Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The Observation Blind: A Farallon Biologist’s Home Away From Home

Here on Southeast Farallon Island, we have several blinds from which we can observe and monitor the breeding activities of various species. These small buildings allow us to observe the Farallon wildlife, conduct studies, and collect data without causing any disturbance to the birds. They hide us from the birds and shelter us from the weather (somewhat anyway). They also provide spectacular panoramas as well as the opportunity to get close up views of some very interesting animals. Come along for a tour of these blinds and have a peek out of their windows to see what’s going on out here during the seabird breeding season.

The Murre Blind
The Murre blind sits above Shubrick Point on the northeastern side of the island. Located 120 feet above the crashing surf, the blind is constantly buffeted by strong northwesterly winds and is often a very cold and windy place to work. During mid-summer, while most people are doning their shorts and tee shirts the biologists working in the Murre Blind are reaching for their long underwear, hats, gloves, and extra layers of fleece. The birds however prefer these conditions and this blind provides an excellent vantage point from which we are able to observe the breeding activities of approximately 15,000 Common Murres.

Our main study plot on Upper Shubrick Point contains about 300 breeding pairs of Murres. Many of these birds have been fitted with unique color band combinations so that individuals can be followed throughout their lives. This information allows biologists to study survival of individuals over time, determine site and mate fidelity from year to year, understand the roles each sex plays in rearing the chick, and determine chick feeding rates among other things. Farallon biologists will typically spend 4 to 6 hours a day observing this plot to determine breeding success and diet of murres.
View from the window of the Murre Blind looking out over Shubrick Point at the murre colony.

The Cormorant Blind
Located on the west side of the island and perched atop the narrow ridge of Corm Blind Hill, this blind is primarily used for the study of ....yup, you guessed it, cormorants. Several studies require researchers to spend considerable amounts of time here monitoring Brandt’s and Pelagic Cormorants as well as a modest colony of approximately 800 Common Murres. Much like the Murres in the Upper Shubrick study plot, many of the Brandt’s Cormorants have been banded so that we can monitor the breeding success and survival of individuals over many years. However, since these birds are banded as chicks, it is possible to obtain information on survivorship and the role that the age of a bird plays in its reproductive efforts and success.
View from the window of the Corm Blind - looking down on a colony of Brandt's cormorants

Sea Lion Cove Blind
Leaving the Corm Blind and heading northward on the island we arrive at the brand new Sea Lion Cove Blind. Equal parts form and function, this blind is entirely clad in copper and is the culmination of a unique partnership between PRBO, USFWS, and Meadowsweet Dairy, a group of local artists who specialize in creating wildlife habitat through art. Once again, Brandt’s Cormorants are the main attraction at this spot located just across Seal Lion Cove from the Corm Blind. This blind is unique, not only for its appearance but for the fact that it also creates breeding habitat by providing ledges for Murres and shielding both Murres and Corms from our daily activities allowing them to colonize new areas.

An added benefit to the location of this blind is that it affords excellent photo opportunities such as this picture of two Brandt's cormorants displaying over a few scraps of nesting material. They are competing to attract a mate by fluttering their wings and showing off their bright blue throat.

These blinds provide us with the opportunity to get close enough to the breeding seabirds to observe their behavior and collect data about their reproduction, diet, and survival while also hiding us from view and protecting the seabirds from disturbance. During the summer months, we probably spend as much or more time in these blinds as we do living in the houses on the island and that is why we think of them as our home away from home.

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