Thursday, January 22, 2015

Seeing changes through time with your own eyes

Russ Bradley, Farallon program manager here, out on the island to cover for winter biologist Ryan Berger on his break. It’s always a treat for me to come to the island in the winter – as most of my over 1550 days out here have been spent in the summertime. It's a nice contrast from all the screaming gulls. I was thinking the other day that this year will mark the 10th anniversary of Los Farallones! I remember in 2004 when we first got internet one of our interns campaigning for us to start a blog and I believe my exact response was “what a stupid idea that would be, we’ll never do that”. Well I was wrong and I encourage readers to browse the archives to explore the 10 years of great stories, photos, and videos posted here by our Farallon staff and interns.

Me banding some Brandt's cormorant chicks in "Business Causal" attire - Farallon style

Thinking about the passage of time out here has me pondering some of the big changes I've observed in island wildlife and our lives out here since my first seabird season as an intern back in (yikes!) 1998. I distinctly remember going over to the Coast Guard house that summer to watch the latest episode of X files and the final episode of Seinfeld on the old TV with rabbit ears. The Unusual Events section of the journal the day I first arrived (April 11th, 1998) reads “Set up a new entertainment center courtesy of Russ Bradley – we are now caught up with the times and can listen to CD’s!”

CD Player

Who didn't rock the Discman in the late 90's?

Here are some of the big changes I've seen over 17 years at the Farallones
Fur Seal Recovery
I don’t think we saw any fur seals back in the summer of 1998, as they had only started pupping on West End in 1996 after over a century and a half of extirpation. When I became a Farallon Biologist in 2002, seeing a couple Fur Seals on Indian Head beach during late summer pinniped surveys from the lighthouse was a treat. And the few animals that did breed were out of our view. I never would have imagined they would have increased so rapidly, with over 1000 individuals including over 600 pups in the West End colony. Indian Head beach is now full of breeding fur seals in the summer, and last October I was utterly amazed to be sitting above Indian Head Beach on a West End Survey with wall to wall fur seals all around, and several hundred in rafts floating just offshore. As this population continues in its recovery and more fur seals begin to reclaim Southeast Farallon Island, there may be even more drastic change to come.
Fur Seal pups on West End

Return of the Murres
When biologist Kelly Hastings first took me up to the Shubrick Point Murre Blind, I was blown away by how many Common Murres were there on the breeding colony and especially across to the northwest on Fertilizer Flat. Now 17 years later, that population has increased in size by over 5 times, and if you include birds from the North Farallones, there are well in excess of 300,000 Common Murres breeding here on the islands. That is the most since the egging days of the mid 1800’s. The rapid population growth in the early 2000’s during several years of productive ocean conditions was exemplified by the moment when fellow Pete Warzybok and I were counting murres below the lighthouse on the massive Fertilizer Flat colony. We realized that there were just too many to count accurately by conventional means. Even though we were both very experienced murre counters, we were getting lost in “the blob”, a contiguous mass of over 15,000 birds all touching each other with few prominent landmarks. Thanks to our continued work counting monitoring plots, and aerial survey work from our partners at the USFWS – we can continue to track this amazing resurgence.

Murres with their egg at Sea Lion Cove

When I came to the Farallones, we were entering data into a computer with Dbase III (for all you kids out there, you couldn't copy and paste in Dbase III), had one shared text based email account on an ancient laptop we were afraid to turn off for fear it wouldn't turn back on, and communicated with the outside world primarily through one way radiophone. In 1998 I remember one of the interns coming back from her break with a new camera and for 2 weeks she shot a roll of slide film per day. That’s 36 pictures in a single day! How could you ever take and develop that many pictures…. When we got our first digital cameras in the early 2000’s, which held 3.5 inch floppy disks, they could take 5 pictures. A far cry now from all the incredible digital photography the island has produced in recent years: like this shot, one of my favorites from the incredibly talented Annie Schmidt...

 Analog cell phones used to work well from the southeast corner of the island, and many of us used them in the early 2000’s to avoid the quirks of the radiophone. I remember once talking to my cell phone provider from East Landing about my bill and the agent asking about the persistent squawking in the background “Is that a Chihuahua making all that noise?” I replied “No, it’s a just a couple thousand Western Gulls”.  About 2011 we were still using Palm Pilots (remember those?) to collect data digitally for seabird diet studies. We realized from the blank looks on the faces of our interns as Pete and I regaled them about our use of this great new technology that we were already behind the times again… Needless to say technology advancements have greatly benefited island data collection, communications, and even research with new wildlife tracking studies. But with all these advancements we try not to lose the simple pleasures of being with enthusiastic and amazing people in such a special and remote place.
The Palm Zire, ground breaking data collection technology.... 
just not so much in 2011 when we were still using it

New Ecosystem Studies
In the early 2000’s I used to bemoan the fact that most of the journal entries relating to our endemic Farallon Salamander consisted of such scientific nuggets as “Saw one under a rock.” Well I’ve been very happy to see our new comprehensive research on island salamanders, insects, and plants really take hold in recent years – along with help from partners at USFWS and local universities. This new work has helped us to understand more of the unique Farallon ecosystem. Do you know that Farallon salamanders are extremely territorial and will often stay within about a half meter area once they emerge after the first rains? Or that the majority of the world’s population of the endemic Farallon Camel cricket lives in one huge cave on Shubrick point near massive murre colonies?

Measuring a Farallon salamander

Infrastructure Improvements
We wouldn't be able to run the program we do on the Farallones without the help and support of our biggest partners, the US Fish and Wildlife Service. One of the Service’s great contributions is their involvement in maintenance of island facilities. When I first game to the island, our “gray water system” was a garden hose that ran from the washing machine into rusty metal garbage. You would then take a 5 gallon bucket from that to use the bathroom facilities – and our “septic system” was a terracotta pipe that ran to the ocean. Now with an efficient zero emission custom septic setup – along with our water collection, solar system, and reliable outboard engines (no more surprise rowing workouts during a landing) the island facilities run as smoothly as one could realistically expect, and we are indebted to our USFWS partners for all their help on this front.

Fixing the East Landing Crane

But as much as things change, they stay the same. The island is still an incredible place where you can see blue whales from the front steps of your house (much more of them now these days), live in a house where the front door doesn't have a lock, share a great meal with coworkers and then write the journal the same way it has been done every night since April of 1968. And every day of long hours in the field still contributes to our unique long term data sets to help inform scientific understanding and management actions. I like to say that we build on what came before us – efforts which started before most of us were born, and try to do the best we can for those who will come after us on this great Farallon experience of learning and conservation.  People make this project, but our work and this place itself have a profound effect on all of us who are lucky enough to experience it.

This “Old Man Farallon” counts himself as one of the truly lucky ones

Friday, January 16, 2015

Water Harvesting & New Arrival!

In my opinion, life on SEFI is very rewarding and satisfying. Every day is busy – we work hard and have a variety of tasks to accomplish.  We may be a small community of people but we get along quite well. We make nearly all of our meals from scratch. Most of our waste is recycled, burned or composted. Nearly 90% of our energy is produced through solar. And we are very conscience of our water consumption. Meaning we shower every four days, use tubs to wash our dishes and do laundry sparingly.
Photo showing a large swell that broke over the E.L. platform. These swells were building to 15+ feet. Photo credit Ron LeValley.

Swells breaking through the saddle on Saddle Rock during a winter storm. Photo credit Ron LeValley.
For the past 10 years the entire state of California has felt the effects of an extended drought. Out here on SEFI we have also had a heightened sense of awareness when it comes to our water supply. Rain is precious to us and we harvest as much of it as possible. It has to be – we are a small island surrounded by the Pacific Ocean with no consistent supply of fresh water. We rely heavily on these winter storms to get us through the rest of the year. The process in which we collect and filter rain water to drinking water is detailed below.

 Rain falls onto the catchment pad and runs down hill to flow into the Settling Tank. From there we use a system of pipes and pumps in our pump house to filter and dump water into our Cistern. The Cistern is capable of holding over 100,000 gallons of water and will sit here until we need to filter and pump again to our Gravity Tank located on the other side of the island.
Because our catchment pad is exposed to the elements (and specifically seabird guano) we need to make sure it goes through a rather intensive filtration process. When pumping from the Settling Tank to Cistern we use two in-line GAF filters which have a certain filtration size to take out the larger sediment. While the water sits in the Cistern it is being filtered with an Ozinator (O3) and UV light. When pumping from the Cistern to the Gravity Tank it again goes through two in-line GAF filters with smaller filtration. When the water hits the Gravity Tank it once again is being filtered with Ozinator and UV light.
The Gravity Tank is located up hill in the saddle between Little Lighthouse Hill and Lighthouse Hill. This supplies the pressure we need to move the water through our pipes in the house.

When the water finally comes into the houses there are 6 lines of filtration for most of the house and 8 lines of filtration for the water we drink. We test this water every 3 months to make sure it is safe for consumption.

Not only do we have a lot more elephant seals arriving to the island we also have a new arrival to the winter crew. I happily introduce Vanessa Delnavaz.
Vanessa swimming with a couple of the harbor seals at the Marine Science Center in Rostock, Germany

Vanessa joined the team in early January and will serve as the carry over intern into the first couple weeks of the seabird season. She is a recent graduate of the University of California, Santa Cruz. Throughout her undergraduate studies, Vanessa worked at the Pinniped Sensory Systems and Cognition Lab at the Long Marine Laboratory. During the summer of 2013, she lived in Germany for 3 months working at a research center with captive harbor seals. Towards the end of her time at UC Santa Cruz, she became involved with field work with northern elephant seals at Año Nuevo. After graduating, Vanessa traveled to Australia to volunteer on a project studying the effects of seismic surveys on the behaviors of Eastern Australian humpback whales. She is excited to join the SEFI team for the winter season and can't wait to learn more about northern elephant seals as well as all the other incredible animals on the island.

At the day's end on Friday 16th January 2015 we now have 27 cows and 18 pups on Sand Flat and 14 cows and 8 pups in Mirounga Beach. It was a bit of a slow start for the season but things have really picked up quickly. Tune in for the next blog when we detail more information about the elephant seal breeding season!

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Winter Storms and Island Erosion

“You’ll smell it before you see it” I was told on board the Freda B while we sailed towards the South Farallon Islands. As we approached our soon to be home, the smell of the island drifted amongst us but all I could see was the thick wall of fog in front of me.  Suddenly, the rocks of Southeast Farallon Island (SEFI) were visible, jutting straight out of the water, like something from a movie, less than a mile in front of me.  

The first few days of winter season stayed sunny and warm while we became acquainted with SEFI. As the end of our first week neared, what was predicted to be the biggest winter storm California had seen in years began to approach the island. It started slow at first as the swells grew larger crashing against the rocks. But then the wind picked up and the rain started pouring down.   

As we walked out the front door the morning after the storm began, dressed head to toe in foul-weather gear, we were greeted by something that looked more like a lake than the normal concrete path.  The excessive rainfall the night before caused the front yard to flood up to the top of the front steps.

Although the swells were coming from the opposite side of the island, at East Landing the waves were crashing over and around the crane. 

Over the last thirty years the South Farallon Islands (SEFI and West End Island) have seen an overall decrease in the pup population of the elephant seals that breed here. Storms similar to the one we experienced at the beginning of the season are thought to be a major contributing factor in this decline. As storms hit the islands, access points cows use to haul out are partially or completely eliminated. Areas around the island that were formally major breeding sites no longer have any elephant seals due to the removal of nice gradual inclines and soft sandy beaches as storms have battered and washed away the sand.

Northern Elephant Seal pup production on the Farallones (total), SEFI and WEI from 1972-2014. The 41 year mean is 227 pups (SD=134). The mean over the last decade is 121 (SD = 43). In 2014 there were a total of 67 pups produced (58 on SEFI and 9 on WEI).
This problem was shoved directly in our faces when our ninth cow of the season became lodged on a rock unable to get up or down while attempting to haul out using Log Channel. Late one morning as we were surveying our Mirounga colony, we noticed there was a cow stuck on a rock struggling to lift herself up onto the beach.  She would turn from side to side and try to push with her flippers but this only resulted in one of her claws getting ripped off from the pressure against the rocks.

At the end of the day, I went back to see if she had been able to get up or down but to my disappointment she was in almost the exact same position as we’d seen her that morning. For over an hour I sat and watched her. She had become increasingly more tired and attempted to move herself less often with longer breaks in between efforts.  Her breathing became more and more labored and her attempted calls would come out as rasps. When a male charged and rammed her, I hoped this would be the push she needed to get down but she just turned her head away and he eventually gave up. Knowing that the tide would not come in until morning, I worried about how this cow would respond to the stress and how the pressure of being wedged would affect the pup.  The next morning, cow -09 was still in the same position she had been stuck in since the day before. Growing increasingly more frustrated with the situation we debated on if there was anything we could or should do to help her but this was nature and not something we felt should be interfered with, so we left her as she was.  Later that afternoon, after being stuck for well over 24 hours, she managed to get down on her own and was floating happily in the small tide pool near where she’d been stuck.

The area where she’d been lodged used to be covered in sand making it a smooth access point for cows but due to storms it is now only accessible to the seals when it is high tide. Winter storms are predicted to increase in frequency and intensity over the next few decades and combined with sea level rise the quality of habitat for elephant seals may be in jeopardy. Elephant seals rely on large sandy beaches safe from high tide lines and storm surges but more and more of the island and coast line habitat they depend on is being lost to the ocean. The island’s breeding sites have become degraded over time and has resulted in a steady decline of the SEFI elephant seal population.

During our winter season on SEFI, we will be looking at the colony of elephant seals that breed here. Though it was a slow start to the season with only nine cows arriving in December, the New Year seems to have brought an influx of new life. As of Jaunary 5th we have 18 cows in the main breeding colony, four of which have pupped.  As more cows arrive and start to pup, this season should prove to be both exciting and very busy.

The next instillation of Los Farallones blog will detail how we use these winter storms to harvest rain water and we have a new team member and introduction to make! Check back in soon to read more about what we've been up to.