Monday, June 23, 2014

An island milestone



Recently on the island we celebrated Farallon Biologist Pete Warzybok’s 1800th night on South East Farallon Island. That’s nearly 5 years of Pete’s life spent living, sleeping and working on the island! 
5 years on the island - long enough for Pete to have seen pretty much everything...

To celebrate this momentous occasion, we managed to squeeze in a pancake breakfast before heading out for our morning visit to the common murre study plots.

The interns had also secretly constructed an award worthy of such a day, capturing the essence of Pete’s commitment to the birds on the island: a personalized gull stake (usually used to mark Western Gull study nests) complete with commemorative plaque and feathered Western Gull artwork. This was hidden in the weather station box outside the house, where Pete, still bleary-eyed, checks the temperature at 7am every day. Surprise!!
Pete's award

Craftsmanship worthy of the milestone.
Pete with his personalised gull stake award.


2014 is Pete’s 14th season on the island. We put Pete’s memory to the test and asked him about his time on the island over the past 14 years - the birds, the weather, the places, the food, the funny. Here’s what we learnt!

What struck you about the place in your first season (as an intern in 2000)?
The abundance of life - there’s so much going on and you’re right in the middle of it.

Favorite species?
Like all good parents, Pete’s answer was non-committal. “I love them all, differently, at different times”. Hmmm…..come on Pete - all parents secretly have a favorite…admit it.
Pete did later admit that he had a favorite chick – he couldn’t go past the common murre chicks with their frost-tipped down.
Common murre chick

Favorite spot on the island?
The murre blind, high on Shubrick Point, where Pete has spent approximately 1800 mornings watching the breeding murres below the blind. As well as the great view across the murre colony to Fertilizer Flat, Arch Rock and Sugarloaf, on clear days the views up the coast of Marin County to Point Reyes and beyond are spectacular.
The murre blind, and view from Shubrick Point.

Funniest visitor?
Huell Howser, who filmed an episode of California’s Gold on the Farallon Islands. As you can imagine, Huell had plenty to be amazed about during his visit - count the “wow”s in this short clip from the episode.  

Best island cook?
Ed Ueber, who was a gourmet chef as well as the Head of the Gulf of the Farallones Sanctuary at the time. He’d arrive on the island, head straight to the kitchen and throw a loaf of bread in the oven. He loved cooking for people so much he’d cook every night he was on the island (normally, the island’s residents take turns cooking for the whole team). One of Pete’s best meals on the island was Ed doing amazing things with duck, and duck fat (as Pete recalled this festival of duck, a Homer-esque glaze came over his face).

Worst meal on the island?
One head of cauliflower with brown sauce. This was served up by an intern as dinner. With no accompaniments. 
Cauliflower - needs more than just brown sauce to make a meal.

Funniest experience?
Judging a yo-yo competition (while wearing a gull hat, complete with wings) which included a 90 second free program to music. The interns were competing for a mystery prize, which turned out to be worth their hours of rehearsal - a signed David Attenborough photo.

A close second was spontaneous post-cormorant-banding parties, when the participants (more than mildly hysterical, having had no sleep, still crawling with lice, waiting for a shower, having a beverage while waiting for the shower) suddenly get the music going and ta-da, party time at 7am!

Wildest weather experience?
60 knot winds and 20 foot seas in a late winter storm. Waves were washing over Saddle Rock and the crane at East Landing. Pete went down to East Landing to tie the boat down as he was worried about it washing away. He had to hide behind one of the thruster boxes (which house the winches for the crane) to avoid a wave. Note: in normal conditions these boxes are 20m or so from any water (and about 8m above sea level).


If you were going to be reincarnated as one of the species on the island, which would it be?
Pigeon guillemot, because they look as though they are having the most fun.

Pigeon guillemots are very social birds, and we enjoy them gathering to sing and squabble and cavort on the breeze (the windier the better!) around the blinds in the mornings, flashing their bright red feet and gapes.

Pigeon guillemot


So thanks Pete for all your work on the island, from the birds, pinnipeds, salamanders and all the island’s species (even the interns). Happy 1800th!
The Western gulls say thanks.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Diet of Emerging Chicks



Newly hatched western gull chick.

Two week old Cassin's auklet chick.

It’s happening. All over the island chicks are busting free from their shells after weeks of incubation. In order to provision these new balls of down during the brooding phase, parent birds have begun the task of collecting prey from the ocean, or in the case of the western gulls, from regional dumps and local supermarkets back on the mainland. Scott Shaffer, a researcher with San Jose State University, and his grad student Emma Kelsey recently deployed GPS tags on several birds out here on SEFI, in an effort to provide insights into the foraging ranges of individual birds. Gulls are professional opportunists. We’ve watched them regurgitate a wide range of prey from fish and squid, eggs and chicks from neighboring nests, to chicken breasts and plastic action figures. As you can see from the tracks below, foraging patterns vary widely amongst individuals; some apparently prefer the bounties of the continental shelf break while others prefer the bounties of the city.    


Once a successful foraging trip has been made, different species of birds have adopted different strategies for food delivery. In response researchers have developed various approaches to determine what exactly parent birds are feeding their young. Western gulls for example barf up ingested prey to their chicks, which from a distance has the appearance of, well, barf. Thus a barf sample collected from a parent bird is necessary to key out individual prey items. This same technique is also used for determining Cassin’s auklet and cormorant diet. Birds like common murres or pigeon guillemots require a far less messy approach. These two species of Alcids bring back a single fish or invertebrate to their awaiting chick after each foraging bout. Parent birds will fly in from the sea carrying prey items in their bill, visible enough to be identified with binoculars from a distance. Other Alcids, such as rhinoceros auklets, delivery food only after the sun sets when visual observation is impossible. These birds have to be netted at dusk to obtain samples of fish they bring in. Rhinoceros auklets carry multiple fish of varying species in a single bill load back to their chicks, some samples with as many as 10 prey items.

The gang from 2012 during a pigeon guillemot diet watch.

Energetically, not all prey sources are equal. Young of the year salmon, for example, are far more beneficial to a growing fluff ball than Pacific Saury. Though at times rather invasive, determining what chicks are eating out here is crucial for understanding the overall health and status of seabird populations on the Farallones, as well as the overall health of the ocean where these birds forage and make a living. Seabirds are excellent indicators of changing oceanic conditions, during a time when our oceans are experiencing change at an unprecedented rate.

Measuring salmon brought in by a rhinoceros auklet, with bags of Cassin's auklet barf samples (mostly krill)  on the left.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Letters From Home



Thanks to modern technology those of us living out here on this isolated rock are surprisingly well connected to the mainland. Internet beamed 26 miles across the Gulf of the Farallones from San Francisco provide us with access to phone, email, news, weather, entertainment, and even a handy web cam perched atop Lighthouse Hill. So long as the lichen layer on the dishes are kept in check and the gulls don’t block the signal we can keep in touch with family and friends with the click of a mouse. In the nascent years of those who first occupied the Farallones however, communication with shore required significantly more effort than simply opening a web browser.

With the discovery of Californian Gold in 1849, San Francisco was transformed from a sleepy fishing port to a major hub for vessels flooding into the region from all over the world hoping. Hundreds of ships carrying thousands of men were tasked with navigating the many hazards that guard the entrance to San Francisco Bay, specifically the Farallon Islands to the west. Without modern GPS, radar, or navigational aids, these vulnerable vessels were literally sailing blind at night. The solution, lighthouses, a series of them erected all along the west coast during the mid-1800. 

The Farallon Light and its subsequent living quarters were completed in 1853, and became operational with the installment of a first order Fresnel lens in 1854. Lighthouses were anything but automated back then. Lighthouse keepers who lived on the island with their families worked in three hour shifts to ignite, monitor, and extinguish the oil lamp, clean soot off the magnifying prisms, maintain working order of the weight and gears that rotated the lens, and above all guard government property from the irritable and often mal tempered ‘eggers’ who cohabitated the island at the time. 

Unlike other stations along the mainland, working the Farallon Light had the potential for a rather lonely existence for some. `Written letters were the only form of communication available on island at the time; and with infrequent visits by boat together with a difficult landing, news from home arrived few and far between. The following is letter from a former lighthouse keeper to his brother in 1858, providing a glimpse into what life was like back then.

Farallones Light House Aug. 15th 1858
Dear Brother Horace,
               Your letter of July 1st was sent out to me a few days ago by Sodowick and I can assure you I was glad to hear from you, as I always am to hear from home.   
               Since I wrote you last I have been to town spending the Fourth with Sod. and setting up the accounts of the Light House for the last fiscal year. The late keeper was a very ignorant man and the accounts were all hurly burly but they are straight now, and correct up to the close of the fiscal year (30th June). We have been having beautiful weather (for the Farallones) for several days past… We are considerably bothered about getting news here as it is very difficult to land. The Island as you are perhaps aware is a high, rugged, and barren mass of rocks in the open ocean. There are but two places where you can land at all, and then only with a small boat in smooth weather. There has never been regular communication with the city except by the boat which brings out our provisions once in 3 months, and the reason has been that the late keeper in the first place could hardly write an intelligible letter, and furthermore if he asked for anything more than the regular supply of oil etc. for the light, he was afraid he would be blamed for being too expensive, but the case is exactly the opposite…Maj. B. told me that he took a great interest in our light etc. (as it is the best and most important on the whole Pacific coast and also the most isolated) and would do all in his power to make us as comfortable as possible, so I hope in future we shall not be bothered so much about getting our letters.
               My eyes have not got well yet, but they are much better and I hope they will not plague me much longer. I do not think it is from hereditary causes, and am inclined to believe it is caused partially, if not wholly, from an impure state of the blood. I am now taking some syrup for my blood (which I know is impure) and also using Thompson’s Eye Water. I reduce it one-half and put a few drops in my eyes every night when I go to bed, and it has helped me much, but I expect one great reason why yours are so much inflamed, is looking at the “female form divine”. I presume my eyes would be worse than they are now if I could be at home this winter and go to a few parties and school exhibitions. A great trouble for us, are they not, these women…
               Give my love to all the family, and particularly to little Lydia, and believe me, as ever,
                                                                                                         Your affectionate brother
                                                                                                         Amos

Despite our easy access to the digital world, there’s still something special about receiving a hand written letter or care package from a loved one back home. So thanks to everyone who has sent us letters in the past, and please keep them coming.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Farallon Spring Songbird Surprise!



Farallon Spring Songbird Surprise!

On April 30 and May 1, the island witnessed a wave of spring passerine migrants! While northwest winds are generally prevailing during spring, easterly winds brought this influx of birds from the mainland. Birds that are blown out to SEFI tend to concentrate in the island’s three trees, where they are easily found. Passerines often stay for a few days to rest and refuel before continuing on their long journeys to northern breeding grounds. If weather conditions are favorable, the birds then tend to leave at night to avoid being seen by predators. While we still spend most of our days focused on our long-term seabird studies, it was amazing to watch the trees buzzing with activity as passerines busily flitted about! 

We were fortunate to have seven Warbling Vireos visit! Although these birds seem drab, they have a beautiful song and were great fun to watch as they foraged.


We saw two Hermit Warblers, one of which suddenly arrived at the lighthouse. When passerines find the island, they sometimes target the highest elevation point before working their way down to the trees.


The bespectacled Cassin’s Vireo is quite beautiful, and we had a pair that was foraging in very plain view below the trees. It was exciting to see another variety of Cassin’s (along with our Cassin’s Auklet celebrities) on the island! 


The visiting Orange-crowned Warblers were very fond of our Lavatera bushes, where they were surely finding many insects among the blossoms. This species is very similar to the Tennessee Warbler, but the latter has lighter undertail feathers.


Wilson’s Warblers seem bright and cheery with their yellow plumage and black caps.


As is the case with so many warblers, the male Townsend’s Warbler is simply stunning!



This Nashville warbler has a bold white eyering, and the male often sports a red cap.



Yellow-rumped Warblers from both the Audubon’s (top photo) and myrtle (bottom photo) subspecies groups often visit the island. The Audubon’s warbler can be distinguished by its yellow throat and gray cheeks, while the adult myrtle warbler has a white throat and black mask.


Many Black-throated Gray Warblers were busily hopping about in the trees. This species can be easily identified by the small yellow dot in front of the eye and boldly marked black and white face.


 warbler sketches by Anna Stunkel

Here is our total list of passerines and hummingbirds that arrived during this two-day wave:

Anna’s Hummingbird- 1
Allen’s Hummingbird- 2
Hammond’s Flycatcher- 1
Pacific-slope Flycatcher- 2
Cassin’s Vireo- 2
Warbling Vireo- 7
Barn Swallow- 1
House Wren- 1
Ruby-crowned Kinglet- 4
Hermit Thrush- 3
Townsend’s Solitaire- 1
Tennessee Warbler- 1
Orange-crowned Warbler- 3
Nashville Warbler- 3
Audubon’s Warbler- 11
Myrtle Warbler- 5
Audubon’s Warbler x Myrtle Warbler Intergrade- 1
Black-throated Gray Warbler- 5
Townsend’s Warbler- 10
Hermit Warbler- 2
Wilson’s Warbler- 3
Western Tanager- 3
Chipping Sparrow- 1
White-throated Sparrow- 1
White-crowned Sparrow- 3
Golden-crowned Sparrow- 3
Black-headed Grosbeak- 9
Lazuli Bunting- 3
Brown-headed Cowbird- 4
Bullock’s Oriole- 5
American Goldfinch- 1
House Sparrow- 2

Since this passerine wave, we are continuing to have other migrant visitors during our recent calm weather.