Monday, October 21, 2013

Farallonathon Wrap-up

Day 2 (Oct 5th) - The day after our big wave, we awoke to fairly gusty east winds. Although east winds do not typically bring large numbers of birds, they can bring interesting birds that don't normally cross large bodies of water. So we were hoping for raptors, especially for a hawk or an eagle. A big chunk of our day, though, was devoted to getting our groceries from The Rainbow, a boat in the Farallon Patrol. The Farallon Patrol consists of several skippers that volunteer their time and boats to ferry people and supplies to and from the island. In addition to bringing us food, this boat brought out a new intern, Xeronimo Castaneda, and departed with Kristie Nelson. After The Rainbow departed, Dan Maxwell and Jim Tietz took our boat over to a massive flock of seabirds feeding off the east side of the island. Here we found our one-and-only Rhinoceros Auklet amongst the thousands of Common Murres. Back on the island, we found several other arrivals, including a Rufous Hummingbird, which was our first for the fall. Normally, we see these in late August and September, but we saw very few birds during those months, so we were happy to finally see one. We also found two Brewer's Sparrows, a Grasshopper Sparrow, a late Bullock's Oriole, and our first European Starlings of the fall (a flock of 30). East winds are also great for migrant insects, and we added several such as Painted Lady, Monarch butterflies, and four species of dragonflies: Blue-eyed Darner, Green Darner, Variegated Meadowhawk, and Black Saddlebags. Our final addition was from a pair of Harbor Porpoises that strayed far away from their typical near-shore local. The 17 additional points from this day, plus one for a Willow Flycatcher positively identified from a photo taken the previous day, brought our total up to 128.

Day 3 (Oct 6th) - Our third day started out just like the day before, with strong east winds, warm temperatures, and greater than 60 miles of visibility. Although these winds did not bring us a big bird wave, a few new arrivals visited us to keep the day interesting. Surprisingly, this weather brought out four Barn Owls, which were found roosting in the three trees around our houses. Historically, Barn Owls used to be quite rare, but their numbers have increased by 310%. in the past 15 years. During this increase, we have documented numerous Cassin's Auklets and other breeding seabirds that have been killed by the Barn Owls. Other western migrants included Tree Swallow, Pacific Wren, Vesper Sparrow, and Lark Sparrow. These winds also brought us our best day of the fall for East Coast warbler diversity, with just one Western Palm Warbler, one Blackpoll Warbler, and one Black-and-white Warbler. September typically brings us the East Coast warblers, but the wind and fog must have kept them away. A second Blue-footed Booby joined the one first seen on Day 1, which added another five points for being a CBRC bird. Our first shark point of the Farallonathon happened when Cameron Rutt spotted a shark surface off of Shubrick Point. At the end of the day our total had crept up to 145.


Day 4 (Oct 7th) - The winds switched to northwest today, starting out light, but then strengthening. Combined with 30 miles of visibility, these conditions bring few migrant birds. Once it became obvious that there were not many arrivals, Boo Curry and Jim Tietz visited West End Island to conduct a Northern Fur Seal count at their Indian Head colony and to look for tags. Before the 1850's, the Farallones had a Fur Seal rookery of a few hundred thousand individuals. Unfortunately, once Europeans discovered this, they set about to kill as many fur seals as they could and shipped the pelts to China for profit. After several years of exploitation, any remaining fur seals abandoned their colony on the Farallones and were not seen again on the islands until the 1970's when the occasional individual would haul out to rest. In 1996, a pup was discovered at Indian Head Beach on West End Island. Following this discovery, annual ground survey visits were made to the colony to document its growth. In 2006, we noted that the colony had dramatically increased in size, and we noted that there were several fur seals with tags on their fore flippers. Since tags can provide the known age and sex of each seal as well as its origin, we increased the frequency of trips to the colony to improve our understanding of this colony's demographics. So far, we have read over 100 tags at this colony. The vast majority of the seals with tags were tagged at the San Miguel Island colony, which is in the Channel Islands off southern California. However, we also found a tag that was from the Commander Islands off northeastern Russia. On this last trip, all the tags appeared to be from San Miguel Island, except for one that may be from another location. Now that the government shutdown is over, we may get an answer. At the end of our survey, we had counted 486 individuals on land, and we estimated that there were at least 100 in the water right off the colony. The colony still has a long ways to go to reach a hundred thousand. But so long as we continue to protect their rookery from human exploitation and disturbance and their feeding grounds in the California Current from over-fishing, they should continue to rebound.

Only four points were added this day from the following sightings: a pair of Blue Whales seen far to the south from the lighthouse during a cetacean survey, one Pomarine Jaeger seen during the afternoon seawatch, and one Rock Pigeon and one Least Flycatcher seen during an area search. These four points brought our total up 149.

Day 5 (Oct 8th) - Strong northwest winds and clear skies meant that many birds departed and few arrived. Only one bird arrived that gave us a new point, an Aleutian Cackling Goose. It showed up behind our house extremely thirsty. We gave it a little water which it gratefully accepted. This was our only point for the day, so our paltry sum increased to 150.

Day 6 (Oct 9th) - Even stronger northwest winds gave most of the birds that were still on the island a nice tailwind for departure. No points were added this day, so our total remained at 150. 

Day 7 (Oct 10th) - The dawn weather appeared more promising, with light winds out of  the west, and the visibility down to just 5 miles. Sadly there were not many birds about. But then during the AM area search, Cameron spotted a Great Crested Flycatcher. Although there were 11 previous records for the island, this was the first since 1989! In addition, this species is on the CBRC review list, so it counted for five Farallonathon points! Other species this day that were new for the week were Killdeer, Parasitic Jaeger, South Polar Skua, Lapland Longspur, Wilson's Snipe, and Short-eared Owl.

In addition to birds, we found two new species of insects, a Familiar Bluet, which is a kind of migratory damselfly, and a Farallon Cricket, the only endemic species on the Farallon Islands.

Our final point was found at 9:30 on this last night of Farallonathon. The Farallon crew set out to find the only salamander on the island. Ironically, the name of this species, which occurs on an island with just 4 introduced trees, is the Arboreal Salamander. It is uncertain how this salamander got to the island, but it's possible that it came across the ocean on a log as has been documented in the San Francisco Bay (fide, Peter Pyle), or perhaps it was assisted by humans on a boat, or the species may have persisted here ever since the islands split away from the mainland millions of years ago.

With the 11 bird points (6 regular + 1 CBRC), 2 insect points, and 1 salamander point, our final total stood at 164 points. Compared to the previous 21 years of Farallonathons, this year ranked 13th. Despite our auspicious first day, poor subsequent weather and zero shark attacks meant we were doomed to have a low score. We hope you enjoyed hearing about our Farallonathon and support our cause for conservation. If so, please consider giving to the Farallon program at the following website: 

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Farallonathon update for Day 1 - The Big Wave

The Farallonathon kicked off this year with a bang on Friday, October 4th. Although we were going to start our week-long bio-blitz fundraiser this day anyway, we did not anticipate that ten knot winds out of the west combined with 60 miles of visibility would produce one of the largest bird waves of the decade. At dawn we began noticing sparrows flying about the yard, and it quickly became obvious that we had several new arrivals, but the full magnitude of the migration would not become apparent for another hour. Shortly after dawn, Cameron Rutt climbed Lighthouse Hill  to see what arrivals would be up there. In the meantime, two of us, Boo Curry and Jim Tietz, were getting gear ready to visit West End Island to count pinnipeds and read tags on fur seals.

Just as we were about to leave, news came over the radio from Kristie Nelson that a sapsucker was on Lighthouse Hill. Three of the four species of sapsuckers had already been seen on the island: these were the Red-breasted, Yellow-bellied, and Red-naped Sapsuckers, each with several records on the island, but still quite rare. As we tried to figure out over the radio which species it was, Cameron, who had been having radio problems, finally got through that it was a male Williamson's Sapsucker, a first island record for this species. Whereas the other three species of sapsuckers have breeding ranges that extend well to the north and annually undertake long-distance southward migrations during the fall, Williamson's is a montane species that mostly migrates downslope for the winter, and interestingly, there are no coastal records north of the San Francisco Bay Area. Needless to say, we quickly postponed our trip to West End Island so we could enjoy this new island bird and help document the abundance and diversity of these newly arrived migrants. Unfortunately, the sapsucker flew to the west soon after we shot a few documentary photos and was not relocated afterwards.

For the next hour, we searched for the sapsucker along the cliffs on the western side of the island, and looked through the flocks of sparrows, thrushes, and kinglets to increase our species list. It quickly became apparent that this bird wave was almost entirely composed of western species, especially Golden-crowned, White-crowned, Fox, and Savannah Sparrows, Hermit Thrushes, Audubon's Warblers, and Ruby-crowned Kinglets. Normally, large bird waves on the Farallones are associated with a few to several stray eastern vagrants, but despite much searching, the only "eastern" birds we could find were singles of White-throated Sparrow and Yellow-shafted Flicker. Although both of these species winter more commonly in the East and are thus considered "eastern", their breeding ranges extend quite far west in Canada and a decent number winter in California as well.

The person conducting the island-wide area search this morning had a much busier day than the few days previously when we were only seeing a few individuals of a few species. On this day, Luke Musher recorded dozens of individuals of 34 species. To help us determine numbers of arrivals and to track individuals over time, we also banded as many birds as we could safely capture in our mistnets. By the end of the day, we had banded 146 birds of 21 species. As with the area search, Golden-crowned, White-crowned, Fox, and Savannah Sparrows, Hermit Thrushes, and Ruby-crowned Kinglets were the most abundant. Hammond's Flycatchers are an uncommon species on the Farallones, so we were quite surprised to capture three of these birds. Probably the most interesting thing we discovered through banding on this day was the preponderance of adult birds to juveniles. Along coastlines, juveniles typically outnumber adults by a large margin, so whatever caused this massive misdirection by adults must have been pretty unusual.

This bird wave also produced a few subspecies that have rarely been seen before on the island. The most interesting were within the Fox Sparrow complex. There are at least 17 subspecies that have been recognized in this species, and they have been lumped into four groups based on geographical proximity and morphological and genetic similarity. Although Thick-billed is the only group with a widespread breeding distribution within California, this is the only one that we failed to see. Sooty Fox Sparrow is the most common winter visitor to California. It breeds from southwestern British Columbia north through southern Alaska, and we determined there were at least 80 of these on the island. We also found three Slate-colored Fox Sparrows, which breed in the Rocky Mountains and Great Basin. Although they winter in California from the Central Valley south to Southern California, they are scarce along the Northern California coast, and there are few records for the Farallones. The individual photographed here appears to be of the Alberta subspecies, altivagans. This subspecies is morphologically intermediate between Slate-colored and Red, but genetically it falls solidly within the Slate-colored group.

Red Fox Sparrows breed in northern Canada and northern Alaska, and they winter in the eastern United States. This is a casual vagrant to California, so we were excited to find one in a mistnet and another that Dan later captured with his camera! This individual appears to be of the zaboria subspecies, which occupies the western half of the Red Fox Sparrow range during the breeding season. Note how much more red there is in the crown, face, and back of the Red below compared to the Slate-colored above.

Another interesting bird seen this day was a Song Sparrow that wandered about the intertidal. The subspecies of this bird is thought most likely to be fisherella, which breeds in drier habitats from northeastern California to British Columbia, but could possibly be the montana subspecies of the Great Basin- either way it would be a first for the island.

We also had a continuing Burrowing Owl, Peale's Peregrine Falcon, Sandhill Crane, and Blue-footed Booby. The latter was either the continuing third bird (see our previous blog post about Blue-footed Boobies) or our fourth for the fall season.

In addition to birds, we also added a point for a rather rare butterfly to the Farallones called a Common Buckeye.

At the end of a lengthy evening journal, we determined that we had observed a total of 826 landbird individuals of 51 species - including waterbirds, we saw 75 species. After adding up all the points we got for birds, pinnipeds, whales, butterflies, dragonflies, and bonus points for first island records and California Bird Record Committee review species, we found that we were doing quite well for our first day with 110 Farallonathon points. If you would like to contribute to our research on the Farallon Islands, please visit our donation page at the following link:

Saturday, October 05, 2013

Farallonathon is ON!!!

It’s Bird-A-Thon season at Point Blue Conservation Science – our biggest fundraiser. On the Farallones, we count all of the animals we find including birds, fish, marine mammals, insects, and any other wildlife. 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 by Peter Pyle, the Farallonathon was created to recognize the truly unique elements of the Farallones, while at the same time participating in Point Blue’s Annual Bird-A-Thon. The Farallonathon consists of a one week bio-blitz when 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 Point Blue staff to analyze and publish the data we collect. The information gathered from our research help us and others protect the wildlife that use these special islands and the marine environment that surrounds it. You can support our research by either pledging an amount of money per point or a flat amount.

What’s a typical ‘score’ for a Farallonathon? During the last 18 years, scores have ranged from a low of 133 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.

This unique fundraising event is truly fun, but it is also part of our daily research. As Farallon biologists, we are constantly studying the wildlife of these near-pristine islands and documenting their activities. Every observation is a piece of the data that we record on the island--our outdoor laboratory on the Pacific. The Farallonathon gives us a way to celebrate our work on the island and share these experiences with you.

To pledge your financial support for our research, you can pledge a flat amount or you can make your pledge based on the Farallonathon point system. If you pledge your support, you will receive a detailed summary of our experience at the end of the Farallonathon week. Your participation allows us to continue studying this unique and vital ecosystem on the California Coast.

Donation should be sent to:

Russ Bradley
Point Blue Conservation Science
3820 Cypress Drive #11
Petaluma, CA 94954

In the memo on the check write, “Farallonathon”

I hope you will join us!

Thank you,

Jim Tietz
Point Blue Farallon Biologist