Wednesday, October 29, 2014

23rd Annual Farallonathon

From September 19 to September 25, the fall crew conducted our annual fundraiser called the Farallonathon. Initiated in 1992 by then biologist Peter Pyle, the Farallonathon was created to recognize the truly unique elements of the Farallon Islands, while at the same time participating in Point Blue’s Annual Bird-A-Thon. This event is similar to a Bird-a-thon, except it lasts for a full week, and instead of counting just species of birds, we count all of the vertebrates we encounter including birds, fish, marine mammals, and even a few types of insects (butterflies and dragonflies only). We even assign points for rare and interesting wildlife events such as shark attacks and birds never before seen on the Farallones. The way Farallonathon works is we get one point for each vertebrate species, while extremely rare birds that require a review by the California Bird Records Committee (CBRC) and each shark attack awards us five points, and species new to the island are rewarded with ten points.

FARALLONATHON DAY 1 – On Sep 19th, the visibility was limited to less than a kilometer at dawn due to a bit of fog; fog is not good either since the birds cannot find the island. However, the visibility rapidly increased and the birds descended upon the island. The most abundant species in descending order were Lesser Goldfinch (35), Hermit Thrush (20), Yellow Warbler (17), Golden-crowned Sparrow (10), and Ruby-crowned Kinglet (7). The highlights for the day included the now resident Northern Gannet (still the only record for the Pacific Ocean), a Black Swift (30th island record), two Red-throated Pipits (a species that breeds in Asia and overwinters in Africa and SE Asia), a Tennessee, Magnolia, and Blackburnian Warbler, and a Bobolink.  So, on this fine first day of Farallonathon, we found a total of 79 points, which included 60 migrant bird species (3 of which were CRBC review species), a hoary bat, a minke whale, and 3 dragonfly species (green darner, black saddlebags, and wandering glider).

FARALLONATHON DAY 2 – More light winds out of the south produced another busy day on the island, with a good number of migrants found at the lighthouse at dawn, including the island’s 3rd Plumbeous Vireo, an American Redstart, Ovenbird, and Chestnut-sided Warbler. Incredibly, a Connecticut Warbler (just the 64th island record and a CBRC review species) ended up inside the lighthouse, which was then trapped and banded. Although, this skulking species is very rare in the state of California, 54% of all the state’s records have been seen on SE Farallon Island, where there is little vegetation for them to hide. Other new species for Farallonathon included a flock of ten White-faced Ibis, a Chimney Swift, a Black-and-white Warbler, a Northern Waterthrush, and a Mourning Warbler (another CBRC review species). At the end of this magnificent day, we found we had added 36 points and raised our overall total to 116.

FARALLONATHON DAY 3 – The winds on this day turned more out of the west, which seemed to slow the numbers of migratory birds heading out to the island. Still, we managed to add 9 more species of migrant birds, which included a Sage Thrasher (86th island record), Common Loon, Buller’s Shearwater, Sanderling, Cassin’s Vireo, Cliff Swallow, and a Lark Sparrow. Since this was a relatively slow day, we decided to add on some of the remaining breeding birds, which included a juvenile Double-crested Cormorant flying around their breeding colony on Maintop, and a puffin carrying a fish to a crevice on Lighthouse Hill. And we took points for the five breeding pinniped species. We also added another dragonfly with a Variegated Meadowhawk, and added a cetacean point when a group of three Humpback Whales were spotted. These points raised our total to 139.

FARALLONATHON DAY 4 – The winds remained calm this day, but the visibility and bird numbers dropped off a bit more. The wind also switched a bit more to the north, which allowed 5 Sharp-shinned Hawks to investigate the island before turning around and flying the 20 miles back to Point Reyes. A few other new bird species included a Pectoral Sandpiper, Least Flycatcher, and a Rock Wren. A Painted Bunting (CBRC review species) also provided a nice surprise. Finally, our first shark attack of Farallonathon occurred off Saddle Rock to bring our total up to 155.

FARALLONATHON DAY 5 – Excellent visibility all day meant that we did not see many birds arriving. However, it did allow us to see a group of 45 Risso’s Dolphins and a group of 10 Harbor Porpoises – these dolphins are common, but the Harbor Porpoises rarely venture this far off shore. Only four new species of migrant birds were found this day: a Northern Fulmar, Pacific Golden-Plover, a Palm Warbler, and the return of one of the two adult Blue-footed Boobies (another CBRC species). This brought our total up to 165.

FARALLONATHON DAY 6 – More of the same weather meant that we could not find any new bird species this day. Thankfully we were able to add five points from a morning shark attack off Saddle Rock on an immature elephant seal. And we also got two points from an exploration of a cave on Corm Blind Hill, which discovered 20 Arboreal Salamanders and a Cassin’s Auklet. This brought our total up to 172.

FARALLONATHON DAY 7 – More visibility and reduced cloud cover on this final day of Farallonathon helped many birds leave the island once they could see the stars and navigate to whatever destination genetic recombination had put in their brains. Unfortunately, big departure days do not bring many new migrants, so all we managed to find were three new bird species: a Cackling Goose, Northern Harrier, and a pair of Northern Rough-winged Swallows. With that, our Farallonathon total ended up at 175. This was the 23rd Farallonathon, and our results tied us with 2002 for 11th place.

The main reason to have our Farallonathons is to have fun and raise money for our research. If you can, please consider supporting our research by pledging either a per-point amount or a flat donation for the event. To make a donation, please go to our Farallonathon website at:  And lastly, thank you very much for making our research possible.

Monday, October 06, 2014

Early Fall Migration Summary and Highlights - Lots of Highlights!

The Fall Crew arrived on Southeast Farallon Island on 16 August to find two adult Blue-footed Boobies, an adult Brown Booby, and the continuing adult Northern Gannet, all on Sugarloaf and right above where we conducted the switchover with the Seabird Crew. Three species of birds from the family Sulidae at one location in California is highly unusual, since none of these species breed in the state. Thankfully, this was to be an auspicious start to a bountiful August and September.
Over the past several years, the weather during late summer (Aug-Sep) has been mostly foggy or windy, with just occasional light winds and high overcast days that are conducive to allowing migrants to the find the island. This year, however, was quite the opposite, with fog noted for brief periods on only 7 days, and winds stronger than 10 knots on only 10 days, and never stronger than 20 knots.

Our first surprise of the fall occurred on just our third day on the island, when an adult male Painted Bunting showed up outside of our kitchen window during breakfast time. Although we have seen several Painted Buntings over the past decade, this is the first adult male that has ever showed up on the island. Numbers of western migrants began increasing a few days later, including Baird’s and Least Sandpipers, Yellow, Hermit, Wilson’s, MacGillivray’s, and Black-throated Gray Warblers, Chipping and Savannah Sparrows, and Lazuli Buntings. A few highlights from late August included our 12th record of Virginia Rail, three Least Flycatchers, our 17th fall record of Gray Flycatcher, our 51st record of Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, 74th record of White-tailed Kite, a Northern Waterthrush, an American Redstart, a Baltimore Oriole, and an Orchard Oriole.

The weather throughout early September was even more conducive to migration – high overcast skies and very light winds nearly every day – resulted in still greater numbers and more diversity. Yellow Warblers and Townsend’s Warblers were most abundant, especially compared to recent years, with 54 and 40 arrivals respectively. Highlights from this period included our 36th record of Green Heron, a flock of four White-faced Ibis (just the 3rd occurrence of this species at the Farallones), our 28th record of White-winged Dove, our 46th Chimney Swift, our 22nd and 23rd Acorn Woodpeckers, possibly our 4th Alder Flycatcher (DNA analysis will be required to separate it from eastern Willow Flycatcher - until then, it is considered a Traill's Flycatcher), our 11th Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, 69th Mourning Warbler, 77th Bay-breasted Warbler, 70th Prairie Warbler, and an adult male Indigo Bunting (rare plumage for fall). A short lull in bird migration occurred during mid-month. This may have been due to the excellent visibility, which allows birds to see the mainland, where food and shelter are more plentiful.