Los Farallones

Dispatches from Point Blue’s field station on the Farallon National Wildlife Refuge

A Seabird guy in a Songbird season

By | October 25, 2008

SEFI Aerial_East Side_JohnWarzybok

There are three main “seasons” on the Farallones. These are not defined by weather or hours of daylight, but rather by the species of animals that inhabit the island. December to early March is “the elephant seal season” when research activities center on the breeding biology of the Northern Elephant Seal. Mid-March through August is “the seabird season”, when the life of island residents is dedicated to studying and monitoring the large colonies of seabirds which breed on the island. Finally from September to December is the “songbird season”. During these months our primary focus is monitoring western landbird migration with the occasional off-course vagrant showing up to provide some identification challenges.

Can you find the vagrant clinging

to the side of the lighthouse in this photo?

Last weekend we had a crew change in which four people left the island and three new people arrived. Among those leaving was the regular songbird season biologist, who has gone off island for a two week break. We couldn’t leave the island unsupervised for those two weeks so I got the opportunity to come out for a rare two week visit during songbird season. Although I have spent more then 1,000 nights on the island, most of my time has been during the spring/summer seabird breeding season.

View out the front door during summer with Western Gulls dominating the landscape.

Upon arriving at the island I immediately noticed many differences between the island I normally see and the island during the fall. First of all, there are no birds here! The 300,000 seabirds that occupy these rocky shores all summer are all finished breeding and have departed, giving the island the impression of a desolate and lifeless place. Most striking is the absence of Western Gulls which seemingly cover every inch of the island during the summer. The island is also amazingly quiet. The seabird symphony of gulls screaming, guillemots whistling, and murres complaining to each other has been replaced by an eerie silence. But, there are benefits to the fall as well. There is more freedom of movement for the island biologists. Areas of the island which are normally closed for seabird breeding are once again accessible, and you can walk around without fear of being pecked in the head by an angry gull or becoming covered in bird guano.

Similar view of the Marine Terrace during the fall season.

Of course, there are still birds here. They are just smaller, quieter, and harder to find then those that inhabit the island during the summer. Brightly colored warblers and cryptic sparrows now dominate the island avifauna. Peregrine Falcons, Burrowing Owls and Eared Grebes have returned to spend the winter. Large numbers of marine birds which are not present here during the summer stream past the island – species such as Buller’s and Black-vented Shearwaters. Vagrant landbirds often make an appearance during this season when they get off course during their migration. Many songbirds that normally occur only on the East Coast or in Asia visit the Farallones during the fall giving us a unique opportunity to view some unusual species. In fact, the Farallones have been the site for many first recorded sightings of some species in California (and even a few for North America).

Although we haven’t had any rarities during my stay, we have had many common migrants such as the Yellow-rumped warbler, Oregon Junco, and Golden-crowned Sparrow. There have also been a few notable birds including a Magnolia Warbler (above), Palm Warbler, Lapland Longspur, Clay-colored Sparrow, Violet-green Swallow, Yellow-headed Blackbird, South Polar Skua, and a Barn Owl which seems to want to come into my room at night.

Whether you study seabirds, songbirds, or elephant seals, the Farallones always stand out as a special place and a true refuge for many types of wildlife. When this week is over, I will return to the mainland and will probably not be back until the seabirds return to breed in the spring. That is the nature of my Farallones migration. I suppose my short, “out of season” visit to the island makes me just one more vagrant to find my way to the island this fall.

Below is a list of the birds that we have seen over the past week.

October 15th:

Eared Grebe 45
Pink-footed Shearwater 31
Buller’s Shearwater 78
Sooty Shearwater 2
Ashy Storm-Petrel X
Brown Pelican 947
Merlin 1
Peregrine Falcon 2
Black Oystercatcher 28
Wandering Tattler 2
Whimbrel 6
Ruddy Turnstone 1
Black Turnstone 52
Heermann’s Gull 6
Western Gull X
California Gull 1107
Herring Gull 3
Parasitic Jaeger 1
Common Murre X
Barn Owl 1
Black Phoebe 6
Say’s Phoebe 2
Western Kingbird 1
Red-breasted Nuthatch 2
Rock Wren 2
House Wren 1
Golden-crowned Kinglet 4
Ruby-crowned Kinglet 3
American Robin 1
Yellow Warbler 1
Yellow-rumped Warbler (Myrtle) 7
Yellow-rumped Warbler (Audubon’s) 3
Black-throated Gray Warbler 1
Savannah Sparrow 1
White-throated Sparrow 1
White-crowned Sparrow 1
Golden-crowned Sparrow 1
Dark-eyed Junco (Oregon) 2
Western Meadowlark 9

October 16th:

Eared Grebe 60
Pink-footed Shearwater 16
Buller’s Shearwater 44
Sooty Shearwater 1
Black-vented Shearwater 7
Ashy Storm-Petrel X
Brown Pelican 641
Brandt’s Cormorant X
Pelagic Cormorant X
Peregrine Falcon 3
Wandering Tattler 2
Whimbrel 8
Ruddy Turnstone 1
Black Turnstone 60
Least Sandpiper 4
Heermann’s Gull 2
Western Gull X
California Gull 406
Herring Gull 9
Pomarine Jaeger 4
Parasitic Jaeger 1
Common Murre X
Cassin’s Auklet X
Barn Owl 1
Burrowing Owl 3
Black Phoebe 7
Say’s Phoebe 4
Western Kingbird 1
Red-breasted Nuthatch 4
Rock Wren 2
House Wren 1
Hermit Thrush 1
American Robin 1
American Pipit 1
Yellow-rumped Warbler (Myrtle) 3
Yellow-rumped Warbler (Audubon’s) 3
Black-throated Gray Warbler 1
Chipping Sparrow 1
Clay-colored Sparrow 1
Lark Sparrow 1
White-throated Sparrow 1
Golden-crowned Sparrow 1
Dark-eyed Junco (Oregon) 1
Western Meadowlark 8
Pine Siskin 1

October 17th:

Cackling Goose 14
Eared Grebe 82
Pink-footed Shearwater 1
Ashy Storm-Petrel X
Brown Pelican 921
Brandt’s Cormorant X
Pelagic Cormorant X
Northern Harrier 1
Peregrine Falcon 3
Wandering Tattler 3
Willet 1
Whimbrel 2
Black Turnstone 85
Least Sandpiper 3
Heermann’s Gull 4
Ring-billed Gull 2
Western Gull X
California Gull 363
Herring Gull 5
Glaucous-winged Gull 1
Common Murre X
Pigeon Guillemot X
Cassin’s Auklet X
Rhinoceros Auklet X
Barn Owl 1
Burrowing Owl 1
Anna’s Hummingbird 2
Black Phoebe 8
Say’s Phoebe 2
Red-breasted Nuthatch 4
Rock Wren 2
House Wren 1
Golden-crowned Kinglet 1
Swainson’s Thrush 1
American Robin 2
American Pipit 1
Magnolia Warbler 1
Yellow-rumped Warbler (Myrtle) 5
Yellow-rumped Warbler (Audubon’s) 5
Black-throated Gray Warbler 1
Spotted Towhee 1
Chipping Sparrow 2
Lark Sparrow 1
White-throated Sparrow 1
Western Meadowlark 7
Yellow-headed Blackbird 1

Yellow-headed Blackbird (c) McAllister

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