Thursday, June 17, 2010

Island Dreams

The Farallones is a very intense place. When you first arrive out here, you are surrounded by sights, sounds, and some choice smells that most people have never experienced. After a hard day of fieldwork, people tend to have some pretty elaborate dreams, most of them about the island in some fashion. For the past 20 years, we have been recording these dreams in our nightly Farallon Journal.

While the stuff of these dreams is ample material for a whole PhD on the psychology of field biologists, I have found during my 10 seasons out here that most dreams fall into one of two major categories – Invasion Dreams and Anxiety Dreams.

The Farallon National Wildlife Refuge is closed to public access. This is done to protect the sensitive wildlife populations that call this special place home. While trespassing violations are extremely rare, the threat of them has made for many exciting “Invasion Dreams” had by biologists over the decades. These dreams are often hilarious; a quick scan of the journal reveals dreams of island attack by aliens or a band of pirates led by Uma Thurman. I specialize in these sorts of dreams, and tend to have a few choice ones every year. Here is a sampling from my own personal invasion dreams- the Russ Bradley collection

- I had to prevent tourists from feeding popcorn to Common Murres
- Everyone I ever knew showed up on the island, disturbing wildlife
- A 2 story house full of people washed up on the beach
- A Super Villain joined our volunteer Farallon Patrol and tried to take over the island
- Hundreds of people showed up at the “Farallon Cruise Ship Terminal”
- A Harrier Jet landed on West End Island - a completely closed Wilderness Area - and dropped off a huge group of rock climbers
- I found 2 palm trees and had to cut them down and remove them (a plant invasion dream...)
- There were small children and dogs running everywhere on the island, crushing seabird burrows and causing mayhem. I have this one all the time.

While these invasion dreams may seem absolutely ridiculous, they do remind us of how special and sensitive the Farallon Islands are.

Now for the anxiety dreams. These often involve interns thinking they have conducted a study wrong, and will soon face the wrath of us supervising biologists. One intern dreamt he had forgotten to check half of the Ashy Storm Petrel breeding sites all season. Another walked out to her gull plot to find it full of chicks, and she had missed the laying and hatching of eggs entirely. Another dreamt she accidentally left the island early on the wrong boat, and that I was furious with her for missing out on cormorant banding. Here is a scan of a dream sent to us by one of our former interns, a year after she had left the island. She talks about improper banding of Pigeon Guillemots, and how potential interns were forced to swim in shark infested waters to prove their worthiness to work on the island.

Again, just a tad extreme, but there is a moral here. Despite the sometimes mad world of dreams, everyone takes their work out here very seriously, and want to make sure they do their best to ensure good science and conservation are being done.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The darker side...

Common Murre with a fresh egg
Not too long ago, it felt like Easter. Eggs were popping up all over the place - Western Gulls, Pigeon Guillemots, Ashy Storm Petrels, Common Murres, Brandt's Cormorants, Cassin's Auklets, and Rhinoceros Auklets - just about all the birds on the island. It's so contagious that even the Farallon Weed has started resprouting. While most of these birds are still laying eggs, some have started to hatch.

Cassin's Auklet chick
Cassin's Auklets were the first with their little gray fuzz balls. As of the first of this month, we got our first Pigeon Guillemot chick, a little black fuzz ball. Others, Rhinoceros Auklets and Common Murres, have started hatching within the last week. Even to hardened biologists, hatchlings are very cute and always bring out a collective "Aww." They are small soft balls of fluff that fit in your hand and are so sweet because they don't know how to defend themselves yet.

But, no matter how adorable, one of the recent additions to our hatchlings also brings a sense of dread.
Newly hatched Western Gull Chicks
How can these innocent little creatures inspire such feelings? Let me explain.

When I arrived in April, I was a clean, relatively innocent intern arriving to a rather quiet island. Birds were calling, but all were nice. They weren't breeding yet, so they didn't have anything to defend. If they happened to be in your path, they just moved out of the way as you approached. Once "Easter" arrived, the noise level of the island started to increase exponentially (to a volume and pitch that I am certain will contribute to future hearing loss) and birds no longer moved out of your way. Instead, they attack you for coming into their territory.
Western Gull in attack mode

Western gulls are by far the most aggressive defenders of their nests. They have a very distinctive call that they scream at you as you approach their nest. If that isn’t enough to make you go away, they try to nip at you (and sometimes succeed), or they swoop back and forth over you in a U-shape, making a terrorizing call mere seconds before depositing a generous helping of stinky guano on your person. If none of these attempts have chased you to leave their territory, they will resort to the full aerial assault. They will fly down at your face or head, attempting to hit you with their feet or their bill. Often adding more guano to the arsenal.  I have been hit in the head by a gull’s bill and whacked on the shoulder by their feet and it hurts a lot more than you would expect. It's amazing the force and power that those Western Gulls have. And this just gets worse as time goes on. Imagine getting hit repeatedly in the head with no respite, wearing clothes without an inch of clean space and that is what life here on the island is soon to become.

Field jacket afert checking gull nests
My patchwork duct tape pants and slowly degrading jacket (already severely worn from climbing, sliding, shimmying around on the granite slopes) are being tortured further by getting covered in various colors, and smells, of Western Gull excretions. While my head is gradually being bashed in by these callous, cold-hearted birds. I am no longer the innocent intern. No longer do I go outside without something covering my head. I know which birds require the extra adornment of a hard hat. Earplugs are permanently stored in my pockets for easy use.

So it is important to remember that while chicks are cute, they bring vicious, merciless adults with them, which they will later become if they fledge. Inside those delightful downy balls beats a cold, cold heart.