Friday, January 29, 2016

Meet the Cows!


You’ve met the males, now meet the seals that bring those boys to the beach – the cows! Specifically, our known-age nursing female northern elephant seals and their pups. 

There are currently 72 female elephant seals and 41 of their pups at the main colony on Southeast Farallon Island. Six of these cows are known age and have pups; we know how old they are based on our tagging database. They are usually tagged as weaners, and five of them were born here on Southeast Farallon Island, coming back most years and raising their pups here in this important haul-out in the California Current ecosystem.

Knowing the age of these nursing seals is an incredible opportunity for further study of the species, which has led to our Known-Age Cow Study, initiated in 2014 in partnership with Sonoma State University. By observing them every day throughout the season, we are able to ask and possibly answer questions about elephant seal behavior and lifespan.

  • Do older elephant seals make ‘better’ mothers?
  • Do they nurse more often?
  • Are they separated from their pups in the colony less often?
  • How many of their pups are successfully weaned? What are the pup and weaner survival rates?
  • At what age do they begin to show signs of senescence?
  • What is their approximate lifespan?

The studies take place 1-3 times a day, in one hour blocks. Every 15 minutes, each seal and their pup are observed and their behavior documented. We concentrate on nursing, vocalization (between cow and pup, and cow and other elephant seals), distance between cow and pup, and certain resting behaviors. Currently, we have seven lovely ladies we are monitoring and will be adding more as the season progresses and more known-aged cows give birth.

Rose (stamped -35, tagged in 2007)

From what we can tell, this Rose has no thorns. Seen nursing more often than not, Rose’s pup has expanded in size rapidly. She tolerates zero interruptions to nursing, so much so that she gave Pete quite the bite just yesterday as he made his way through a group of cows and pups.

 Julia Child (stamped -43, tagged in 2007)

She may not be a master in the kitchen like her namesake, but she is a master of movement around Sand Flat, the main portion of the colony. Maintaining excellent vocal control over her pup, she has managed to avoid the advances of incoming males and protect her pup from the crushing that often comes with that. 

 Bisquick (stamped -59, tagged in 2009)

Unlike Bisquick the pancake mix, this cow is not easy and fluffy. She is a fierce protector of her pup, not hesitating to yell at anyone and anything that comes in her path. A truly fearless cow, she has held down the exact same spot since pupping, showing no signs of backing out of her prime location. 

 Katrina (stamped -60, tagged in 2004 and is at least 14 years old and probably older!)

Quiet Katrina and her pup maintain a graceful peace in the daily dramas of the Sand Flat colony. Often hanging out with Rose, she is one of our oldest cows, and the wisdom that accompanies age is present in her demeanor and child-rearing skills. 

 Ivy (stamped -78, tagged in 2003)

Ivy hails all the way from the colony at Año Nuevo! She has been breeding at Southeast Farallon Island since 2012. Ivy prefers the rockier but significantly less busy Omega Terrace area of the colony. No doubt this is some well-deserved rest: she was part of a satellite tracking study done at Año Nuevo, and the data from her tag shows her traveling all the way to the Gulf of Alaska. 

 Butternut (stamped -79, tagged in 2008)

Butternut is one of our younger known-aged cows in the nursing study. We actually had the pleasure of watching her pup on Omega Terrace on the 28 January 2008 - an exciting event to witness! We are hoping for the best for this young mother in raising her pup during this trying El Niño season.

 Patti Smith (stamped -80, tagged in 2011)

Patti Smith is our newest mom of the known-age group, having pupped just a couple of days ago. A big fan of waterfront property, her and her pup like to spend time near a large puddle on Sand Flat, under the watchful eye of Notch, one of the older (yet gentler) male seals. She has already gotten the hang of motherhood, having been spotted nursing more than once. 

 
If interested in getting regular personalized updates about our adult female and/or male elephant seals you can adopt a seal at this link: http://www.pointblue.org/help-the-environment/support-us/adopt-an-auklet/#eseal 

If you choose to support the Farallon Program in this capacity you will receive the following: 

  • an adoption certificate
  • a photo of your adult male or female seal (and her pup)
  • regular updates throughout the breeding season from our Farallon biologists (for males there will be detail to movement patterns, fight updates with other males, and which harem they protect; for females there will be detailed information on arrival dates, pup dates, how mom and pup are doing and departure dates)
  • a personalized summary of what happened with your seal at the end of the breeding season (the breeding season is from December-March)
Thank you for reading the blog and be sure to check back soon for the latest updates about life on the Farallon Islands.

Written by 2015-16 SEFI Winter Research Assistant Taylor Nairn

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Meet the Males

You’ve had a chance to read about the human team on SEFI, but what about the seals?  The season is in full swing now so it seems like a good time to introduce some of the island’s most colourful characters- the male elephant seals.  The competitors for supremacy this year are:

Danny- isn’t he gorgeous?

Name: Danny
Age class: SA2
Year tagged: 2016


Danny isn’t showing any signs of competing for supremacy or anything else.  He is usually to be found resting his flippers over on Last Resort and generally staying out of trouble.  Maybe next year, Danny…

Lemmy shows off some fresh battle scars (photo by Taylor Nairn)
Name: Lemmy
Age class: SA2
Year tagged: 2015

Lemmy was tagged on December 28th, shortly after Motörhead’s front man had passed away, so it seemed fitting to name the seal in his honour.  Unlike his namesake, this Lemmy is a quiet character with a strong interest in napping.

11 attacking a cow
Name: ‘11’
Age class: SA2
Year tagged: one day soon

Only tagged seals can be named and we’ve been trying to tag this wily beast for weeks now.  Everyone needs a nemesis and 11 is ours.  He is always starting fights with other males and biting cows, but seems to manage to stay out of harm’s way every time Pete passes by.  Not the most peaceful seal on the beach, but 11 has the makings of a bull to be reckoned with.

Skagit having a well-earned rest
Name: Skagit
Age class: SA3
Year tagged: 2014

Skagit is a sleeper, not a fighter.  It’s a mystery to us how Skagit got his well-developed scar shield, because so far this season he has spent almost the entire time snoring on Marine Terrace.  Perhaps he’s saving his strength for later in the season; he’s certainly managed to save plenty of blubber.

Timmy - large
Name: Timmy
Age class: SA3
Year tagged: 2009

Timmy was born on SEFI in 2009, so he’s 7 now.  The note in our database from when he was tagged simply reads ‘large’.

James bond on the run from Lil’ Nibbler
Name: James Bond
Age class: SA3
Year tagged: 2014

“The name’s Bond” is one thing you won’t hear this guy saying, because, well, he’s a seal.  He is a suave ladies man though, and we can’t conclusively prove that he is not here on Her Majesty’s secret service.

Notch limbers up with some yoga
Name: Notch
Age class: sa4
Year tagged: untagged

Notch is still untagged but he gets his name from a distinctive notch in one of his hind flippers.  He’s one of the biggest seals on the beach and produces a deep, echoing boom when vocalizing, but one look from Pete or Lil’ Nibbler is usually enough to shut him up and send him scooting backwards onto Low Arch Terrace.

Lil’ Nibbler shows off his beach body
Name: Lil’ Nibbler
Age Class: SA4
Year tagged: 2013

There is nothing little about Lil’ Nibbler.  He is a big seal with a well developed proboscis and scar shield, and after a few weeks of fights this season he is looking very serious indeed.  He holds a harem in Mirounga Beach, which has the easiest access to the water of any spot in the colony.  Mirounga Beach is a risky place- four pups have been washed out by the high swells we’ve had this season. One of them survived and made it back to the beach, only to be crushed by Lil’ Nibbler as he charged down to assert himself over some younger males who were attempting to haul out there.

Pete, king of the beach
Name: Pete
Age Class: SA4/Bull
Year tagged: 2013

Pete is not the biggest seal on the beach.  He doesn’t have the heaviest body or the wrinkliest scar shield, but his proboscis is awe-inspiring and he is without a doubt the most ferocious inhabitant of Mirounga Bay.  Pete seems to be dedicated to maintaining dominance over the entire colony, often crossing all the way from Sand Flat to Mirounga Beach to chase the larger and more impressive Lil’ Nibbler into the sea.   When Pete is on the move, cows and males alike scramble out of the way and we’ve seen Lil Nibbler sporting ever larger wounds.  We think he and Pete have some bloody night-time battles and Nibbler loses them all.  You really don’t want to mess with Pete.

Holding such a large territory is a risky strategy- Pete expends a lot of energy chasing other males around the beach and the fat reserves he needs to get through the breeding season are shrinking fast.  If his strategy pays off he will father almost all of next year’s pups but if not he could wear himself out and be pushed out by another male before the end of the season. Only time will tell, but for now he is definitely the boss.

Stay tuned to catch more updates about the SEFI winter season!

Written by 2016 SEFI Winter Research Assistant Scarlett Hutchin

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Happy Holidays from the 2015-16 Farallon Winter Crew


Greetings everyone!

All is well out here on the Farallon Islands. We have been spending a lot of our time dodging rain drops and trying not to get blown off this rock. As mentioned in the previous blog we've been experiencing large swells out here and they have continued to impress. We'd like to take this opportunity to introduce this year's team.



Rainbow coming out of Indian Head Rock on West End Island. December 2015
Ryan Berger – Lead Winter Farallon Biologist:

The longer Ryan performs this work the more questions arise about the marine environment. Just when he thinks he has started to figure out certain aspects of this ecosystem he is humbled by the way it continues to throw him for a loop. This is the value of long term datasets and even after 6 years of studying marine mammals on the Farallones there is still so much to learn. Ryan is excited to begin working with this year’s crew and can’t wait for the surprises that will unfold this season. This year has the potential to be the biggest El Nino event since the 1997-98 season and after experiencing prolonged drought on the Farallones new challenges should arise over the next few months.


Ryan on the island helping with FWS facilities operations.

Taylor Nairn – Winter Farallon Research Assistant 2016:

Taylor earned her degree in Environmental Science with a concentration in Natural Resource Management and Conservation. She currently works for the Beach Watch program at the Greater Farallones Association, a 22 year ecosystem monitoring program that collects baseline data on beaches in the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. She is also highly trained in oil spill response. When not documenting wildlife and checking data, she enjoys surfing, road trips, and live music. Taylor is incredibly excited about her time on SEFI; she looks forward to gaining more intimate knowledge of our California Current system and wildlife, and looking forward to more adventures in island biogeography that this opportunity could bring.

Taylor on the National Marine Sanctuaries R/V Fulmar during an ACCESS cruise.
Cassie Bednar – Winter Farallon Research Assistant 2016:

Cassie is from the San Francisco Bay Area. She graduated from UC Santa Cruz with a B.S. in Marine Biology and recently received her M.S. in Environmental Studies from San Jose State University. She spent two seasons working for Point Blue Conservation Science observing seabird breeding and foraging behavior along the north central coast of CA and on Santa Cruz Island off the coast of Santa Barbara, CA. When she is not working she enjoys backpacking, photography, crafting and weightlifting. She is looking forward to living and working on SEFI this coming winter season and to expand her experience working with marine mammals.

Cassie conducting field research along the California coast.

Ross Nichols – Winter Farallon Research Assistant 2016:

Ross was born and raised near Monterey Bay in California. He graduated from UC, Santa Cruz, where he studied Marine Biology with a focus in marine mammals. He worked as a research assistant with the Pinniped Cognition and Sensory Systems Lab, under Dr. Colleen Reichmuth, from 2012-2015, where he worked with various pinniped species. He enjoys the outdoors, and loves to go backpacking, mountain biking, and kayaking whenever he can. Some of his favorite pastimes are SCUBA diving and listening to podcasts. Ross strives to expand his knowledge about marine carnivores and the marine environment, and is excited about the upcoming 2015-2016 winter field season with SEFI.


Ross doing some scope work at the Lighthouse.
Scarlett Hutchin – Winter Farallon Research Assistant 2016:

Scarlett Hutchin completed a Postgraduate Certificate at Oxford University this year, where she studied Manx shearwater foraging behaviour in the Irish Sea using GPS tracking.  After completing internships and volunteer placements on various islands in the UK and one in the Seychelles, Scarlett a spent summer on SEFI in 2013 and has been looking for a way to come back to this extraordinary place ever since.  She originally trained in metalwork conservation and is leaving behind a career as a sculpture conservator in London in order to embark on new adventures.  When she’s not working with seabirds and marine mammals or cleaning historic bronzes, Scarlett mostly likes to eat and climb.

Scarlett collecting tag resight data on the resident elephant seals.
Speaking of eating, we had a quiet Christmas out here in the middle of the Pacific. We did a proper feast that consisted of a 20 lb turkey, mashed potatoes, yams, stuffing in a pumpkin, steamed carrots, salad, garlic bread, marzipan, apple pie and mulled cider.

Farallon Winter 2015-16 Christmas dinner.
In closing this blog the elephant seal breeding season is starting to ramp up. We now have 10 cows in our breeding colonies and the first pup of the season was born on December 26th. This cow arrived to the island on December 22nd. In comparison to last year the first cow arrived on December 18th and pupped on the 22nd. This year's first pup was born 4 days later compared to last year. More exciting news to come! Check back soon!

First pup of the season born to the first cow that arrived to the island!

Friday, December 11, 2015

The Power of the Sea

Giant Swells breaking across Sewer Gulch
Break, break, break
On thy cold gray stones, O Sea!
And I would that my tongue could utter
The thoughts that arise in me.

Alfred Lord Tennyson, Poet, 1842

20ft waves wipe out Study Point Peninsula in Maintop Bay

It's Alaska big out here!

Jonathan Shore, Wildlife Refuge Specialist, Farallon National Wildlife Refuge, today

In 15 years of coming to the Farallones, I've seen a lot of storms - but today was a real treat. In the morning it was ~18feet swell out of the West Northwest with king tide and wind waves on top of that. A real incredible show, particularly on the north side of the island. These great photos were taken by intern RJ Roush. These events are always amazing - I find myself behaving like a 10 year old "Wow! look at that one!" They are humbling, as we move into winter in this unique El Nino year we will likely see more of them. The video below is a montage - I believe our first ever on Los Farallones, hey even Rocky had a montage. This is something I have never seen before myself, and only viewed in an old photograph that hung on the wall here when I first started coming to the island and has disappeared. What you are looking at here at one picture per second is a massive wave hitting Sea Lion Islet on the NW side of the island, with spray engulfing it completely. And a bonus rainbow!

Sea Lion Islet gets swallowed in this montage video

We figure from topographic maps that Sea Lion Islet is ~80ft tall! Wow! (again...)
Observations like this remind us of the raw power of the "Pacific" ocean, our unique position to be on the Refuge everyday, and our ability to view sightings like these in a long term context. And also why I'm glad we don't have a boat landing scheduled for anytime soon...

Russ Bradley
Farallon Program Manager, Point Blue

   

Friday, December 04, 2015

A Warming Ocean Brings the Tropics to the Farallones--But It's Not Fun in the Sun for Everyone


The month of October had something of a tropical feel at Southeast Farallon Island--no, its barren rocks and few Monterey Cypress were not suddenly replaced by white sand beaches and palm trees, but recently, wildlife more characteristic of tropical latitudes have been visiting the island. Throughout October, we witnessed species like Brown Boobies, Common Dolphins, and Ocean Sunfish in unprecedented numbers around the Farallon Islands. These animals are typically associated with warm-water marine environments and rarely occur this far north along the California coast in the fall. What could explain the abundances of unusual species? Not surprisingly, a recent spike in local sea surface temperatures may be contributing to this phenomenon.

A handsome male Brown Booby visiting the Farallones. More typical in tropical regions, these birds have been showing up in increasing numbers in recent years around the islands. Photo: Jim Tietz. 

Sea surface temperature (SST) from water samples obtained from shore is measured daily at Southeast Farallon Island, as part of Point Blue’s effort to monitor the surrounding oceanic conditions. The practice dates back to 1925, long before biologists had a presence on the island. The historic average daily SST for October is 13.6 degrees Celsius. This year, the month’s SST registered at 16.6 degrees! That makes it the warmest-ever October on the island, nearly 0.5 degrees higher than the previous warmest October. 
 
Historic average daily sea surface temperature (SST) for the month of October from Southeast Farallon Island. There is no SST from 1943-1954 and 1971.
The marine ecosystem is heavily influenced by temperature--relatively minor temperature changes can alter nutrient availability, which has effects throughout the ocean food web. With such abnormally warm conditions, warm-water species are turning up in unprecedented numbers, likely in search of food that usually would not be available in the colder waters of the California Current around the Farallon Islands. 

Brown Boobies congregating on Sugar Loaf rock. Before recent years, seeing this many birds together on the island was unheard of. Photo: Jim Tietz.
 Brown Boobies have been one of the most apparent tropical visitors. Found throughout tropical oceans, this large seabird breeds as far north as the Coronados Islands in Mexican waters just south of the California border. Historically, Brown Boobies would only rarely venture further north up the California coast. Between 1968 and 1999, there were only 11 records from Southeast Farallon Island. Since 2000, a few individuals have been seen in most years, usually during the fall. But when a spell of relatively high water temperatures began late last year, booby numbers started to noticeably increased. That trend continued through this October, when we regularly saw dozens of birds roosting on Sugar Loaf rock, with as many as 30 in a single day.

Number of Brown Boobies seen on Southeast Farallon per year, 2000-present. There has been a notable increase in sightings since 2014. In 2015, 39 birds have been seen to date.

Colorful and gregarious Common Dolphins, more typical in the waters offshore of Southern California, have also visited in exceptional numbers. They have been frequently seen near the island on our daily whale surveys, in fast-moving pods of several hundred individuals. In October alone, 2,900 Common Dolphins were seen. That’s nearly equal to the total number of dolphins seen between 2000 and 2014--about 3,300 were seen in that 15-year span. Additionally, this influx of warm-water Common Dolphins has corresponded with a decrease in sightings of cetacean species associated with colder waters, such as Pacific White-sided Dolphins and Northern Right-whale Dolphins. A typical fall may witness as many as a few hundred white-sided dolphins and several dozen right-whale dolphins, but neither species has been seen from the island this season.

Number of Common Dolphins seen from Southeast Farallon Island per year, 2000-2015. Totals for 2015 are through November 15th. This year has seen substantially more Common Dolphins than previous years. Note the year-to-year trend since 2000 nearly mirrors Brown Booby sightings in that span.

These unusual conditions are not confined to the Farallon Islands. Temperatures across the eastern Pacific Ocean have been markedly increasing over the past few years, with a well-documented impact on marine ecosystems along the west coast of North America. Since late 2013, a mass of warm water known as “The Blob” has persisted from Alaska to Mexico, raising regional sea surface temperatures several degrees Celsius above the norm. In addition to The Blob, however, an even larger phenomenon is looming--El Niño. Over the past year, scientists have observed the onset of an El Niño event that was forecasted to peak this fall and winter, further warming the eastern Pacific. Early evidence indicates this years’ edition could be among the strongest on record, possibly surpassing the massive El Niño of 1997-98. 

Past El Niño events are readily apparent in long-term SST data from the Southeast Farallon Island. The historic 1997-98 El Niño coincided with some of the warmest average monthly temperatures around the island. The average SST from September of 1997, at 16.7 °C, was even higher than this October’s, while average temperatures from November of that year registered at a balmy 16.3 °C. The previous warmest October on record, in 1982, also corresponded with the start of a very strong El Niño. Thus, it appears this fall’s warm spell is a clear indicator of the arrival of this years’ much-heralded El Niño.

Late-October El Niño status compared between 1997 and 2015 events. Images depict satellite-derived data of sea surface height anomalies, which correlate with relative upper ocean temperatures. The 1997 El Niño was the strongest on record. Image: NASA/JPL

While it has been fascinating to see unusual wildlife around the Farallones, the El Niño may bring more serious consequences to the marine ecosystem. Abnormally warm temperatures can limit nutrient availability and thus disrupt ocean food webs. With the persistence of the Blob and the arriving El Niño, there have already been significant impacts on marine life in the region. The Blob was linked to a decline in krill abundances last year, which in turn led to massive die-offs of Cassin’s Auklets--a small, krill-eating seabird--along the coast in the winter. California sea lions in the southern part of the state have been strained of late, as their typical prey has been pushed hundreds of miles north by warm waters. Many sea lions are being forced to travel further north in search of food, or else starve, as indicated by reports of thousands of emaciated individuals stranded on beaches this year. Related to this trend, we have seen California sea lions in record numbers on the Southeast Farallon Island this fall (learn more about it in a previous blog post: http://www.losfarallones.blogspot.com/2015/10/zalophus-invade-farallones.html). Additionally, warm ocean conditions spurred a harmful algae bloom on an unprecedented scale in coastal waters this summer. Toxins produced by the algae have been linked to another wave of seabird mortalities and sea lion strandings, and have wreaked havoc on some fisheries, causing West Coast states to postpone the winter crabbing season.

A Common Dolphin adult and calf. While recent conditions around the Farallones have suited this warmer-water cetacean, other species have struggled from a disruption to their usual food resources. Photo: Protected Resources Division, Southwest Fisheries Science Center, La Jolla, California.
     
On a broad scale, the ultimate consequences of this El Niño may be a mixed bag. If it turns out to be as strong as predicted, this El Niño may further exacerbate many of the ongoing stresses in the marine ecosystem. We may see more hardships for many animals if their food availability continues to be disrupted by warm conditions. There could be substantial economic impacts as well if fisheries struggle. On the other hand, El Niño is forecasted to bring much-needed rain to California over the winter, though this may come with damaging floods and mudslides.

In the end, it is hard to predict what the exact impacts of this El Niño will be. The context of climate change is important to consider, as rising global temperatures have already begun to alter marine ecosystems throughout the world. It remains to be seen how El Niño events and climate change may interact and influence each other, and whether that will further exacerbate stresses in marine systems. It is also possible the trends we have been observing on the Farallones will be more commonplace in the future if warming trends persist—perhaps Brown Boobies and other warm-water species will have a regular presence in years to come, while the island’s breeding seabirds may decline. Whatever this El Niño has in store, the continued observations of Farallon biologists are essential to better understand how environmental change will influence wildlife around the islands and throughout the region.

You can learn more about the recent changes in the ocean ecosystem and how Point Blue researchers are monitoring them through these articles: