Thursday, October 22, 2009

Farallon Update - October 21

Well it’s been a quiet week on Southeast Farallon, our home island, out here on the edge of the continental shelf. With September being one of the slowest on record (we banded 90% fewer birds than average), the crew was a bit downtrodden. We had to take joy in the few birds that were showing up. On Oct. 1 a couple of White-tailed Kites made a lap around the lighthouse, and we discovered one of the Burrowing Owls that was banded in 2007. A5 (the number on its blue color band) has spent the past three winters on the island in the same auklet burrow. The next few days were pretty windy, leaving us with fairly low bird diversity, and even lower spirits.

On Oct. 5 we saw a ray of sunshine with a small increase in diversity, including a couple unusual species. Great Blue Heron, Northern Harrier, Black-bellied Plover, and Varied Thrush all made an appearance. The weather forecast was showing some favorable conditions over the next several days, so we decided to start the Farallonathon. This is an annual event each fall in which we attempt to score points by finding as many species as possible, including marine mammals, fish, salamanders, butterflies, dragonflies, as well as birds, over a seven day period. Farallonathon usually starts sometime in late September with one of the bigger waves that usually come that time of year. As this year is unusual, we waited until October to start.

The next day we garnered a few more points from Minke Whale, Monarch, Black Saddlebags, Mew Gull, Short-eared Owl, Barn Swallow, Hermit Warbler, Clay-colored Sparrow, and White-throated Sparrow, among others. We were literally scrounging for points on the 7th as the winds continued to come from the WNW with Mark looking around for Arboreal Salamanders (he found one). A rush of excitement came in the afternoon when Matt flushed a nightjar, which we then chased for an hour up and down Lighthouse Hill. This cryptically colored group of birds can be very difficult to identify when seen. The calls of these birds are the easiest way to identify them, which they usually give at night. After several fleeting glimpses of the bird and discussion of the features each of us had seen, we came to the conclusion that the bird was a Common Poorwill. With less than 10 records for the island, it's a rare bird for us even though they are relatively “common” along the mainland coast.

Light winds and high overcast greeted us on the morning of Oct. 8 and brought more birds to the island, though not the wave we were hoping for. The new species we saw were mainly migrants from the western US, which still give us Farallonathon points, but don't get us nearly as excited as the vagrants from the east. We added Black-vented Shearwater, Wilson's Snipe, Warbling Vireo, Nashville Warbler, Western Tanager, Grasshopper Sparrow, Lazuli Bunting, and Purple Finch. The one eastern bird we did see was a Rose-breasted Grosbeak. Farallonathon points that day also came from Harbor Porpoise, Hoary Bat, Green Darner, Variegated Meadowhawk, and a shark attack off of Saddle Rock (those are worth 5 points). So on day 4 of the Farallonathon, we were at 118 points. Last year we ended with 129 points which was the lowest ever. Could we get eleven more points in three days?

No problem when you get hit with a WAVE DAY! The long awaited wave of migrant birds appeared on Oct. 9. The biologists were feeling as light as the south winds and flying as high as the overcast skies. Birds were flitting about everywhere, from the marine terrace to the lighthouse. A flock of 20+ Hermit Thrushes was seen around the top of Lighthouse Hill early in the morning. Yellow-rumped Warblers (both Audubon's and Myrtle) seemed to be covering every square meter of the island. A flock of about 250 Violet-green Swallows was swirling around the island. After getting past the shear numbers of birds, we started to sift through the flocks and pick out some interesting birds. Early on we saw a Chestnut-collared Longspur that arrived at the lighthouse and then made its way down to the terrace, where we were able to get some great pictures. Then a Red-eyed Vireo was found in Twitville. As for warblers we added Tennessee, Blackburnian, Blackpoll, MacGillivray's, American Redstart, and Ovenbird. Bobolink, Least Flycatcher, and Lawrence's Goldfinch were also good finds. A Solitary Vireo was seen that suggested a Blue-headed. With a nice photo by Kristie, we were able to confirm that ID. The big find that day though was a Gray-cheeked Thrush. There have only been 21 records of this species in California, over half of which are from Southeast Farallon Island. This bird was found in a flock of Hermit Thrushes atop Lighthouse Hill and was accommodating enough to allow everyone to see it.

When it was all totaled up in the journal, we had seen 87 migrant bird species and 1332 individual landbirds. We set island high count records for Violet-green Swallow and Audubon's Warbler and saw 16 species of warbler and 16 species of sparrow. With all the new birds and a couple shark attacks, our Farallonathon total shot up to 158. Though our goal of “not being the worst” was pretty low, we crushed it with two days to spare.

With visions of vagrants in our dreams, we went to bed exhausted and elated. What would tomorrow bring? As we starting birding on the 10th it was obvious that there were fewer birds on the island, but there were different birds around. The numbers of Hermit Thrushes and Yellow-rumped Warblers were reduced by two-thirds, and Golden-crowned Kinglets doubled. We found Chestnut-sided, Magnolia, Black-throated Green, Palm, and Black-and-white Warblers. Long-billed Dowitcher, Band-tailed Pigeon, Hammond's Flycatcher, Northern Mockingbird, and Orchard Oriole were also nice additions. To add to the frantic pace of the day, we were also switching crew members and getting our food shipment. Jim, Matt, and Kristie were leaving, and Pete Warzybok and Andrew Greene were arriving.

About an hour before Jim was supposed to get on the boat and leave, he and Pete came across a bird that Jim didn't recognize. That's code for “it's probably not from North America.” He called out on the radio that he had just seen an “Asian bunting,” which sent us all running. Unfortunately, the two minutes it took for others to get to Jim were just long enough for the bird to disappear. It wasn't seen again. Jim consulted a field guide and identified the bird as a Yellow-breasted Bunting. The only records for this species in North America are from Alaska, and there are only a few. It has never been seen in the lower 48. Super mega, mega rarity. Then Jim left, and the bird was never refound. The other biologists were left in a state of shock. Such an amazing bird, that we didn't get to see, even on this tiny, barren island. What other birds have we missed? No sense in dwelling on it though. Ten Farallonathon points anyway.

Sunday, Oct. 11 was the last day of Farallonathon, and we were determined to squeeze out some more points. Diversity and numbers were down, but new species were still being found. A few of the highlights were Northern Shoveler, Tropical Kingbird, “Siberian” American Pipit, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Lark Bunting, and Yellow-headed Blackbird. Interesting fact for the day was that we saw all three Black-throated warbler species (Blue, Gray, and Green). Our Farallonathon point total was 193, which was the sixth highest total since it started in 1992. Hooray for wave days!

The following week saw a big change in the weather, as we were slammed by a storm on the 13th. We'll try to post some pictures of that soon. As would be expected, the numbers and diversity of birds are down. We had a flock of blackbirds that included Brewer's, Red-winged, Yellow-headed, and Tricolored Blackbirds with a few Brown-headed Cowbirds. That's a nice icterid flock. A Virginia Rail was found (and banded) on Oct. 12, followed by a Sora (also banded) on Oct. 16.

That's the news from Southeast Farallon Island, where all the biologists are strong, all the Elephant Seals are good looking, and all the vagrant birds are above average.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

It's October....Where Are The Birds??

It has been about two weeks since our last update from the Farallones, and although a few birds have come and gone, we are still awaiting (hotly anticipating) a Fall fallout. Strong Northwesterly winds and dense fog have conspired to keep birds away from our Island, but we remain hopeful that things will pick up as September ends and October begins.

In the two weeks since our last update, a few birds have managed to find the Island, despite the strong wind and dense fog, but in far lower numbers than are expected from this time of year. For example, while we expect to see greater than 100 Yellow Warblers in a given Fall season, we have only recorded ten individual Yellow Warblers so far in the 2009 Fall Season! The same is true for most of our other typical Fall migrants: 'Western' Flycatchers, Willow Flycatchers, Warbling Vireos, Black-headed Grosbeaks, Orange-crowned Warblers, Townsend's Warblers, Wilson's Warblers and Common Yellowthroats are all way, way down from their usually abundant numbers. It's still too early to be sure if later Fall arrivals, species like Hermit Thrush, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, and Fox, Lincoln's, White-crowned , Golden-crowned and Savannah Sparrows will make a decent showing, but we still await our first Hermit Thrush, Red-breasted Nuthatch and Lincoln's Sparrow of the Fall.

As is usual for the Fall Season, a few rare vagrants have shown up this year. Some, such as Blackpoll Warbler, Tennessee Warbler and Clay-colored Sparrow show up every fall, generally in small numbers. This Fall has also been slow for these "usual vagrants", but representatives of many of them have made an appearance. Every year we also expect a few rarer birds to show up. This year some of the highlights have included a Connecticut Warbler (the first on the Island since five appeared in 2006) on September 18th , a Brown Booby observed on seawatch on the 19th, a dark-lored White-crowned Sparrow, of either the mountain race oriantha or the eastern subspecies leucophrys was observed, and on September 27th, a minor day of arrivals, a Prairie Warbler (the first since 2005), a Bay-breasted Warbler, and a Painted Bunting, one of fewer than 15 records for the Island, were all discovered. The Painted Bunting was a very disheveled-looking individual, that when caught and banded, was aged as a second-year bird. Painted Buntings are one of the very few species of North American birds that can be aged as second-year in the fall.

However, even such exciting birds as the Connecticut Warbler and Brown Booby pale in comparison to the star of the Fall (so far!), a Brown Shrike, discovered by interns Matt Brady and Ryan Terrill on September 24th. It was eventually captured and banded. This species, a very rare stray to North America from Asia, has only occurred two times before in California, and fewer than a dozen times for North America as a whole - mostly from western Alaska, but also one record from Nova Scotia. The two prior records from California were both from the mid 1980s: the first record was of a juvenile bird, caught and banded right here on Southeast Farallon Island in late September, 1984, almost exactly 25 years ago; the second record was of a juvenile bird discovered by Oregonian birders visiting Pt Reyes in late October, 1986. That bird spent the winter at Olema Marsh, near the town of Pt Reyes Station, and was last seen in March, 1987. Unlike both of those older records, this year's bird was determined to be an adult female. Although juvenile Brown Shrikes can be confused with juvenile Northern Shrikes, adults are unmistakable. This one, with a bright rufous tail and cap, and slightly darker back, was deemed to be of the nominate subspecies, which is what all other records from North America have been attributed to.

In addition to the birds, we have had some interesting insects as well. It seemed that even in the dense fog, a few Odonates and Butterflies were able to find the Island, and on most days a few were found and identified. Although both Painted and West Coast Ladies were seen most days, the big insect highlight of the fall occurred on September 22nd, when two Western Pygmy Blue butterflies were photographed. These were the first identified on SEFI since 1998! We have also had our first Monarch of the year, as well as good numbers of Familiar Bluets, and a few Variegated Meadowhawks and Black Saddlebags. Only one Green Darner has been seen, which is normally one of the more common Dragonflies for the Island

Continuing their strong showing from the Summer, Whales have maintained a constant presence around the Island. While Humpbacks have been the most abundant species, with up to 25 individuals on some days, a few Blues have been around, too. Our resident Gray, whom we have nicknamed Dorian, has been seen just about every day. Sometimes it will come so close to the Island that we can almost imagine reaching out and touching it!

On September 19th, Jordan Casey, our Seabird Season holdover, departed the Island. After she left the Island, she visited the Monterey Bay Aquarium, where she finally got to see a Great White Shark, then headed back to the East Coast. She'll be spending the winter doing seabird work on another set of rocky islands: the Galapagos! Cassin's Auklets are cool, but can they compare with Nazca Boobies? Jordan will have to keep us posted! We were joined by Mark Dettling and Kristie Nelson, two SEFI Fall Season veterans, on September 26th. With six birders on the Island, what astounding rarities will be found?? Stay tuned to find out!