Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Farallonathon - The Final Score

The score:

Yesterday's Total: 139
Migrant bird: 5 points
Shark sightings: 2 points
Cetaceans: 1 point

2011 Farallon Grand Total points: 147

The final day of Farallonathon was a busy one. It was media day on the Farallones as we were visited by a group of reporters from a variety of local and national media outlets. Between the boat landings and all the media commotion, we didn't have a lot of time to look for migrants, but we still managed to come up with a few. The highlight was a pair of black-throated warblers, one gray and one blue, which dropped in on the island for a brief rest. In addition, a small group of Northern Pintail was observed flying past the island in the morning and two species of migrant gull (Herring Gull and Black-legged Kittiwake) were also seen flying by.
There were no shark attacks observed today, guess they weren't hungry. But there were two sharks seen at the surface to give us two points. Finally, one Blue Whale was spotted cruising past the island in the morning. The massive spout of this majestic species is unmistakable and brought us our final point for this year's Farallonathon.

Even though the Farallonathon is officially done, you can still donate to help support the Farallones. To support our research, you can donate a flat amount or you can make a pledge based on the Farallonathon point system. To donate a flat amount online, simply go to the Farallonathon team webpage, and click on the DONATE button. Now that you know the total number of points achieved you can easily calculate your per point donate and submit that amount online Or, if you prefer not to use the online method, please email Jim Tietz (jtietz@prbo.org) for details on how to submit your pledge.
(All photos copyright Dan Maxwell)

Biologist Pete Warzybok being interviewed by the crew from KGO-TV channel 7 while Mark dilligently searches for migrants. See the story here.

Black-throated Blue Warbler in it's native habitat - granite outcrops on remote islands.

Cedar Waxwing flying over the house in the early morning.

Farallonathon - Bonus Days!

The Farallonathon runs for seven straight days and we rack up as many points as we can during this time period to help raise funds for Farallon research. So, day 7 was the last official day and we got a grand total of 147 points. This is the fourth lowest total ever for a Farallonathon. Weather conditions just didn't cooperate to bring in the birds this season and two days in particular were very poor weather days with dense fog, rain and no birds.This is the luck of the draw and the difference between a couple of nice days and a couple of poor days can be quite dramatic for Farallonathon. For example if we had dropped the two rainy, foggy days from the Farallonathon where we weren't able to see the ocean and where migrant birds were unable to find the island and replaced them with the next couple of days at the end (Days 8 and 9) we would have had a total of 174 points this year.

Here are a few of the highlights from those bonus days:

Day 8: 24 points! Three shark attacks, 1 new butterfly (Common Buckeye), 1 new dragonfly (Black Saddlebags) and 7 new migrant birds (Red-shafted Flicker, Red-breasted Nuthatch, European Starling, Tennessee Warbler, Nashville Warbler, Pine Siskin and Dickcissel).

Dickcissel spotted on Lighthouse Hill

Nashville, Tennessee - a tribute to the Volunteer State
Day 9: 10 points. One shark attack, 1 butterfly (Orange Sulfur), 4 migrant birds (American Wigeon, Northern Shoveler, Vaux's Swift and Lapland Longspur).

Unfortunately we don't have any good photos of these species since the ducks and swifts were just flying by and the Longspur was in and out of the grasses being generally photo resistant.

However, this just goes to show you how much luck and weather factor into the Farallonathon. Tune in again next fall to see how we do. Maybe we will get good weather for all 7 days next year and break the record! And please, donate if you are able. You may donate a flat amount or a per point amount for either the official total (147) or the bonus total (174) or any amount you choose. Every dollar raised helps to support research and conservation on the Farallon Islands.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Farallonathon Day 6

The score:

Yesterday's Total: 126
Dragonfly: 10 points
Fish: 2 points
Migrant bird: 1 point

Total points: 139

The weather just keeps improving, and our dispositions with it. Day six of the Farallonathon was a reflection on this slight upturn, the addition of some new arrivals added much needed points on the penultimate day. Our only migrant bird addition was a Flicker Intergrade (Red-shafted x Yellow-shafted), a common occurance where the two races overlap, but an uncommon bird for the Farallones. The big winner for the day was our first island record of a single Twelve-spotted Skimmer, confirmed from atop Lighthouse Hill, which added a whopping 10 points! The sun brought forth a Mola mola from the cold ocean depths, and was observed soaking in the much appreciated rays in Fisherman's Bay. Our final point for the day required a little extra work, combing the exposed tidal pools around East Landing in order to find a Calico Sculpin. Hopefully this warming trend will continue into tomorrow, to give us a final pulse of points for the 2011 Farallonathon.

(All photos copyright Dan Maxwell)

 The Flicker Intergrade perched upon a rather foreign substrate for a woodpecker.

 A Calico Sculpin, in its temporary holding container for identification purposes. It was returned to its pool unharmed.

The Mola mola, or Sunfish, surfaces to take in some rays.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Farallonathon Day 5

The Score:

Yesterday's total: 124
Salamander: 1 point

Fish: 1 point

Total Points: 126 Points

Well, the weather got better but only slightly. The fog stuck around but the rain went away. Try as we might we were not able to get a single bird Farallonathon point. As dedicated Farallonathoners we did not give up and instead turned our attention to other taxa. The rains yesterday actually helped us out, making Arboreal Salamander easy to find. Fish species also count for the Farallonathon, but usually are pretty difficult for us to locate and identify. Lucky for us there was a nice low tide this evening which allowed us to get down to Jewel Cave and do some tide pooling. We were able to find Red Irish Lord Sculpin for our second and last point for the day. We are still optomistic that the fog will break tomorrow and bring some more birds and points.

Arboreal Salamander, the only native terrestrial animal on the island.

Juvenile Red Irish Lord Sculpin found in Jewel Cave.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Farallonathon Day 4

The Score:

Yesterday's total: 118 
Migrant Birds: 1 
Shark Attacks: 1 (5 points)

Total Points: 124 Points

Day four of Farallonathon was enveloped in heavy, soupy fog with periods of rain. Needless to say, it was a challenge to find any Farallonathon points today. Our first and only migrant bird point of the day was a Northern Saw-whet Owl found in the Coast Guard tree. It was looking quite wet and unhappy, though we were relieved to get at least one point for the day. Later in the morning we were extremely lucky to see a shark attack off East Landing, as the fog prevented the Lighthouse shark watch. Hoping for better weather and more points tomorrow!

This Northern Saw-whet Owl found in the Coast Guard tree was new for the Farallonathon, but could be a bird that was banded earlier this fall. We were unable to see its legs to check for a band.

Shark attack off of East Landing, giving us a much needed 5 Farallonathon points.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Farallonathon Day 3

The Score:

Yesterday's total: 102 
Migrant Birds: 10
Dragonfly: 1 
Shark Attacks: 1 (5 points)

Total Points: 118 Points

The third day of Farallonathon was marked by a surprise Nano-Wave. We had a whopping ten new migrant bird species including a Magnolia Warbler, that arrived late in the afternoon.  The Nano-Wave also produced the first of the Fall American Goldfinch, Bonaparte's Gull, and Band-tailed pigeon. 

The Island was shrouded in fog for most of the late morning and early afternoon which halted Shark watch and reduced our chances of observing a Shark attack.  We were, however, still able to observe a Shark attack off Sea Pigeon Point late in the afternoon once the fog receded.

This advanced plumage HY White-crowned Sparrow didn't count as a Farallonaton point yesterday.  It was counted on Day 1, but it was one of the 18 birds that we banded.

One of the two Clay-colored Sparrows on the island, this HY was also one of the birds banded yesterday. 

Another Farallonathon point, courtesy of this Band-tailed Pigeon.

A Variegated Meadowhawk munching on a fly counted as a Farallonathon point. 

This AHY Male Magnolia Warbler was an exciting addition to our growing Farallonathon list.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Farallonathon: Day 2

The Score:

Yesterday's total:  85
Migrant Birds:  5
Breeding Birds:  2
Shark Attacks:  2 (10 points)

Total Points: 102 Points

The second day of Farallonathon coincided with a major boat day. Jim Tietz, the Fall Season Biologist went on a two week break, while Seabird Season Biologist Pete Warzybok joined the SEFI crew. Kristie Nelson also departed the Island, but Mark Dettling and Megan Elrod came on; this is Megan's first stint on the Island, while Mark has been here for several previous Fall Seasons.

There were fewer birds around the Island yesterday, as clear skies and Northwest winds overnight allowed birds to continue their southward journeys. However, we did have a few new migrant birds arrive, including an American Kestrel, a Red-necked Phalarope (on the later side of their migration), and the first House Finch of the year.

In addition, two breeding species that were missed yesterday were observed: one Rhinoceros Auklet and several Cassin's Auklets. Though both species are resident in the California Current, adults leave the vicinity of the Island after the end of the breeding season; the birds we saw were likely young birds.

The bulk of our points for the day were due to two close, particularly spectacular Shark attacks. One off Sea Pigeon Point and Saddle Rock in the morning was quick, but the other, off Blow Hole Peninsula in the evening, lasted for more than half an hour. At times, the sharks were within 100 meters of the Island, allowing for some great photo opportunities.

We also saw several US Navy ships steam past the Island, on their way to Fleet Week in San Francisco.

 All photos are copyright Dan Maxwell, and were taken on October 8th.

This adult male Lesser Goldfinch was one of two on the Island; not worth a point (we saw three the day before), but still a nice addition to the Island's avifauna.
An immature Northern Elephant Seal killed by a Great White Shark floats belly-up off Blow Hole Peninsula.

Shark attacks are almost always spectacular and Adrenaline-inducing, but they're not often as close to the Island as this one was.

This Shark was about 14 feet long - that's a big fish!
Although all Farallon Biologists love Seals, predator-pray interactions like this are an integral aspect of life on and around the Island.

The USS Carl Vincent, on her way to San Francisco for Fleet Week.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Farallonathon: Day 1

The Score

Breeding Birds:  8 points
Migrant Birds:  53 points
Pinnipeds:  5 points
Cetaceans:  3 points
Butterflies:  3 points
Dragonflies:  3 points
Shark Attacks: 2 (10 points)

Total: 85 points

Opening day of Farallonathon was a strong beginning to what will hopefully become a record setting year.  We had decent numbers of the more common fall migrants. There were good butterfly/dragonfly totals, three species of Cetaceans (Northern Right-whale Dolphin, Pacific White-sided Dolphin, and California Gray Whale), and most importantly- two shark attacks!

Yesterday was the first time this fall that we saw good numbers of Golden-crowned and White-crowned Sparrows.  The first White-throated Sparrows of the fall were also seen.  Other notable birds included Pectoral Sandpiper, Merlin, Chimney Swift, and Palm Warbler.  

 Here are a few photos of things we saw yesterday.

This hatch-year male Anna's Hummingbird was one of two individuals seen buzzing around the island.

Here you can see the oil slick and swarming gulls that are a telltale sign of a shark attack in progress.

This Burrowing Owl on Lighthouse Hill was worth a Farallonathon point.

We have been seeing this guy out on the Marine Terrace for the last few days now.

One of our only warblers so far for Farallonathon.  Hopefully there are many more to come.

 Stay tuned for days 2 through 7 of Farallonathon 2011!

Friday, October 07, 2011


It’s Bird-A-Thon season at PRBO – our biggest annual fundraiser.  On the Farallon Islands, we do things a little differently (not surprising)!  Instead of counting just species of birds on a single day, we count all of the animals we encounter including birds, fish, marine mammals, insects, and any other wildlife we find over an entire week.  We even assign points for rare and interesting wildlife events such as shark attacks and birds never before seen on the Farallones.  This highly anticipated annual event is fondly referred to as the Farallonathon!

Initiated in 1992, the Farallonathon was created to recognize the truly unique elements of the Farallones, while at the same time participating in PRBO’s Annual Bird-A-Thon.  The Farallonathon consists of a one week bio-blitz where we identify as many species of wildlife as possible.

Money raised from this event goes directly to supporting Farallon research allowing us to purchase biological equipment, food and supplies for island personnel, and pay PRBO staff to analyze and publish the data we collect.  The information gathered from our research helps us and others protect the wildlife that use these unique islands and the marine environment that surrounds them.

Please consider supporting our research by pledging either a per-point amount or a flat donation for the event.  Today was our first day, so come back tomorrow to see how we fared.

What’s a typical ‘score’ for a Farallonathon?  During the last 19 years, scores have ranged from a low of 129 points to a high of 240 (a good year for shark attacks)!  The very first Farallonathon began auspiciously with a mega-rare Asian vagrant, the Northern Wheatear, but ended with only a modest 152 points due to very few shark attacks. 

To support our research, you can donate a flat amount or you can make your pledge based on the Farallonathon point system.  To donate a flat amount online, simply go to the Farallonathon team webpage: www.firstgiving.com/farallonathon and click on the “DONATE” button.  If you prefer to make a donation based on our point system or do not want to use the online method, please email Jim Tietz (jtietz@prbo.org),  Pete Warzybok (pwarzybok@prbo.org), or Russ Bradley (rbradley@prbo.org).  All Farallonathon supporters will receive a detailed summary of our experience at the end of the event.  You can follow our progress right here on this blog as we post our daily highlights, photos, and totals. Your participation allows us to continue studying this unique and vital ecosystem on the California Coast.

I hope you will join us!
Thank you,
Jim Tietz
PRBO Farallon Biologist


1 POINT: pinnipeds, bats, breeding birds, butterflies, cetaceans, dragonflies, fish, migrant birds, salamanders, shark sighting, turtles
5 POINTS: shark attacks, CA Bird Records Committee birds
10 POINTS: any new island record

**For most of the above, only a new species recorded during the week gets awarded a point. The exceptions are shark sightings, shark attacks, and CBRC birds in which each individual sighting is awarded points. For example, three shark attacks in one day gets 15 points, and two Connecticut Warblers receive 10 points.

Fog - too much or too little of a good thing

The coastal marine layer off California (AKA, advection fog) is formed when moist air blows horizontally over the cold water of the California Current.  The cold air above the water forces the moisture to condense into visible water droplets suspended in the air which obscure visibility when the cloud ceiling approaches ground or sea level.  The height of the cloud ceiling is determined by the interaction of temperature and relative humidity, so that the edge of the cloud ceiling forms where the temperature becomes cold enough (or the relative humidity increases) to condense the water vapor.  At the Farallon Islands, we live in one of the foggiest places in the world, with greater than 200 days of fog recorded on an annual basis.  In a normal fall, though, the powerful northwest winds that drive the moist air over the California Current relax, which allows the ceiling to lift or dissipate all together.

Many songbirds migrate at night at considerable altitude using stars, the magnetic field, and landmarks to navigate.  When clouds obscure the coastline, birds frequently get off course and end up over the ocean – this is especially true on calm nights.  At dawn, these birds descend through the clouds in search of food, but instead find themselves over a sea of inhospitable water.  If the cloud ceiling is low, it obscures their visibility and they cannot find land and may perish from exhaustion.  If the cloud ceiling is very high, or the sky is clear, they are likely to fly all the way back to the mainland where food and shelter are more abundant.  But if visibility is less than 20 miles, birds west of the island will see the island, but not the mainland.  On days like this, the island can be covered with birds.  So, there needs to be fog for the birds to get over the ocean, but the ceiling needs to be high enough for the birds to find the island, just not so high that they can see the mainland.  The coincidence of all these events seems unlikely, but it usually happens several times during the fall, with some prolonged periods of this type of weather.
Unfortunately for us, we are experiencing one of the foggiest falls on record.  In fact, since August 20th, when we first arrived, we have had 26 days with fog that obscured visibility to less than a mile.  On the brighter side, that means 16 days when birds could find the island.  Only a few of those days, though, had the right mix of visibility, cloud cover, and light winds to create small waves of arrivals.
In spite of the weather, we conduct two area searches daily (one in the morning and one in the afternoon) to find as many landbirds as we can.  The observers cover the same five areas during each search:  1) the cypresses and tree mallow shrubs around the houses, 2) Heligoland [a recumbent pine and small hill], the old, decrepit water tanks, Shubrick Hill, and Twitville [an area with more tree mallow], 3) the Marine Terrace [an area of mostly dead, compressed annuals], 4) Corm Blind Hill, North Landing, and Little Lighthouse Hill, and 5) Lighthouse Hill.  Standardizing the areas searched decreases the amount of variance in our data and ensures that we don’t miss much.  During late August and September, warblers, orioles, vireos, and flycatchers are the groups that we primarily see.

We also conduct a shorebird survey during high tide, when many of the shorebirds gather together in flocks.   Black Turnstones, Whimbrel, and Wandering Tattlers are the most numerous species we see because they like the rocky, intertidal habitat that composes our shoreline.  But we also see a few other species such as Pectoral and Western Sandpiper and Red and Red-necked Phalarope.