Thursday, December 29, 2011

Over the Hills and Far Far Away

Saturday December 3rd, 2011
Alarm goes off. It is 5:00 a.m. Rushing around to get the last minute items loaded into the van before the PRBO Conservation Science Farallon Program Winter crew heads to Southeast Farallon Island (SEFI) for 3.5 months. Five thirty in the morning rolls around and a phone call comes through. Fall biologist, Jim Tietz delivers what is to the winter crew bad news. The sea is a bit angry this morning. Roaring 10 foot swells from the Northwest combined with 15 knot winds from the Northeast make for a nasty boat landing day. The seasonal switch is called off. Optimistically a bit more rest for the weary.
After a couple hours of extra sleep we all gathered in the kitchen and discussed what we wanted to do with our extra day on the mainland. The decision was unanimous and promptly made. If we can’t go to the Farallones today then we will get as close as we possibly can. We gathered our hiking gear and headed for Point Reyes National Seashore. The weather treated us well with plenty of sunshine and visibility of 30 plus miles. And sure enough as we climbed high onto a bluff, there they were, those rugged rocks looming 18 miles from where we stood. It seemed like such a nice day from our vantage point. But we have a keen understanding that what you see on the land can be drastically different from what you experience on the islands. So we continued our birding, hiking and sealing and thoroughly enjoyed one last day on the mainland.

Farallon Islands just at the horizon as seen from Point Reyes National Seashore

Sunday December 4th, 2011
The Farallon Patrol run went quite smoothly. We arrived at the Marina in San Francisco at 7:00 a.m. and began to load our gear on to the boat “Sari Ann” with Skippers Warren Sankey and Allan Weaver. This 40 foot lobster boat from Maine is the perfect vessel for seasonal switches as there is ample deck space for the enormous amounts of gear that usually accompanies these trips. Warren and Allan are also very welcoming of all our belongings and we appreciate their time and effort in making these events go so well. Thank you kindly gentlemen.

Leaving San Francisco Bay on the "Sari Ann" with skippers Warren & Allan.
Two and half hours later and we are staring at East Landing. I believe the Fall crew wanted off just as badly as the Winter crew wanted on the island. As the seasons change so do the wildlife and biologists that study them. Off with the fall land bird lovers and on with the winter elephant seal enthusiasts. With the seas and weather cooperating the boat landing went according to plan and the seasonal switch was completed in three hours time.

Our approach to East Landing

Monday December 5th – Monday December 28th, 2011
Since the seasonal switch the Winter crew has been getting acquainted with the island and setting up the routine that will be life over the next 14 weeks. And with that said, proper introductions are of utmost importance.
I, Ryan Berger -  PRBO Farallon Program Biologist, am returning for the second season as the lead during the winter. My background entails behavioral monitoring, rescue coordination, stranding response and necropsy of marine mammals on the East coast. I have a Masters degree from Georgia Southern University where I studied manatee distribution patterns in Crystal River, FL. While working as a marine mammal biologist for Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) I obtained hands on experience with North Atlantic Right Whales, Florida Manatees, Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins along with a few other cetacean species. My main focus is now geared towards the population dynamics and reproductive success of the Farallon’s Northern Elephant Seal breeding population.

Enjoying some hot chocolate while watching the sun sink and drown within the sea.

Jane Khudyakov has returned for a second winter with the elephant seals of the Farallones. She is eager to see which seals from last year will return this season and to put skills learned last year  back into practice (like stealth crawling to Mirounga Beach). Jane has a background in developmental biology, genetics, and microbiology, but fell in love with seals while working with rescued pinnipeds at The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito. She has also monitored wild seals at Point Reyes National Seashore and birds of prey with Golden Gate Raptor Observatory. Finally free of the laboratory, she is eagerly embarking on a new career in pinniped biology and is happily roaming Southeast Farallon Island in pursuit of as many pinniped species as she can find, baby seals of the elephantine kind, and birds - especially those that like to eat mice. She is practicing her photography skills and recording her own personal career-change experiences in her blog, smellephantisland. Great to have you back this season!

Jane doing a little cetacean watching from the Light House.

Jason A. Jones has come out for his first season as a winter intern on the Farallon Islands. Jason has been working as a field biologist for the last ten years, gaining experience with marine mammals, seabirds, and any other distractions along the way.  He has researched tropical reef fauna including coral, sea turtles, and cone snails while pursuing university degrees.  His marine mammal experience ranges from the Arctic to Australia, including working as a marine mammal observer on seismic vessels; population assessments of Hawaiian monk seals; monitoring Alaskan Steller sea lions; and anthropogenic effects on fur seals in Australia.  In addition to becoming an avid birder while growing up in Corpus Christi, Texas, Jason's birding experience ranges greatly from offshore, wetland, and terrestrial surveys to animal rehabilitation; and living at remote field camps ... which are most often full of looney birds (camp mates). I think there might be a book out at some point that details the “Short stories and compilations from the life of Jason Jones”. He has had quite a few interesting experiences in his lifetime and the stories to go with them. Seriously Jason how many lives have you lived?

Cheers big ears. To another wonderful sunset.

Last but certainly not least Ms Kerry Froud comes to us from Dorset, England. Kerry graduated from the University of Chichester with a BA (honours) degree in adventure education. It was during her university work placement year in Tonga where she was involved in humpback whale research that she decided to pursue a career in conservation science. Since then she has been gaining as much field experience as possible. She has volunteered for the Manx Wildlife Trusts’ basking shark, grey seal and cetacean projects on the Isle of Man, been an intern for the UK’s national cetacean sightings charity Sea Watch Foundation and has volunteered for various PhD students in New Zealand and Australia studying  New Zealand fur seals, sperm whales and humpback whales. As an added bonus everything sounds so much fancier when it is spoken with a posh English accent and I am glad that she has a good sense of humor in regards to our bad attempts to speak like her. Bog standard, keen, Bob’s your uncle, Fannie’s your aunt, Cheers big ears are just a few new vocabulary phrases we have learned from Kerry.

Kerry trying to get an accurate measurement on a squirmy sally.

It has certainly been fun getting to know one another over the past three weeks and I have a feeling this is going to be a fun season. Now that we have introductions sorted let’s move on to the science side of life. This post will simply touch the surface of all the different projects we have going on that fill up our minutes, hours, days and weeks out here on the island.
Every morning we are up at dawn to count the territorial and roosting gulls on the islands. One person heads up the hill to the Light House while the other starts at North Landing and all the gulls on the island are counted in groups of 10. Currently we are seeing over 10,000 gulls (mostly Western but also Glaucous-winged, Herring and California) which makes for quite the alarm clock at 0630 hrs. As we meander about the island we keep track of land birds that have come to greet us. Currently we are seeing Black Phoebes, Say’s Phoebe, Common Ravens, American Kestrel, Peregrin Falcons, sparrows, hummingbirds, shore birds, thrushes, warblers and the list goes on. With the fantastic weather we have been experiencing there is always the potential for new arrivals which makes each day exciting and eventful. So far some of our standouts this season include a juvenile Bald Eagle (first one since 1998 and 8th overall record for the islands) and a White-tailed Kite (seen one other time this year).
Jason captured this Common Raven chasing off the juvenile Bald Eagle with his fancy camera.

Kerry snapped this photo of the White-tailed Kite through the branches of the pine.

We also check the known roosts of 4-5 Burrowing Owls (BUOW) that are on the island. On warm sunny days these guys can be seen at the entrance to their burrow soaking up some of the sun’s rays. A comprehensive BUOW survey is conducted once a week where past roost are checked and pellet collections are made. Collecting owl pellets allows us to examine them in detail in order to follow prey items they consume throughout the year. Enough with the birds … on to the marine mammals!
Jason caught this BUOW sitting at its roost on Corm Blind Hill.

If weather permits we conduct a cetacean (dolphin & whale) watch from the light house for three hours a day. At the moment we are consistently seeing 2-4 Gray whales. More recently we have seen a yearling diving and feeding in Mirounga Bay and a total of 25 whales on the 27th! Each day we also visit all of our elephant seal breeding sites in order to resight tags placed in hind flippers. These tags allow us to track individuals over time and in general assess the health of the population. While we are doing tag resights we also record daily counts of adult females (cows), pups and breeding males (SA1-4 and bulls). This allows us to calculate reproductive success and pup survival each season.

Gray whale as seen from the light house on a clear day.

A group of immature elephant seals swimming during a high tide at the gulch.

We have some of our usual suspects back from last season. Our much adored alpha male of Sand Flat, Rusty, is back once again this season. If he successfully “holds down the fort” this will be his 4th season in a row as alpha male of the most productive harem on the island. In areas that experience larger harems and more elephant seals an alpha male usually only acquires alpha status for one season. It is physically taxing to the males when they defend and mate with up to 100 cows in larger harems. Each season in a busy harem there are plenty of bigger, stronger and faster bulls waiting to challenge the alpha from the year before which means higher turnover for alpha status. Rusty may be able to continue his alpha male status because he expends less energy each season defending less than 50 cows. Because he seems to be a well tempered bull we wish Rusty continued success in displaying his dominance. On the other hand, last season’s alpha bull of Mirounga Beach Mc Hammer is back again. He seems to be an ill tempered animal as he killed a few of the weaned pups in his harem last season. This year Mc Hammer comes back to us with a blind left eye. Perhaps an indication of his aggressive interactions with other seals. Other returnees include Herzog, Guthrie, Tyler Xavier, Rumpelstiltskin and Bob.

Big bad MC Hammer with a bum left eye.

We have also positively identified five cows this season. They include Gertrude, Gruedy, Kyra, Prima and Alizabeth. An untagged cow that we have seasonally named Taha (number one in Tongan) produced the first pup of the season on the 21st of December! This is two days earlier than last year. We are happy to say that the pup has been seen nursing two days after birth and the outlook is good for the little male. Since then Alizabeth and Kyra have also produced male pups. With only six cows at the moment we realize the season is about to get very busy. Cows start showing up in droves from here on out. The difficulty we are experiencing this season centers around the presence of many California Sea Lions in areas that we have normally been able to census on foot in the elephant seal rookeries. However, because of the skittish nature of sea lions and the minimal impact we are trying to have on the wildlife at the Farallones we are conducting all of our elephant seal work from the blind. Which means mucho more patience is necessary!

Alizabeth with her male pup shortly after he was born on Sand Flat.

Some of our other data collection responsibilities include the once a week pinniped census, the by-weekly elephant seal census, the by-monthly salamander surveys, bait degradation studies, population monitoring of the invasive Russian house mouse and invasive plant  removal (a.k.a. weeding). And as usual chunks of time are spent fixing different supplies, equipment and facilities as there is a “Farallon Factor” on this island which translates to things breaking down much more quickly than normal.

The winter interns getting their salamander fix in.

An adult Farallon arboreal salamander showing off its spots.
Finally, Merry Christmas to everyone!
We had a cozy and quaint Christmas here on the island, equipped with presents, a small Christmas tree, animal themed ornaments and Christmas lights! The day started with gull counts, a full English breakfast, an elephant seal census, cheese platter and hors d’oeurves , some tag resighting from the blind and a massive Christmas dinner. Menu included orange glazed ham, stuffing, Raab broccoli and scallions, roastie potatoes and parsnip, chocolate mousse and of course ample amounts of mulled wine. We rounded out the evening with the board game Balderdash and slept like champs.
Christmas presents!
Farallon Christmas tree with animal ornaments.
Hand made cards that Kerry made fro each of us.
Sitting down for Christmas dinner.

Preparing the cheese plate.

Spending time away from family and friends during the Holiday season demands a certain degree of self reflection. Why would we put ourselves in this situation? Sure there is a sense of feeling homesick while talking to loved ones on the phone while they are all gathered in one place enjoying the occasion. Sure there is the absence of catching up face to face with those you haven’t seen in a while. There are loads of things to miss about not being with family during the Holidays. But if we focused on missing those aspects of life we would miss out on the unique opportunity that greets us each morning as we step outside the front door. There is a special, peaceful easiness felt while spending these moments out here on the Farallones. No busy Christmas shopping, no long lines, no traffic jams, no materialistic ideals masking the true meaning of why we come together. Life gets boiled down to the basics out here. We work hard, we eat well, and we laugh often. We form tight friendships. We prefer quality over quantity. We become the family that we miss. And that is an important part to the culture here on the islands. If you can’t be with the ones you love then love the ones you are with.

Who really knows?

This was all Kerry's idea & somehow didn't end up in the photo.

By slowing our pace we fine tune our skills at noticing the small details in life. Each day holds something new, something slightly different than the one before. We aim to be minimal. We aim to be simple. And with these attempts life is filled with everything we need.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from the Winter Farallon Family.

Jason didn't get the memo - don't look at the camera amigo!

Friday, November 25, 2011

A Farallon Thanksgiving

A common misconception about living on an island is that you undoubtedly eat poorly. No grocery store? Military rations it is! Fortunately, that is not the case here on the Southeast Farallon Islands. Every two weeks we are resupplied with food by a group of volunteers who do a large shop for us, picking up an assortment of fresh produce, dairy, meats and other goods we might need. So, despite what may have been envisioned for a SEFI thanksgiving, it is always a feast comparable to any mainland meal!

Liz prepping the stuffing:

 Mashed potatoes and blueberry-apple pie in the works:

 The turkey and a pie, almost ready:

Jim serving himself some stuffing and sweet potato casserole:

The meal:  stuffing, gravy, turkey, cranberry sauce, sweet potato casserole, mashed potatoes and sweet potato biscuits:

Blueberry-apple pie:

Chocolate pecan pie:

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Spelunking for the Farallon Cave Cricket

In the early 1900’s, Milton Ray, a poet and scientist who visited the Farallones several times, described the Lost World Cave in the following poem:

                More strange the Lost World Cave. Ah me!
                How few have trod its rough dark floor,
                Where chambers weird in endless maze
                Far downward lead, through darksome ways.

Ray photographed the cave, but after his last visit, he stated that its entrance had been collapsed by islanders to prevent children from entering and getting lost.  Although, the reputed photograph of the Lost World Cave shows limestone features, which contradict the granitic composition of the island, contemporary islanders have always wondered about its existence and where it might be located.

Reproduced from "The Farallones, The Painted World, and Other Poems of California, vol. 2" by Milton Ray
On 11 and 12 November 2011, we explored all of the known, accessible Farallon caves with the crew of Island Conservation to estimate the population of the endemic Farallon Cave Cricket. The Farallon Islands are pockmarked with wave-carved sea caves.  Most of these caves are still at sea level, with waves rolling in and out, excavating minute quantities of material with each thundering slap.  Most of these caves, though, are difficult to access and unlikely to harbor crickets anyhow, so we did not enter them.  However, at some point in the island’s geologic past, the island was either uplifted 50 feet, or the sea level was 50 feet higher.  This left four caves that are deep enough for a cricket to evolve into a species found nowhere else on the planet.

The Farallon Cricket (Farallonophilus cavernicolus) was first described by David C. Rentz in 1972.  It is a member of the camel or cave cricket family (Rhaphidophoridae), which is quite diverse in California.  Species in this group are wingless and have a brownish, humpbacked appearance with large hindlegs and long antennae.  The Farallon Cave Cricket is no exception.  However, several anatomical features are sufficiently distinct from other members of the camel cricket family to warrant it a unique genus.  Behaviorally, the Farallon Cave Cricket frequently gathers together in small to large groups that can number up to 100 individuals.  When they feel threatened, as when a bright light is held up to them, they may drop off the cave wall or ceiling to the floor below.  They require moist areas and darkness. Little is known about their natural diet, but they will eat oats in captivity; it is thought that they may forage on organic material brought into the caves by nesting seabirds.

Farallon Cave Cricket.  November 12, 2011.
The first cave we explored was the Rabbit Cave, which is the largest known cave on the island and is located on the southeast facing slope of Lighthouse Hill.  This cave received its name from the rabbits that were introduced to the island in the 1800’s and used to plague islanders and wildlife alike.  After many failed attempts by previous islanders, PRBO biologists succeeded in eradicating the rabbits in 1975.  The entrance to this cave starts out as a 50 foot crawl before opening up into a spacious cavern that is nearly 20 feet high.  This open cavern extends back another 50 feet or so before petering out.  Although this is the largest cave on the island, the crickets were small (~ half an inch) and not especially numerous, with 700-800 present.  Perhaps this is due to the southeast orientation of the cave entrance that produces a relatively dry interior.

Spelunking crew exploring Rabbit Cave.
Dan Grout recording cricket data.
We then visited a small cave between E-seal Blind Hill and Pointy Cliff that has a 5 x 5 foot opening and extends back about 15 feet.  One islander recently got the creeps here, so this cave now goes by the name Spooky Cave.  This cave faces northwest so that the prevailing winds keep it moist and mossy.  Despite the cave's shallowness, there were approximately 300-500 crickets, a quarter of which were relatively large (nearly an inch long).

The approach to Spooky Cave.  Aren't you scared?
Spooky Cave's interior isn't too spooky
Corm Blind Cave was next on our spelunking tour.  This cave is only about 4 feet high and extends back about 12 feet.  It also faces northwest and is quite moist, but differs from the others in that it lacks a large, protective chamber behind a small opening that can shelter the crickets from the full force of the winds.  In this cave, we found about 100 crickets and a Burrowing Owl!

Corm Blind Hill Cave
On the northwest side of Shubrick Point is a large cave that we have recently named Cricket Cave.  The entrance is 6 x 9 feet, and the initial chamber is ~60 feet deep.  This chamber tapers down in the back and appears to end.  A narrow passage remains hidden until you walk right up to the end.  When we first discovered this passage last year, we wondered if we might have stumbled upon Lost World Cave.  The second chamber is impressive, and goes another 70 feet before tapering down again to a crawl space that apparently dead ends.  This is a much wetter cave than the others, with stalactites and many active formations.  There were 300-600 crickets within 25m of entrance, and even one in a spider web at the entrance itself.  There were ~500-700 crickets in the back chamber, at least 150 feet from entrance, and probably more than 1,000 crickets in total in this cave.

Dan Grout preparing to enter Cricket Cave
Cricket Cave's initial chamber narrowing down.
Interesting cave wall patterns
Cricket congregation showing different sizes
Nice stalactite formation 
Mushroom  stalactites growing off the walls
Although it seems the majority of Farallon Cave Crickets live in these large caves, they can also be found in smaller crevices.  During the night of November 18, while watching Cassin's Auklets and Arboreal Salamanders wander about, we saw ~150 crickets in and around the small crevices near "The Gap," an area on the northwest side of the island.  Perhaps these small crevices are used as refuges during dispersal events.

A small crevice that held several crickets
Although we didn't find the Lost World Cave, this spelunking expedition taught us a bit more than we knew before about the Farallon Cricket's behavior and demography.

Friday, November 18, 2011

First Island Records and other fun birds

Southeast Farallon Island has one of the largest species lists for such a small area at this northerly latitude. With over 40 years of ornithological scrutiny and a list of 418 species, adding a new one to the list has gotten increasingly difficult.  Many of the species that are rare to California have been seen here already.  However there are numerous possibilities that have yet to make their debut in the state, and we ponder frequently which of these will show up here next.  Several other species, such as Western Scrub-Jay and American Dipper, are common in the state, but because of their more sedentary nature are unlikely to ever cross 20 miles of inhospitable ocean.  Although this latter group does not have the same exotic appeal as the former, long-time Faralisters are just as interested in this group. 

One group that many Faralisters struggle with are ducks.  Other than Surf Scoters, ducks seem to shun flying this far off shore.  Three merganser species are commonly seen California, but only one, the Red-breasted Merganser, had been seen by Faralisters prior to today.  Of the two remaining, Hooded and Common, Hooded seemed slightly more likely just because they are a longer distance migrant.  On November 18th, though, Oscar Johnson spotted a Common Merganser in basic plumage just offshore.  We all ran down to the East Landing to document this new species.  Sam Roberts managed to get a few decent photos that clearly distinguish this merganser from the similar Red-breasted, but unfortunately it flew just before we could get even better photos.  From Sam's photos, the clear white chin patch is cleanly demarcated from the dark throat, and the dark throat has a clean, straight demarcation below against the mostly white breast.  Furthermore, the bill is thick-based and is bright orange along the culmen (or top edge).  Red-breasted Merganser has a thin bill with a dark culmen and has a blurry throat with no clean-cut pattern.  The Faralist now stands at 419!

In addition to this first island record and the previously mentioned Short-tailed Albatross, we have seen several other interesting birds.  October 25th was a particularly nice day with light west winds and 5-10 miles of visibility.  A Summer Tanager and female Black-throated Blue Warbler were briefly seen at the lighthouse, but of greater interest were the island high count of eleven White-throated Sparrows and the long-returning Say's Phoebe, who we now refer to as Simon.  This phoebe was first banded in 2007 and has returned to spend its fifth winter on the island.

In addition to the above mentioned species, we also enjoyed two Swamp Sparrows and a rarely captured Rock Wren.  A few of these wrens typically over-winter every year, but they rarely come near our nets since they are not attracted to the few trees where the nets are located.

On November 1st, we were graced with a second Yellow Palm Warbler in just two years.  Western Palm Warblers are fairly common here during the fall, but the more easterly Yellow Palm is a very scarce migrant to California.  As the common name implies, Yellow Palms have more yellow than Westerns, in particular on the throat and the supercilium (or eye brow).  Prior to last year's Yellow Palm, this subspecies had not been adequately documented from the Farallones.

Here are two images of Western Palm Warblers for comparison:

November 3rd proved to be another good day for migrants with an Eastern Phoebe, a male Black-throated Blue Warbler, and a record late Pectoral Sandpiper; the previous late date was 23-Oct. A second Eastern Phoebe made an appearance the next day.

Also of interest were a few odd birds that had some of us scratching our heads such as this Herring Gull.  American Herring Gulls (smithsonianus) typically have more solidly dark back feathers and wing coverts.  The anchor patterns on the back feathers, checkered wing coverts, and tail pattern (not visible in this photo) are suggestive of the Asian Vega Gull, but the pale bill base, heavily barred undertail coverts, smudgy head streaking, and anchor patterns this early are not typical of Vega.

Another gull that caused some excitement was this bird, which looks to us like a Slaty-backed Gull, a largely Asian species which is as-yet unrecorded on the Farallones. Some aspects of the plumage gave us pause as to whether it was a pure Slaty-backed, including the limited streaking around the eye, the apparently rather pale mantle, and the limited "string-of-pearls" in the primaries (not shown in the photo below). Communication with birders in Japan, where this species is regular, furthered our belief that this bird is within the range of a pure Slaty-backed Gull. We will submit this record to the California Bird Records Committee to see if they endorse the identification.

A Yellow-rumped Warbler intergrade between Audubon's and Myrtle spiced up our day.  This individual shows the eye arcs and lack of a supercilium typical of Audubon's, but the white throat wrapping up and around the back of the auriculars (or ear coverts) is more like Myrtle.

Two Horned Larks of different subspecies hobbled about on the gravelly area of the Marine Terrace.  One was quite pale, while the other was more richly colored.

Brown Creepers rarely show up on the island, but when they do, they frequently are found hanging around the cypress trees.

On 8 November, a Xantus's Murrelet turned up in Fisherman's Bay.  This species is in the same taxonomic family as the several species of alcid that breed on the Farallones (Pigeon Guillemot, Common Murre, Rhinoceros Auklet, etc.), only this one breeds on the Channel Islands off southern California.  There are only about 25 records of this species for the Farallones, and they usually show up during warm water El Nino years.  Why one would show up in these frigid waters during November will just have to remain a Farallon mystery.

Just as impressive was the return of a Golden-crowned Sparrow with the color-band combination silver on the left and orange over orange over yellow on the right.  We abbreviate this combination as S/OOY, which has become this bird's name.  We first banded this bird in 2005 and have seen it every year since!  Look at that crown!  Go S/OOY!

A lovely male American Kestrel also showed up on this calm day.  It has remained on the island for the past week to help rid the island of the introduced House Mouse.

Lastly, a juvenile Indigo Bunting showed up the following day.  Juveniles of this species can be distinguished from the more common Lazuli Bunting by the more uniformly dark rufous-brown upperparts, less contrasting wingbars, and more uniform buff wash below with blurry streaking.