Sunday, October 25, 2009


If all went according to plan, I would be writing this entry from the mainland.  When you talk about going to or leaving the island, you should always follow it with "weather dependent."  This is the first time that I've been delayed due to weather, so I guess it's a new experience.  I should have gotten on a boat this past Saturday, along with a few other crew members.  The wind and swell combined to make for some very rough seas.  We are hoping to get a boat out here tomorrow.  I'm trying to enjoy the extra couple days I've been given on the island, though I was looking forward to getting back.  The winds that created the weather problems also leave very few birds on the island.  

Since no boat came, we didn't get a new shipment of food and are running low on certain items.  We have no fresh vegetables, no eggs, no milk, no beer, and a dwindling amount of cheese.  We aren't in danger of starving, but making dinner is becoming challenging.  Usually, we are well stocked and can make some really good dinners.  I had the pleasure of cooking tonight.  Luckily for the last shop I had requested tortellini, a good base to start with.  I ended up making the cheese tortellini with an olive oil, garlic, and black olive sauce topped with copious amounts of parmesan cheese.  As a side I thawed some frozen corn and peas and tossed it with butter and salt.  Whilst fishing out the frozen veggies, I discovered a large amount to frozen berries.  Turns out sorbet is basically pureed and frozen fruit.  After a bit of fighting with the blender I created a mango, strawberry, blueberry, and raspberry sorbet.  Not bad.

Hope my next post is from the mainland!
Elephant Seals

California Sea Lion

Harbor Seal sleeping in Jewel Cave

Crab in Jewel Cave

Wind blown wave at sunset

Up at the lighthouse

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Storm

After the wave of birds, we got to see some impressive storm waves. Remnants of a typhoon came to the California coast this past Monday, bringing rain, wind and waves to the island. This is the first big storm of the season. For those of you unfamiliar with the climate of northern California, during the winter months it rains and then during the spring through fall it doesn't. And when I say it doesn't rain, I really mean it doesn't rain. Storms in October aren't unprecedented, but one of this magnitude is notable. On the mainland, areas up in the coastal mountains got gusts over 70 mph and over 10 in. of rain. One place even reported 21 in. of rain. Pretty insane. Out on the island we had sustained winds of 30 mph with gusts probably up to 50 mph and maybe 3-4 in. of rain. I wasn't really impressed by the wind and rain (there wasn't even any lightning), but the surface of the ocean was whipped up into a frenzy. The below shots are at East Landing, the place we usually launch a boat to move people and supplies to and from the island. Not that day.  Most of the weather we get comes from the northwest, so the fact that this storm came from the south made it that much more interesting.

The top of that rock is a good 30ft above the water

That's me behind the water spot

With the first major rain of the season comes the responsibility of cleaning the catchment pad.  This approximately half football field sized concrete slab catches rainwater that we collect in a big tank and eventually use for all our freshwater needs on the island.  During the spring and summer Western Gulls nest on the pad.  They are not tidy.  So to help out with collecting the water that we all use on the island, when the first rain comes the crew out here "cleans" the catchment pad.  This is not fun.  I had the pleasure of doing this last year, and was not looking forward to it when this storm was predicted.  In the end it wasn't as bad as last year, and we made the best of it, trying to have some fun.

Certain areas of the island funnel the wind, making it even stronger.  It's pretty amusing to lean into the wind, as you can see.

The storm prevented any new birds from finding the island and soaked the ones that were here.  We've been steadily losing birds (meaning they left the island) since then and are waiting for another wave of migrants.  It might not happen, but we still have hope.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Farallons at Their Best

It's been awhile since I've been able to get a post up.  First the internet went down (bummer) and then we were hit with a massive wave of migrant birds (super awesome), not leaving much time for anything but looking for birds.  As noted in my last post, the weather had not been cooperating and we ended up having one of the worst Septembers on record in terms of numbers and variety of birds arriving on the island.  The crew was starting to lose hope, but then on Oct. 6th a small wavelet of migrants arrived.  A couple of the interesting birds were Hermit Warbler, Vesper Sparrow, Great Blue Heron, and Varied Thrush.  Nothing too unusual, but it was the highest diversity we'd seen all fall.  With this small influx of birds and a weather forecast that looked like it might bring some birds our way, we decided to start Farallon-a-thon.  I posted about this last year (which had the lowest total ever), so if you sift through my posts you should find it.  In short, as part of PRBO's Bird-a-thon (see my first post this year), we run a week long search for as many species as possible.  We of course focus on birds, but also include marine mammals, butterflies, dragonflies, sharks, and even the one species on salamander (I found the salamander this year).  This always adds a bit of excitement to our daily searches, but also puts pressure on us to beat previous years totals.  We were shooting low this year, just wanted to beat last year's dismal total.

On Oct. 9th the wave hit, and slammed us big time.  The island was crawling (I guess flitting) with birds.  We were racking up the Farallon-a-thon points left and right, up and down.  We also had two shark attacks, which give us 5 points each.  Walking outside was a bit of sensory overload.  Usually you can walk around, find some birds, identify them and move on.  That day so many birds were around that you'd flush a dozen birds and only be able to identify one of them.  This of course is frustrating since you don't know what the other birds were, but at the same time you could look at a flock and see new birds all day.  I spent all day birding.  When we filled in the journal that night, the estimated total number of landbirds (so not including ducks, gulls, shorebirds, etc.) was 1332.  There isn't a single landbird that breeds on the island.  During most of the year there are only a handful of wayward songbirds on the island, so this is pretty amazing.  We saw 87 migrant bird species including a Gray-cheeked Thrush, which is very rare in California.

Arboreal Salamander (1 Farallonathon point)

Gray-cheeked Thrush (5 Farallonathon points)

We continued to have many birds around for the next three days, with new birds showing up each day.  Over those days we saw 21 species of warbler, including Tennessee, Black-throated Blue, Black-throated Green, Blackburnian, and Black-and-white.

Blackburnian Warbler

Black-throated Blue Warbler, female

Other interesting birds were Tropical Kingbird (a life bird for me), Tricolored Blackbird, and Virginia Rail.  The rail was flushed near one of the houses and ran to a nearby bush.  When we approached the bush the bird never came out.  There were some auklet nest boxes at the base of the bush, so we looked inside, found the bird, caught it, and banded it.  Rails are birds of the wetlands and tend to run rather than fly, so it's always exciting when one shows up out here.

Lifer Tropical Kingbird

Tricolored Blackbird (left flying bird), Yellow-headed Blackbird, Red-winged Blackbirds, and Brown-headed Cowbirds

The most exciting find during this time is a bit of a disappointment for me since I didn't get to see it.  The island biologist very briefly saw a Yellow-breasted Bunting.  They have only been recorded in Alaska a few times and never in the lower 48.  It is a sparrow that breeds in Asia, and therefore was way, way off course.  Unfortunately, no one else saw the bird and we never refound it.  It's hard to believe that a bird could disappear on a island with only four trees, but some of them find a way.

I know I'm forgetting a ton of cool things that happened, but I wanted to get a post up about it while the internet was working.

Black-throated Gray Warbler

Foggy Sunset

Hoary Bat - the first I've found on the island

Sun breaking through the clouds over Maintop

Lark Bunting

Orange-crowned Warbler

Burrowing Owl

Short-eared Owl

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Wildly Windswept Week

Over the past several days we've experienced lots of wind. This can be fun and exciting for a few hours, but after that it gets old quickly. It was blowing 25-30mph with gusts up to 40mph. This makes for some good ocean watching. Whitecaps everywhere, sea spray blowing up and waves crashing all around the island. Some areas of the island tend to funnel the winds and make them even stronger. With winds like this you can go to those spots and lean against the wind. Along with the wind, we've had some very good visibility. You can clearly see Bolinas, Mount Tamalpais, the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco (easily make out the TransAmerica Pyramid), and Mount Diablo. The last is 60 miles away. The mainland seems pretty close on days like this.

After you get bored with looking at the ocean and the mainland, you are left with the fact that there are no birds on the island. Okay, that's not entirely true. There are still plenty of gulls, cormorants, and oystercatchers, plus a few Burrowing Owls, Western Meadowlarks, Black Phoebes, and Savannah Sparrows. You have to understand that the biologists here are drawn by the possibility of a fallout. A fallout, in the bird world, is when a large number of birds arrive in one place on the same day. This is a relatively common (several a fall) occurrence on SEFI. With light south winds, overcast skies, and good but limited visibility, we can expect to see a wave of new birds show up. That really hasn't happened this year and that makes the biologists a bit antsy. We check the weather reports and try to hold onto the hope of a good fallout. By the way it's looking better for Tuesday and Wednesday.

We do our best to keep busy. Entering data, pulling invasive plants, baking, reading, and of course talking about birds. When will they show up? What will show up? Which continent will it be from?

I've tried to take the time to take some more pictures of Elephant Seals and sunsets. You're guaranteed to see both of those out here.

In the foam

They like to float head up out of the water


Closeup of wrinkled skin



Gull in sunset

Sunset over Indian Head

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Back on a rock - a day late and a shrike short

Well I'm back out on Southeast Farallon Island.  Got here on September 26th and will be here for four weeks.  Shorter than my two past trips, but I think it will be a good length.  I'll try to get as many blog posts in as possible, but the internet (as always) is very spotty out here.

So a couple days before I arrived a Brown Shrike was found and banded on the island.  For those of you who aren't birders, this is an amazing bird.  This was only the third record for California.  One of the other sightings was from the island as well.  The shrike lives in Asia, so it traveled a very long distance to get here.  It left the island by the time I got there.  I'm very bitter that I missed it by one day, but there's nothing you can do about it. Maybe I'll get over it in a few years.

The weather hasn't been ideal to bring birds to the island, but we did have a nice group of birds show up on the 27th.  They included Painted Bunting, Bay-breasted Warbler, and Prairie Warbler (which I found and banded).

Just to remind everyone, the work I do out on Southeast Farallon Island (SEFI) is volunteer work for PRBO Conservation Science.  PRBO is also the organization I work for the rest of the year, you can find out more about them at  SEFI also has a blog where we post bird sightings and photos,  The Farallons are a National Wildlife Refuge and PRBO is contracted to conduct wildlife monitoring here, so without the support of the USFWS we couldn't do any of this great work.

One more plug.  PRBO has a fundraiser every fall called a Bird-a-thon, where counters go out and bird watch for one continuous 24 hr period and try to see as many species as they can.  They try to get sponsors to donate money per species seen.  It it our biggest fundraiser as we appreciate any help we can get.  I recently completed my Bird-a-thon (125 species), but you can still donate at

I pre-beared this year since I'm only out for a month


Gulls at sunset

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Back to the real world

I made it back to the mainland last Saturday aboard a NOAA research vessel. A very nice and fast boat. The trip usually takes 6 hours by sailboat (the normal transportation) and 2 1/2 hours by motorboat, but my trip back only took 1 1/2 hours. It made it hard to look for birds on the way back, but I can't complain. I'm back in Bolinas now, trying to start working again. It's very hard to sit in front of a computer for very long, but I'm sure I'll get back into it soon enough.

I had a great time out there and hope to go back next out there next year. Thanks for reading!

Looking up Lighthouse Hill at sunset
Purple Finch - the last bird I banded on the island
Sunset on Saddle Rock
Main Top at sunset
Sunset over Indian Head
From the northwest while leaving
From the west
From the southwest
Cruising under the Golden Gate Bridge
In my room, left over from Halloween
The Beard - Day 55