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.