Saturday, December 22, 2012

SEFI Apocalyptic!

Dream big. We woke up early on the island - 0430 or was it 0330? It didn’t matter because it was apparently already the end of the world. Nick, Kathy, Erin and I walk around the island blindly. There was  an eerie calm to the air. No seal lion barks, no Western Gull calls and no pounding waves crashing into the intertidal. We all agreed that something iwas wrong. As we headed to the light house to get a better view of the island Nick brought up the rear. Out of nowhere a loud scream comes from below. As I turned around I am knocked to the ground by Erin blasting by me up the trail. Come to find out Nick had transformed into a zombie and was happily eating what remained of Kathy. I turned up hill to escape Nick’s wrath and join forces with Erin. As we approached the Light House we could see that the city of San Francisco was on fire. I flipped on the power to the marine radio and tried to hail the Coast Guard on channel 16. No response. Erin and I barricaded the Light House door to hold off Nick as long as possible. It was futile as he had gained super zombie strength during his transformation. One blast to the door and it was off its hinges. As he came for us an alarm came over the marine radio. Beep, beep, beep, beep …

I startled awake and shut my alarm off. It was time for 0600 weather in the driving rain. Better than being eaten alive by Nick I suppose.

These were posted a few days prior to 12/21/2012 around the island.

Our quiet little island community survived the zombie apocalypse after all - not that we were that worried about it (hence the island anxiety dream). Speaking of quiet, that is not how we started our winter season.

Photos of the GG and SF from the "Sari Ann" as we embark for the islands.

We departed for SEFI from San Francisco at 0830 Saturday December 8th 2012 on the “Sari Ann” with Alan Weaver and Warren Sankey, both of whom are gentlemen and scholars. Sea conditions were excellent and we had a fast ride out arriving at the island around 1030. But what a difference it was compared to the last couple of seasons. In a collaborative effort involving many organizations there were a total of 15 people on the island working on projects related to the island’s mouse eradication project. During a normal Fall to Winter seasonal switch we have the 4 winter crew members replacing the eager to depart Fall crew. What usually starts out as a quiet winter season was replaced with the buzzing of 11 other bodies swarming every nook and cranny of the island. During their stay on the island we may have broken an island record with everyone around the dinner table at the Coast Guard house. It certainly made for a welcome change of pace in comparison to previous years. However, one week after our arrival the busy island dwindled down to the 4 winter crew members. This year’s team consists of Kathy Leone, Nick Sisson, Erin Pickett and me, Ryan Berger.

With the extra crew at the start of the winter season we had an opportunity to get great aerial shots of the islands.

Joining us from Western Massachusetts, Kathy graduated from the State University of New York at Binghamton with a B.S. in Environmental Studies.  Since she graduated, Kathy has been involved in a variety of work, travel, and volunteer experiences, primarily focusing in outdoor education and field biology.  Kathy spends her summers in South Africa, where she co-leads student trips with Raven Adventures, studying the behavior of big cats in the national parks.  In addition, Kathy also works with a conservation nonprofit in Namibia, focusing on the rehabilitation of large carnivores such as wild dogs and cheetahs.  When she is not in Africa, Kathy might be found working as an outdoor educator in Pennsylvania, being a ski bum in western Mass, researching Great White Sharks and whales in South Africa, or volunteering at the Aula Global Biological Reserve in Costa Rica.  Kathy is excited to join the SEFI Winter 2013 team and is looking forward to a great season!

Kathy get hands on with a cheetah during her work in Africa

Nick Sisson is out on the Farallones for his first elephant seal field season, he hails from Hull, MA however he completed his undergraduate work at nearby UC Santa Cruz (B.A. Environmental Studies 2012). During his time at UCSC, he was most interested in the ecology, conservation and policy aspects of his department. He worked with a postdoctoral researcher on a study about marine telemetry research on large vertebrates and its uses for improved conservation practices, as well as interning with the Salmon Ocean Ecology Team at the NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center. Back home on the East Coast, Nick has worked on a commercial lobster boat and at a local yacht club for many years and enjoys sailing, surfing, diving, skiing, and hiking. He has also worked with NOAA’s Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary while back home on a project about internal waves and their affect on marine mammals and was most recently studying Pacific sand lance feeding ecology at the University of Washington’s Friday Harbor Laboratories.

Nick helping us track one of the sub-adult males hauled out on Marine Terrace Mussel Flat

Erin also attended UC Santa Cruz and skipped classes occasionally, but only to catch the sunrise and assist in Northern elephant seal research at Ano Nuevo. Three winter seasons and one B.S. later, she was pleasantly surprised to discover that she could put these experiences to use back in her home state of Hawaii, so there she went. Her first season with the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program was a 7 month stint on Laysan Island, where she became dangerously addicted to white sandy beaches and blue waves. Since then she has divided her time between working in Santa Cruz and Hawaii, on a variety of projects relating to marine mammal population assessment and conservation. So far she loves it here and will probably never tire of the barking eseal pups and surfing sea lions.

Erin getting a tag resight on a monk seal during her work on the North West Hawaiian Islands
I’ve done this rodeo before so I will spare my details only to say I am very excited to start my third winter season on the island, pumped about the dynamics of what this year’s crew has to offer and of course I can’t wait to get reacquainted with our lovely elephant seals. Here is the low down on SEFI’s elephant seals so far.

Rusty giving me the riot act on the Marine Terrace a couple years ago

It has been a slow start to the season which has afforded us plenty of time to get oriented to island life and catch up on backlogged data. So far we have had only three cows show up in our breeding colonies. The first to arrive was Shelly who quickly settled into our Sand Flat colony. Shelly was tagged for the first time at the end of last season so we don't have a life history profile on her but we do know that she did not pup last year. But she gave us an early Christmas present by being the first cow to pup when she popped out a cute little nugget on December 18th (also the same date as my niece’s  and nephew’s birthday – Annika and Joshua). As such the pup has been appropriately named A.J. in their honor. This pup is three days earlier than last year's first pup.

Shelly with her pup (A.J.) sandwiched between the dozing Herzog

Next to arrive was an untagged cow who we were able to mark with dye -02. Applying dye to the seal's fur does not harm the animal and allows us to follow that individual throughout the season. -02 held out for nearly a week before squeezing out her pup which was born today. Our third cow was the first to arrive last season. Prima was tagged on SEFI as a cow in 2010. She has yet to pup and it doesn't appear that she is pregnant this season either. She departed early last year and we were not able to confirm if she mated with a harem master. With that said I have sad news to report.

-02 cow with her brand spank'n new pup. Cow and pup will call back and forth to develop tight bonds.

The two new mom's stay near the harem master, Herzog

After successfully defending the most productive harem on SEFI for 4 straight seasons we are mourning the loss of our favorite big guy, Rusty. He was such a stud of a bull elephant seal and we are sad to see him go. We pay him the utmost respect as it is fairly rare for a male elephant seal to even become an alpha male let alone hold that position for more than one or two seasons. A candle light vigil will be held in his honor at season's end. As was expected after witnessing many battles last season, Herzog has now taken over as alpha male on Sand Flat. Herzog we wish you few fights and many cows.

Rusty snuggling with a cow and her pup. We'll miss you big guy.

Unfortunately we don’t have access to the entire elephant seal colony at the moment because the skittish California Sea Lions have returned to the area and are using it as a daily haul out site. Unlike the elephant seals that couldn’t care less about a human’s presence the sea lions will stampede back into the water if they see humans walking around. And since we are trying to have as little impact on the wildlife here on SEFI we forfeit the right to get closer to the elephant seals for tag resights and other data collection tasks. The previous two season have also started out like this but as soon as more cows show up, produce pups and become more aggressive it seems to drive the resting sea lions to other haul out spots around the island. But back to my initial point.

As you can see California Sea Lions have taken over our elephant seal colonies and literally hauling out right on top of sleeping seals. Can't blame it though, much more comfortable than those pointy rocks.

With less access to our colony we have not been able to accurately assess what is happening in our Mirounga Beach harem. We are able to make out the backs of a few large males in Mirounga Beach but cannot confirm who they are or if they have any cows sharing that space. Which means we have no idea if MC Hammer is back for another season? Although I think it is safe to say that we wouldn’t mind if he didn’t return after his rampage of the weaned pups last season. We have noticed that a SA-4 named Guthrie has been hanging out on Omega Terrace near Sand Flat but he seems apprehensive about making any attempts at dethroning Herzog. Guthrie has changed his orientation on Omega Terrace but has probably moved less than a foot since we’ve arrived to the island. Pretty lazy seal or is he smart if he is conserving his energy and waiting to do battle when more cows arrive?

A departing blog photo of a stormy sunrise from the lighthouse looking back towards the mainland.

Well enough said for this blog. We’ve had some strong storms move through the area over the past few days which delayed our supply boat from making it out today. However, we have a backup plan and will be very grateful to Harmon Shragge and crew on the “French Kiss” if they can make it out on Monday just before our Christmas celebrations. We are gearing up for a great feast. We’ll update with another blog soon to tell you what else we’ve been up to. Happy Holidays from the Farallons.

And one last shot of roosting gulls taking flight after a giant swell washed them off the Low Arch Terrace area near our elephant seal colonies.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

From Mundane to Mega

Grasshopper Sparrow, Southeast Farallon Island, 10/24/2012.
A lot has happened since our last post, though certainly things have begun to slow way down since our peak migration in early to mid October.  This has been one of the best falls in the past several years in terms of diversity and numbers of birds, and despite a subsiding landbird migration, great birds have continued to surprise us including large seabird flights.  From the mundane to the megas, we've had it all in the past few weeks.

After Jim Tietz left for his two-week break at the end of October, passerine migration nearly came to a halt, much to our disappointment.  Nonetheless, we were able to find a few very rare birds for the island, including a Cooper's Hawk found by Ryan DiGaudio at the lighthouse.  Sharp-shinned Hawk is far more common than Cooper's.  While this is only the 30th record ever for Cooper's Hawk for the island, we've seen 6 Sharp-shinned Hawks already this fall alone.  A Common Goldeneye was also found by Lukas Musher on Maintop Bay at the Northern part of the island.  The goldeneye is only the 6th fall season record and 20th ever. 
Juvenal Cooper's Hawk, Southeast Farallon Island, 10/25/2012.  Note the protruding, relatively large head (causing the eye to look relatively smaller), and long rounded tail, which help distinguish this bird from Sharp-shinned Hawk.
A rather distant and bad photo of the island's 6th fall record of Common Goldeneye, 11/3/2012.
One of a few Lapland Longspurs we've had on the island this fall.  Lapland Longspur is our most common longspur species.
Some of the relatively more common, though still interesting, birds we saw during late October include Great Blue Heron, Short-eared Owl, Barn Swallow, American Robin (first of fall), Varied Thrush, Townsend's, Magnolia, and Chestnut-sided Warblers, Lapland Longspur, Grasshopper Sparrow among others, and a very late Blackburnian Warbler on November 2 was a great surprise as well.
American Robin, Southeast Farallon Island, 11/4/2012.
Jim Tietz still has all the luck, though.  After very few good birds during his absence, he was able to get two island birds upon his return to the island.  The first was the continuing Common Goldeneye found earlier in the week, and the second was a Horned Puffin, a lifer for the entire fall crew.  We immediately noticed the pale face and white underparts, and Jim pointed out that the pinched in base of the bill.  All of these features allow immediate identification, and differentiation from the more common Tufted Puffin.

In fact we've had a lot of good seabird activity over the past few weeks.  In late October we had a couple days where literally hundreds of Buller's Shearwaters moving by in under an hour of sea-watching.  Lot's of Sooty Shearwaters, more Pink-footed Shearwaters, the first Northern Fulmars and Black-legged Kittiwake (immature bird) of the season, and both Pomarine and Parasitic Jaegers were also present during these late October seabird flights.  More recently, on November 7, we had a huge flight of waterbirds including 2400 Pacific Loons (counted between about 2PM and sunset), 13 Common Loons, 2 Western Grebe, 2 Short-tailed Shearwater, 30+ Northern Fulmar, 9 Pink-footed Shearwater, 100+ Sooty Shearwater, 3 Black-vented Shearwater, 185 Cackling Geese, 410 Brant, 1 Green-winged Teal, 2 Red-breasted Merganser, 2 Pomarine Jaeger, 24 Boneparte's Gulls, and 6 Ancient Murrelets.  We also had the island high count of 7 Horned Grebes that day.
Two Pacific Loons fly past East Landing during the very large flight on 11/7/2012
One of the few Cackling Geese that stayed with us after the seabird flight on 11/7/2012
Landbird migration picked up a little when Jim got back as well, including a couple major rarities.  This adult male Slate-colored Junco was one of two of that species on the island on November 5th.

This first-year Rough-legged Hawk, our second of the year, showed up on November 6th, and has been with us ever since.  The features that help determine the age of this bird are the translucent patches on the primaries and relatively pale brown (versus the bold, dark brown-black of an adult) tail band and trailing edge of the wing.
Rough-legged Hawk, Southeast Farallon Island, 11/6/2012
Thayer's Gulls of all ages have begun showing up recently as well.  This Second-cycle bird, below, was found by Jim last week.  Note the small, thin bill, gently curved culmen, and round/dovey head that are all typical structural field marks of Thayer's Gull.  This bird is molting in gray feathers on the back, but has retained wing coverts making it a second-cycle bird.
Thayer's Gull, Southeast Farallon Island, November 2012
Another good find was an eastern Orange-crowned Warbler (subspecies: celata).  We more commonly get the Pacific subspecies (lutescens), which has a greenish head; whereas the Rocky Mountain (orestera) and eastern subspecies both have gray heads.  We determined that this bird was an eastern by its short bill, measured in the hand.
Orange-crowned Warbler (Oreothlypis celata celata), Southeast Farallon Island, 11/8/2012
Nora Livingston also found a Song Sparrow (actually a relatively rare bird on the island).  Oddly enough, the Song Sparrow was missing its entire left eye!  It's astounding that it made it this far with only one eye.  This particular bird probably represents one of the Song Sparrow races from the Aleutian Islands, as it was large, stocky, and long-billed with heavy brown streaking.

Song Sparrow, Southeast Farallon Island, 11/11/2012. Poor little fella'.
We were also pleased to see a male American Kestrel.
Our resident Common Raven left for a few days and returned with a friend.  Now we have two, a mated pair.
Common Raven, Southeast Farallon Island, 11/3/2012
One of our resident Peregrines, accidentally flushed off its kill, a first-cycle California Gull.
Owl numbers have increased as well, as is to be expected in late fall, with our season high counts of 2 Northern Saw-whet, 2 Barn, and 2 Long-eared Owls on November 16th.  We even got to band a Northern Saw-whet and a Barn Owl on November 11 in addition to our usual Burrowing Owls.
A Northern Saw-whet Owl roosting in one of the 3 trees on the island.  Saw-whets are notoriously tame, so liz actually picked one off its perch on 11/11/2012 and banded it.
Long-eared Owl, Southeast Farallon Island, 11/14/2012
Our most spectacular day recently was November 14th.  We saw two California Bird Records Committee species (CBRC; these are species that must be documented and reviewed before the record can be accepted).  The first was a Rusty Blackbird, a very rare bird in western North America.  Note the rusty edges to the tertials, buffy supercillium, relatively thin bill and short, thin legs, and overall rustiness.  There are only 14 records for the island, so some people might say it's a pretty good bird.
Rusty Blackbird, Southeast Farallon Island, 11/14/2012.
Another great bird we had that day was a hatch-year male Summer Tanager.
HY Male Summer Tanager, 11/14/2012
However, the best bird of the day was an absolute mega rarity.  Jim found the bird foraging near one of the houses, and quickly realized that it was a (¡¡¡)LITTLE BUNTING(!!!), a species from Asia that has only been recorded in California twice before (one of which is from this island).  Unfortunately he did not have a camera as he was wheelbarrowing salamander coverboards around, so he immediately radioed to the rest of the crew to get there ASAP with a camera.  By the time we got there, the bird had just flown.  We spent the next 30 minutes searching for the bird, but couldn't relocate it.  Luke finally relocated it in the company of a Pine Siskin, but we still couldn't obtain a photograph.  The bird then flew off, and was never to be seen again.  You can see our ebird checklist for the day, including Jim's description of the bird here.
Maggie, the Burrowing Owl intern, found this Ashy Storm-Petrel chick in a crevice on 11/14/2012.
We like bugs here too!  Check out some of our most common migratory insects.
Painted Lady, Southeast Farallon Island, November 2012
Variegated meadowhawk, Southeast Farallon Island, November 2012.  A truly beautiful specimen.
By Luke Musher

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Many More Migrants!!!

Since the Farallonathon, we have been quite busy counting and banding good numbers of migrant birds. On Oct 5th, this juvenile tundrius Peregrine Falcon rested briefly on the island before continuing south.

On the 7th, we captured an apparently pure Yellow-shafted Flicker female and at the same time a male Flicker Intergrade.  On the Farallones, pure Yellow-shafted Flickers are a bit rarer than intergrades, but usually average about one a year.  Note how the intergrade on the left has a bit of orange on the underwings, a red and black malar mark, and blue and brown on the face.  The yellow-shafted has pure yellow underwings and an entirely brown face and throat.

This same day we captured a juvenile male Black-throated Blue Warbler, which was still present the following day.  Check out those pointed rects (AKA, tail feathers)!

Also present on the 8th was a female Varied Thrush.

And the Red-breasted Nuthatch invasion continued strong until about the 20th of October. On the 12th, we banded and tallied 53 of these nasal honkers.

On the 10th, we found our 2nd Black-and-white Warbler of the fall creeping about on the rocks with the nuthatches.

A nicely overcast day on the 11th and 12th brought lots of new birds, dominated mostly by a huge influx of Red-breasted Nuthatches and Ruby-crowned Kinglets.  The vegetation around the mistnets was swarming with these guys and kept us all very busy.  On the 11th we estimated there were at least 40 of these kinglets, and on the 12th, our estimate was 78!

The highlights of the day, though, were the island's 3rd record of Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and 6th record of Evening Grosbeak!  Both birds were first seen at the lighthouse.  The sapsucker was not seen elsewhere, but the grosbeak eventually flew into our mistnet.  Luckily, a camera was handy at the lighthouse to document these birds as soon as they landed because you never know if they will be seen again.  For the sapsucker, there was a bit of indecision at first as to whether it was a Yellow-bellied or Red-naped, because, despite the lack of red on the nape, we were uncertain as to whether a juvenile Yellow-bellied could begin its pre-formative molt this early.  Thankfully, several sapsucker experts viewed the photos and concurred that it was a probably a pure Yellow-bellied.  Furthermore, an article by Mlodinow et al. (Birding, 2006), pointed out that nearly all Red-naped Sapsuckers have a red nape by October 1st.

The Evening Grosbeak was an adult male!

We also found our first Purple Finches of the season.  Here's an adult male that was present with 4 streaky birds that were either females or immature males.

In addition to birds, we caught our 2nd Hoary Bat of the season!

On the 12th, we did not find any mega-rarities, but it was the biggest day of the fall, with at least 617 landbirds recorded on the island.  High counts for the year were recorded for Violet-green Swallow (125), Red-breasted Nuthatch (53), Ruby-crowned Kinglet (78), Myrtle Warbler (29), White-crowned Sparrow (48), Golden-crowned Sparrow (85), and Oregon Junco (52).

Here's a juvenile Violet-green Swallow in heavy molt.  Check out the molt-limits in the wings!

One noteworthy bird found this day was a Sabine's Gull that was plucked off the water by a Peregrine Falcon.  Unfortunately, the only person who got to see the gull was the person shooting the photos.  This was only our second Sabine's Gull of the year. 

Also nice to see was a late Ash-throated Flycatcher.

And our first Swamp Sparrow of the year was bopping about our yard:

On the 13th, the clouds broke and the winds started blowing out of the northwest, but we continued to get good numbers of birds and even a couple rarities showed up.  During the morning pelican survey, we spotted an adult Brown Booby perched on Sugarloaf Islet.  Apparently, this bird was seen the previous day at Pt. Reyes. The last person to see it said it was heading southwest, "perhaps in the direction of the Farallon Islands."   Nice guess!  With the gannet on Sugarloaf too, we had a two Sulid day!  How many times has that happened in California?

Later in the afternoon, we found our 2nd Black-throated Green Warbler of the fall, only this time it was found in a mistnet, so its identity was greatly simplified and photographing it was a cinch.

We also had two more White-tailed Kites show up, which makes 13 and 14 for the year.  From 1967 (when PRBO started surveys on the Farallones) to 2000, there had only been 23 kite sightings.  From 2000 to 2011, we have seen 36.  What could be causing this increase?  Is kite habitat improving on the mainland?  It seems unlikely since they require open grasslands (preferably ungrazed) for foraging; golf courses, vineyards, and housing developments destroy kite habitat. It would be interesting to know if the autumn hawkwatch at the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory is also seeing more kites.  Anyway, this bird can be identified as a juvenile by the rusty feathers still present on its underparts.

The 14th to the 16th saw many landbirds depart.  A few lingering birds provided nice photos.  Western Meadowlarks usually arrive during October and many can hang around to over-winter.

This Chestnut-sided Warbler first arrived on the 6th and put on a gram of fat in a week.  It was last seen on the 19th.

On the 17th, the weather began to improve and several more arrivals found the island.  Brown Creepers are uncommon fall migrants on the island.

An Ovenbird was also a nice find.

This Barn Owl has been lingering around on the island all fall.  It has been shifting its roost every few days, so we don't always find it.

The 18th ended up being a pretty nice day.  This snipe had quite a bit of white on the trailing edge of the wing.  This could be a Common Snipe from Eurasia, but without a photo of the underwing, we'll never know.

Late in the day, this juvenile Brown Booby rode up to the island on a fishing boat.  While it was approaching, we thought it might be a Red-footed Booby.  The sharply cut hood across the breast and the white mottling on the underwings clearly identified this bird as a Brown Booby.  Three species of Sulid in one day on the Farallones will have to happen some other day.

Late in the day, a Harris's Sparrow was found flocking with a couple juncos on the outskirts of our survey area.  Just before sunset, a Grasshopper Sparrow was found at this same location from somebody looking for the Harris's Sparrow.

Lastly, on the 19th, the longspur that had been poorly seen the previous two days was photographed and identified as a Lapland.

The weather turned ugly on the 20th with howling northwest winds that blew all day on the 21st too.  Although this weather and the storm that followed weren't good for bringing landbirds to the island, we finally started seeing Buller's Shearwaters, with 300 counted on the 20th and 240 on the 22nd.  Fulmars have also increased, and we are seeing good numbers of Black-vented Shearwaters.  Hopefully the landbird migration will increase again once the weather settles back down.