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

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Winding Down

Well, I've only got five more days on the island. Just like last year, it feels as if I just arrived. I'll miss the island, but am looking forward to some of the comforts and conveniences of the mainland. Turning the knob labeled "H" and actually getting hot water. A relatively frequent hot shower, not the infrequent warm showers we take out here. Cooking only for myself, and not 3-5 others (makes me appreciate my Mom even more). Maybe I'll even go out to dinner. Reliable internet connectivity. Seeing more than the island and the ocean as my surroundings. Of course, there are things that I will surely miss. The chance of seeing a rare bird on any given day. Not having to go grocery shopping. Cooking only twice a week, and yet eating great meals. Not having to drive anywhere. Observing all the birds, sharks, seals, and whales, pretty much out my front door. The ability to tune in and out of the happenings of the world at will. I can’t say enough about how wonderful this island is, but the other side is that it’s a very small, remote, rocky island which can start to drive you batty. Oh, that reminds me, there’s also the possibility of finding a migrating bat. Anyway, I’ve had a great time, and I hope to have the opportunity to come out again next year.

I keep forgetting to mention that biologists out here also have a blog ( They’ve been doing it for a couple of years and it has some cool info about the island and the other work that is done out here.
Brown Sea Nettle - a type of jellyfish
Several hundred of these guys floated past one day
Wind blown waves during a great sunset
The Beard - Day 52

Saturday, November 8, 2008


I'm at week number 7, and have one more to go. This time of year, the number and diversity of birds starts to drop off, so I start getting anxious to leave. But then I start thinking about what I might miss, and what work I'll have to do once I get back to the mainland. I island has that weird effect of driving you crazy, while also grabbing a hold of you. So, I'll just enjoy my last days out here, and then happily hop on a boat and head back.

In this post, I thought I'd tell you about the Farallist. A lot of birders keep lists of birds they've seen for a number of different areas. People have North American lists, world lists, state lists, county lists, and even yard lists. It gets to be a bit competitive at times, but usually is used as motivation to go out and look for new birds in a given area. The Farallones are no exception. A while back, one of the biologists took the time to organize the island lists of everyone into a single database, which is now an Excel spreadsheet. Anyone who spends time on the island is welcome to add their name and check off the birds they've seen. Now there are over 50 people who've done so. There have been some pretty well known individuals from the bird community who've spent time on the island, so it's exciting to pass one of them up. Recently, I passed David Allen Sibley on the Farallist. For those not in the loop, he's probably the most well known American birder and has published one of the best field guides out there. But on the Farallist, I'm ranked higher than him.

There have been about 420 bird species recorded on or around the island. The person with the most on his list, has seen 360 of those. But he spent 2100 days on the island over 20 or so years. We also have a yard list for the house, which consists of birds that were seen in the yard or by someone standing in the yard. That list is at 357, which is pretty astounding. I am currently at 171 and am ranked 36th. If I get out here next year, I'll have a good chance at breaking 200.

Haven't taken many pictures lately, but I figure that I have to throw a few into each post. It would be pretty boring just reading about a list of birds.

Indian Head through the fog

Sunrise in the fog
Yet another sunset

Monday, November 3, 2008

Not all sunshine and lollipops

It's not paradise out here everyday. Sometimes you have to pay for the privilege of volunteering on the island. We've had some stormy weather over the past few days, but that doesn't mean we get to stay inside all day. On Saturday, a storm that was supposed to drop over an inch of rain was predicted. Since this would be the first significant rainfall since the end of the seabird breeding season, we had a big job to do. You see, our only source of fresh water is precipitation. To collect this water we have a concrete catchment pad (built by the Navy or Coast Guard decades ago) about half the size of a football field, that drains into a collecting tank. During the summer Western Gulls nest there, and generally fowl up the area. So, during this first good rain we (whoever happens to be on the island) have to go out and scrub the whole pad with push brooms. It took four of us 4-5 hours to "clean" the pad. And I say "clean," because it didn't look all that clean after we finished. It was back-breaking work, in a rainstorm. Not what I signed up for. On top of it, we had to complete all of our regular bird surveys. It's a day that I'll probably try to forget.
Not so happy

We definitely moved a ton of dirt, feathers, bone and guano (nice way of saying bird poop), but I think most of you would be hesitant to drink any water that flowed over what was left. Luckily, there is a sophisticated system set-up to treat the water so that it's potable. It starts with a settling tank, where dirt and whatever settle to the bottom. Then the water at the top is pumped into another holding tank. From there, when we need water, we pump it from the holding tank, through a series of filters, to a gravity tank half way up the hill behind the house. While in this tank, it is ozonated to kill any bacteria that made it through the filters. And lastly, down at the house, the water passes through one more filter before flowing out of the tap. It's not the best water I've ever tasted, but it's all part of being off-the-grid out here.

Yesterday was a pretty nice day, but today was stormy again. I had to be outside for several hours in the driving rain, looking for birds, of which there were very few. I know, I know, "Boo hoo, Mark, I have to stand out in the rain for a couple days." It really is a privilege to get to spend so much time out here, and if all it costs me are some sore muscles and callouses, then I consider myself lucky.
Between storms - Saturday

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Rock the Vote

Actually it was "Vote on a Rock." A couple weeks before I left for the island I realized that I would be out there during the election. Since this election is a very important one I wanted to do all that I could to get my chance to vote. Being that my work takes me various places during the year, I don't really have a "home" here in California, so I have kept my Michigan residency. So I had to figure out how to vote in Michigan from a rocky island off the coast of California. Luckily I have some great friends and family that all chipped in to give me a chance to vote. First off I obviously needed an absentee ballot, which requires a form to be filled out and sent to the election officials. My dear mother procured this form and then sent it to the PRBO headquarters, where my boss, Chrissy, made sure it got to the next set of people coming out to the island. At this point I had already been on the island for about three weeks. On the day the new crew, and the form, arrived I filled it out, sealed, and stamped it, and sent it off with the people leaving the island. The island biologist, Jim, then put it in the mail. He would be returning in two weeks on the last boat before the election, which meant that the form had to get back to Michigan, processed, and a ballot sent back to California in about 12 days. I was hopeful, but truly not expecting the ballot to make it in time. Amazingly enough, yesterday when Jim came back, the ballot was on board. We had to do a relatively quick exchange of people and gear, with me at the controls of the crane. So in between runs out to the supply boat I was frantically filling in ovals. With just minutes to spare I finished voting, sealed the envelope, signed it and put on some stamps. With my ballot in the hands of a trusted PRBO intern, Or, I had completed my civic duty to vote. What an operation. I'm probably the first person to actually cast my vote for president on the Farallones since the Coast Guard left in 1968. Thanks to everyone who participated!!!!! I couldn't have done it without you. Obama '08!

Below are some pictures from the last week or so.

Houses through Farallon Weed

Farallon Rides

Cassin's Auklet

Another sunset

Beard - Day 33

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Cassin's Auklets

Tonight a bunch of Cassin's Auklets invaded the island. These small, softball sized seabirds spend most of their time out in the ocean, but do come to land occasionally. Usually it's during the breeding season when they come to the island, for obvious reasons. Their breeding season runs from about April to August. They bring food to their chicks at night because of all the Western Gulls on the island at this time. The Western Gulls are pretty vicious and will peck at and kill anything that goes near it's nest. So under the cover of darkness the auklet's fly in and do their best to avoid any gulls. Since it's not the breeding season you wouldn't expect the auklets to come to the island, but every so often, usually on cloudy or moonless nights they land and start "singing." Tonight was one of those nights. Their song is a kind of screeching, squeaky door sound. Really quite bizarre (see video below for sound). When out to sea they feed on fish and krill (a shrimp-like animal) by diving. Since they are evolved to swim and dive, their feet are set way back on their bodies, just like loons. This fact makes them pretty awkward on land. Add to that the fact that they're flight is a bit out of control, seeing as usually they just need to go straight and fast over the open ocean. This results in some fun for us biologists. You can go out with a headlamp, spot these guys and catch them if you are quick enough. It does have it's dangers though. While walking up the lighthouse path, birds scared by our presence take off, sometimes straight at you and occasionally run into you. Keeps you on your toes.

PRBO has been studying Cassin's Auklet populations on the island for many years. Unfortunately, their breeding population has been on the decline. A couple years ago they had complete nesting failure, meaning not one chick successfully fledged. They believe it was related to the fact that their main food source, krill, were not very abundant that year. The krill weren't abundant because the usual ocean upwelling (cold water brought to the surface by winds) wasn't as strong. The reason for that is up for debate, but could be related to climate change. Since these birds are fairly long lived (~20 years), one bad year won't threaten the entire population, but it is still cause for concern. Hopefully, we'll start seeing more success.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008


The internet has been extremely spotty, so this post is about a week late. We had some very strong winds for about three days. It was probably blowing 30 mph on average with gusts up around 50 mph. Those are the strongest winds I've ever been in. Fun for a little while but not for three days straight. During this time they were trying to put a new roof on the powerhouse. They couldn't work one whole day, but got up there and finished the job in some pretty strong winds. Needless to say almost all of the landbirds left the island. All they had to do was jump and they would have been blown all the way back to the mainland. Some of the gulls had a tough time walking around. You could see them bracing themselves as the staggered behind a rock or one of the houses. I was knocked off balance by gusts a bunch of times. An interesting experience, but one that I'm glad is over.

The ocean whipped into a frenzy

The beard in fierce winds at the lighthouse

Sea foam froth

Thursday, October 9, 2008

The past few days

It's been quiet the past few days birdwise, but there are some interesting things happening on the island. The main thing going on is the roof work on the powerhouse. That roof also holds the solar panels that provide most of our power (we have generators for extra power and backup). All the panels had to be taken down, then the old roof torn off, and then a bunch of guys were helicoptered in to put the new roof on. So we've had up to 18 people on the island. Way more than normal. It's a little annoying, but the work needed to be done and they'll be leaving tomorrow. They've been using a Coast Guard helicopter to ferry supplies out and old roofing material back. That is also annoying and disrupts our normal sea lion noise. Pretty neat to see one of these helicopters (a Blackhawk) up close.
We had a Burrowing Owl show up the other day that we banded last fall out here. That's amazing enough, but it also choose to hang out in the exact same spot (Rhinoceros Auklet burrow #312). Pretty cool.

Winds whipping up Maintop Bay

The view from the lighthouse in heavy fog

Tuesday, October 7, 2008


For a seven day period starting on September 29th we conducted the Farallonathon. PRBO has a fund raising event every fall called the Bird-a-thon. The concept is that you get people to donate a certain amount per bird species that you see in a 24 hour period. So, most people get donations, pick a day to go birding and then try to see as many species as possible to raise money for the organization. They've been doing this for 30 years. Back in 1992, the biologists out here decided to modify that idea and make it a week long and to make it involve more than just birds. The point system can get a little confusing, but it starts to make sense after a couple days. Most bird species are worth one point, but the rarest ones are worth 5 points. We also get points for the different species of whale, dolphin, pinniped, butterfly, dragonfly and fish species we observe. Shark attacks are worth 5 points. The points are not really that important. Really we just try to see as many species of everything as possible, and this time of year is usually very good for migrating birds.

Our first day was pretty good, as we had many new bird species arrive on the island. The weather was looking good for the new few days and we had high hopes for a great Farallonathon. Unfortunately, the weather didn’t quite cooperate and we had a very slow week. We did see several shark attacks, of which I saw two. The bottom line is that an average Farallonathon ends up with around 180 points and we finished with 129. The lowest total ever (the previous low was 133). We were all disappointed and cursed the National Weather Service.

Since I don’t have lots of pictures of really cool birds, I’ll just put up some that I took recently.

Elephant Seals

Black Turnstones

One day I had to go collect Brandt's Cormorant pellets from one of their breeding areas with the head biologist. They are kind of like owl pellets, undigestible parts of what they eat that are regurgitated. Unlike owl pellets, these aren't furry, they're actually kind of rubbery and usually flat. They contain fish otoliths, which are small inner ear bones that can help determine what species of fish was eaten and how old it was. Not the most exciting thing to do out here, but a new experience non the less.

Brandt's Cormorant Pellet

Good waves at sunset

Beard growth - Day 10

Sunday, October 5, 2008


I took this video of one of the nicer sunsets we've had. On really clear days while watching a sunset over the ocean you are supposed to a brief green flash right as the sun slips behind the horizon. I think I saw a little bit of green on this sunset, but it doesn't show up well on my video. A nice sunset anyway, enjoy!

More from West End

While out at West End I took this short video, but haven't been able to upload it because of the poor internet connectivity. The Northern Fur Seal isn't the largest pinniped we have, but it may be the most stubborn. We needed to get past these guys to conduct a survey.

Monday, September 29, 2008

South Winds

We're always waiting for south winds out here on the Farallones in the fall. Usually when the normal northwest winds shift around to the south we start seeing some new birds. If conditions are just right the island is invaded with lots of birds of many different species. Today wasn't great, but we did see some great birds. I saw 12 species of warbler today (Chestnut-sided, Black-throated Gray, Magnolia, Yellow, Tennessee, Palm, Yellow-rumped, Townsend's, Cape May Warblers, Ovenbird, Common Yellowthroat, and American Redstart) of which 7 are normally seen only in the Eastern US. It's a ton of fun walking around the island on days like this because you never know what you might see and where. Birds gravitate towards the trees, but also find nice hiding places in the cracks and crevices of the rock. I saw the Ovenbird while scrambling up Lighthouse Hill looking for the Cape May Warbler, picking insects off of some moss. Overall a fun day. The weather looks good for the next few days, so hopefully we'll see something really rare. Below are some of the birds that we saw today.

Magnolia Warbler
Chestnut-sided WarblerClay-colored Sparrow

Ovenbird up on Lighthouse Hill
A nice sunset a few days ago

Friday, September 26, 2008

West End

I wrote this a few days ago, but the internet has been spotty.

The few days since my last post have been uneventful bird-wise, but I was able to explore a new area and interact with some of the pinnipeds. Every two weeks the head biologist (Jim) needs to count Northern Fur Seals on West End. For safety reasons, two people are required to go and since I had never been there, I got to go. West End is actually a separate island than Southeast Farallon (which is where we are), but there is only a narrow channel between the two. We don’t normally go over there because it is too disruptive to the pinnipeds (California Sea Lions, Steller’s Sea Lions, Elephant Seals, and Northern Fur Seals) over there and the channel crossing is somewhat tricky. To cross the Jordan Channel, as it’s named, you have to put on a climbing harness and clip yourself to a pulley attached to a cable that runs across the channel. Then you pull yourself over to the other side and scramble up the rocks. The harness is then sent back across for the other person.
Jim crossing the Jordan Channel

Once we are both on the other side, we have to carefully pick our way through the California Sea Lions (which are the most numerous pinniped). They are pretty skittish and move as we approach, but we don’t want to scare them into stampeding towards the water and possibly injuring themselves. The spot Jim counts from is up on a ridge overlooking a flat area where the Fur Seals like to hangout and is probably about a quarter mile from the channel. It took us about two hours to cover that ground and not cause too much disturbance. When we got to the ridge, there were several Fur Seals up there. Unlike the Sea Lions, the Fur Seals aren’t very afraid of us and tend to stand their ground.

Northern Fur Seal

After some coaxing, we were able to conduct the survey. The Northern Fur Seal was once very abundant here, but like most of the pinnipends were hunted extensively. None were seen on the islands since the early 1800s, but in the mid-1990s they started to return. Jim counted 119 on that day’s survey, 40 of which were pups. Hopefully the island’s population continues to recover.
Northern Fur Seal

Our hike back to the channel only took half an hour since most the Sea Lions had already moved out of our way. It was cool to get a different perspective on the island and see some of the Fur Seals up close.
Looking back from West End

I also saw a Gray Whale, of which I got some distant pictures. It was pretty fun to watch it swim around and come up to the surface. The other day I was doing a seabird survey and saw a Humpback Whale shoot up all the way out of the water. Humpbacks are the most common whale we see, but this was the first time I’d seen one entirely out of the water. Totally awesome.
Gray Whale

The winds are supposed to change on Sunday, so we are expecting some new birds to arrive in a few days.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Back out on a Rock

I just couldn’t stay away. Last year was some much fun that I had to come back. And not only come back, but for a full 7 weeks, one week longer than last year. This year I’m starting a month earlier, which means that I’ll see more birds and different birds. I’ll try to post regularly, assuming I have the time, energy, and internet connectivity.

In this first post, I’ll tell you a little about the preparation for going out to the island. There are trips out to the island every 2-3 weeks to move people onto/off of the island and re-supply them with food and other supplies. What that means to me is that I have to going grocery shopping for 2 weeks worth of food for 4-6 people the night before I leave. Luckily PRBO (where I work, provides a truck, a list of food items (made by someone on the island), and a blank check. Usually two people go to make it pretty manageable. We are told to try to get everything on the list, plus anything we want to add (Cheez-Its for me), and to buy organic when possible. This time it took us 2.5 hrs to fill four shopping carts and spend $1,081. The food then has to be packed in boxes for the journey. We packed all the dry goods that night and the frozen/refrigerated items the next morning. On the morning we leave for the island, all the food and our personal gear is packed into the truck and we head for the boat.
At the dock

The boats that PRBO usually uses for supply runs are part of the Farallon Patrol, a group of boat owners that donate the use of their boats and their time. A lot of these boats are about 45' long sail boats, which may sound big, but aren’t. This year I was very lucky, because I got to go with some VIPs on a very nice 85' boat.

The boat

Once on the island, we have to move all of that food to the house and put it away. That takes at least an hour. Trying to fit all that food into three fridges and a freezer is a challenge. After the last of the food is put away, we’re finally free to go an look for birds. It’s a lot of work to pull it off, but in the end it's a small price to pay for the opportunity to spend time out on Southeast Farallon Island.
Arriving at the Farallones

Another shot of the boat

Happy to be back!