Saturday, March 31, 2007

March Madness!

When most people hear the term March Madness, they automatically think of a popular college basketball tournament and start laying wagers on which teams will reach the Final Four or win the championship. On the Farallones however, March is a time of maintenance madness and the only wagers are over when the first eggs will get laid.

Though we only have a few buildings and five people, the Farallon field station is effectively a self contained city with our own Department of Water and Power (the solar array and water catchment systems), Department of Transportation (boats and cranes), Department of Public Works (trail and blind maintenance) and of course Department of Housing and Urban Development (human houses and auklet boxes). There is a lot of work required to keep things functioning properly and to make it a comfortable place for the biologists to live and work. Boat motors must be serviced, cranes inspected, water heaters repaired, houses maintained, and nest boxes constructed. Every person who works on the island becomes an amateur mechanic, plumber, painter, electrician, drywaller, mason, and carpenter in addition to our regular careers as biologists.

The buildings we live in were originally constructed in the 1870’s to provide housing for the lighthouse keepers and their families. Though still structurally as sound as they day they were built, they require periodic work to keep them in good shape and to repair the damage caused during winter storms.

This year the major projects have been repairing water damage to the walls, repainting some of the bedrooms, and upgrading the electrical systems by installing grounded outlets and new energy efficient lighting.

But it’s not just our housing that needs upkeep. Cassin’s Auklets, Rhinoceros Auklets, and Pigeon Guillemots routinely breed in wooden nest boxes placed around the island. These boxes provide important habitat and aid our ability to study and monitor the birds. Of course, they eventually succumb to the forces of entropy (moisture, rockfalls, or the weight of an elephant seal to name a few) and must be replaced. The birds themselves also spend some of their time refurbishing their homes, cleaning out burrows, and building nests.

As the seabird breeding cranks up over the next few weeks, we will have less time to accomplish these tasks so March becomes a mad dash to get everything completed, repaired, or replaced before the first eggs get laid.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Changing Seasons

March is a period of transition on the Farallones. The typical southwesterly winds which bring in those impressive winter storms gradually shift around to the north, often blowing with a vengeance and driving the process of upwelling that makes the Gulf of the Farallones one of the most productive areas in the world. This change in the weather coincides with dramatic changes in the wildlife dominating the island. The elephant seal breeding season has come to a close. The last pups have weaned from their mothers and the cows and bulls have finally returned to the water after spending the last several months on land. There they will spend most of their time feeding and recuperating from the trials of the breeding season, regaining their energy reserves and putting on a nice thick layer of blubber.

March is also the time when the seabirds return to take over the island and set up for their own breeding efforts. Experienced birds will return to their former breeding territories, court mates, and begin nest building while younger birds will come back for the first time to try to fight for a spot of their own.

These changes of course also trigger a period of transition for the small human population on the island. On March 10th, the winter elephant seal research crew departed the island to be replaced by the seabird crew. Over the next six months we will dedicate ourselves to studying the population trends, survival, diet, and reproductive success of the 12 species of seabirds which call these rocky islands home. Western Gulls, Common Murres and Brandt’s Cormorants cover the surface of the island during the summer months.

Cassin’s Auklets, Rhinoceros Auklets, Pigeon Guillemots, Tufted Puffins, Ashy and Leach’s Storm-petrels rule the underworld. They make their nests underground in dirt burrows or rocky crevices. Pelagic Cormorants dot the cliff sides with their nests while Double-crested Cormorants prefer to stick together in one small colony on the very top of a particular hill called Maintop. Black Oystercatchers, our only breeding shorebird, fill the remaining space around the perimeter of the island.
More than a quarter million seabirds breed on the Farallones each year, including the world’s largest breeding colony of Western Gulls with almost 20,000 birds, and the largest colony of Common Murres in California with more than 210,000 birds last year!

Biologists from PRBO have been conducting research on the Farallones since 1967. The long-term datasets that we have compiled on seabird populations, reproductive success, phenology (timing of reproductive events such as egg laying) and diet has revealed some dramatic changes over the last 40 years and has allowed us to use seabirds to learn about both natural and human caused changes in the marine environment.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Underwater World

The past few days have been unseasonably calm in the Gulf of the Farallones, with almost no swell and a slight breeze, so we decided to take the opportunity to do some snorkeling around the island. Seeing the watery world beneath the surface of the sea reminded us of why the Farallon Islands are so biologically important. The Farallones are perched on the edge of the continental shelf, where cold waters upwelling from the deep ocean bring nutrients that support a remarkable web of life, from plants, plankton, and fish to seabirds, seals, sharks, and whales.

Near East Landing, Dungeness crabs munched on iridescent maroon kelp. Schools of larval fish swarmed among rose-colored coralina against a backdrop of bright orange sponges. Here and there a greenling or a China cod darted into the safety of a sea cave. In Fisherman’s Bay, we saw green anemone as big as a human head, abalone the size of hubcaps, and a wide variety of colorful sea stars, from giant pisasters to bat stars, and a spectacular purple sunflower star. Occasionally a harbor seal would swim over to investigate us – a welcome change from their wariness of humans on land. Typically we have to stay hidden from the seals so we don’t scare them into the water, but underwater they are in their element.

A healthy ocean ecosystem offers so much to humans, from providing food to absorbing carbon dioxide, and is critical to our survival as a species. It is easy to forget that 80% of the world exists beneath the sea surface and is vulnerable to harm if we fail to protect it. Future generations will thank us for our foresight in conserving the biological resources of the Gulf of the Farallones.