indigo Bunting (rare plumage for fall). A short lull in bird migration occurred during mid-month. This may have been due to the excellent visibility, which allows birds to see the mainland, where food and shelter are more plentiful.

Monday, June 23, 2014

An island milestone

Recently on the island we celebrated Farallon Biologist Pete Warzybok’s 1800th night on South East Farallon Island. That’s nearly 5 years of Pete’s life spent living, sleeping and working on the island! 
5 years on the island - long enough for Pete to have seen pretty much everything...

To celebrate this momentous occasion, we managed to squeeze in a pancake breakfast before heading out for our morning visit to the common murre study plots.

The interns had also secretly constructed an award worthy of such a day, capturing the essence of Pete’s commitment to the birds on the island: a personalized gull stake (usually used to mark Western Gull study nests) complete with commemorative plaque and feathered Western Gull artwork. This was hidden in the weather station box outside the house, where Pete, still bleary-eyed, checks the temperature at 7am every day. Surprise!!
Pete's award

Craftsmanship worthy of the milestone.
Pete with his personalised gull stake award.

2014 is Pete’s 14th season on the island. We put Pete’s memory to the test and asked him about his time on the island over the past 14 years - the birds, the weather, the places, the food, the funny. Here’s what we learnt!

What struck you about the place in your first season (as an intern in 2000)?
The abundance of life - there’s so much going on and you’re right in the middle of it.

Favorite species?
Like all good parents, Pete’s answer was non-committal. “I love them all, differently, at different times”. Hmmm…..come on Pete - all parents secretly have a favorite…admit it.
Pete did later admit that he had a favorite chick – he couldn’t go past the common murre chicks with their frost-tipped down.
Common murre chick

Favorite spot on the island?
The murre blind, high on Shubrick Point, where Pete has spent approximately 1800 mornings watching the breeding murres below the blind. As well as the great view across the murre colony to Fertilizer Flat, Arch Rock and Sugarloaf, on clear days the views up the coast of Marin County to Point Reyes and beyond are spectacular.
The murre blind, and view from Shubrick Point.

Funniest visitor?
Huell Howser, who filmed an episode of California’s Gold on the Farallon Islands. As you can imagine, Huell had plenty to be amazed about during his visit - count the “wow”s in this short clip from the episode.  

Best island cook?
Ed Ueber, who was a gourmet chef as well as the Head of the Gulf of the Farallones Sanctuary at the time. He’d arrive on the island, head straight to the kitchen and throw a loaf of bread in the oven. He loved cooking for people so much he’d cook every night he was on the island (normally, the island’s residents take turns cooking for the whole team). One of Pete’s best meals on the island was Ed doing amazing things with duck, and duck fat (as Pete recalled this festival of duck, a Homer-esque glaze came over his face).

Worst meal on the island?
One head of cauliflower with brown sauce. This was served up by an intern as dinner. With no accompaniments. 
Cauliflower - needs more than just brown sauce to make a meal.

Funniest experience?
Judging a yo-yo competition (while wearing a gull hat, complete with wings) which included a 90 second free program to music. The interns were competing for a mystery prize, which turned out to be worth their hours of rehearsal - a signed David Attenborough photo.

A close second was spontaneous post-cormorant-banding parties, when the participants (more than mildly hysterical, having had no sleep, still crawling with lice, waiting for a shower, having a beverage while waiting for the shower) suddenly get the music going and ta-da, party time at 7am!

Wildest weather experience?
60 knot winds and 20 foot seas in a late winter storm. Waves were washing over Saddle Rock and the crane at East Landing. Pete went down to East Landing to tie the boat down as he was worried about it washing away. He had to hide behind one of the thruster boxes (which house the winches for the crane) to avoid a wave. Note: in normal conditions these boxes are 20m or so from any water (and about 8m above sea level).

If you were going to be reincarnated as one of the species on the island, which would it be?
Pigeon guillemot, because they look as though they are having the most fun.

Pigeon guillemots are very social birds, and we enjoy them gathering to sing and squabble and cavort on the breeze (the windier the better!) around the blinds in the mornings, flashing their bright red feet and gapes.

Pigeon guillemot

So thanks Pete for all your work on the island, from the birds, pinnipeds, salamanders and all the island’s species (even the interns). Happy 1800th!
The Western gulls say thanks.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Diet of Emerging Chicks

Newly hatched western gull chick.

Two week old Cassin's auklet chick.

It’s happening. All over the island chicks are busting free from their shells after weeks of incubation. In order to provision these new balls of down during the brooding phase, parent birds have begun the task of collecting prey from the ocean, or in the case of the western gulls, from regional dumps and local supermarkets back on the mainland. Scott Shaffer, a researcher with San Jose State University, and his grad student Emma Kelsey recently deployed GPS tags on several birds out here on SEFI, in an effort to provide insights into the foraging ranges of individual birds. Gulls are professional opportunists. We’ve watched them regurgitate a wide range of prey from fish and squid, eggs and chicks from neighboring nests, to chicken breasts and plastic action figures. As you can see from the tracks below, foraging patterns vary widely amongst individuals; some apparently prefer the bounties of the continental shelf break while others prefer the bounties of the city.    

Once a successful foraging trip has been made, different species of birds have adopted different strategies for food delivery. In response researchers have developed various approaches to determine what exactly parent birds are feeding their young. Western gulls for example barf up ingested prey to their chicks, which from a distance has the appearance of, well, barf. Thus a barf sample collected from a parent bird is necessary to key out individual prey items. This same technique is also used for determining Cassin’s auklet and cormorant diet. Birds like common murres or pigeon guillemots require a far less messy approach. These two species of Alcids bring back a single fish or invertebrate to their awaiting chick after each foraging bout. Parent birds will fly in from the sea carrying prey items in their bill, visible enough to be identified with binoculars from a distance. Other Alcids, such as rhinoceros auklets, delivery food only after the sun sets when visual observation is impossible. These birds have to be netted at dusk to obtain samples of fish they bring in. Rhinoceros auklets carry multiple fish of varying species in a single bill load back to their chicks, some samples with as many as 10 prey items.

The gang from 2012 during a pigeon guillemot diet watch.

Energetically, not all prey sources are equal. Young of the year salmon, for example, are far more beneficial to a growing fluff ball than Pacific Saury. Though at times rather invasive, determining what chicks are eating out here is crucial for understanding the overall health and status of seabird populations on the Farallones, as well as the overall health of the ocean where these birds forage and make a living. Seabirds are excellent indicators of changing oceanic conditions, during a time when our oceans are experiencing change at an unprecedented rate.

Measuring salmon brought in by a rhinoceros auklet, with bags of Cassin's auklet barf samples (mostly krill)  on the left.