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!