Los Farallones

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

25th Annual Farallonathon: September 25th through October 1st, 2016

Dan Maxwell tallies birds for the 25th annual Farallonathon. Photograph by Adam Searcy.

The Farallon Fall Crew recently completed their 25th annual week-long Farallonathon which is part of Point Blue’s Bird-a-thon fundraiser. It was started in 1992 by Peter Pyle in order to highlight the island’s biodiversity. On the Farallones, we count more than just birds — mammals, dragonflies, damselflies, butterflies, and sharks are also tallied. Points are awarded for each unique species seen during the week-long period. Rare birds that are currently or were recently reviewed by the California Bird Records Committee receive five points and new island records of birds or other creatures receive ten points. Shark attacks are worth five points.

Here’s a summary of what we saw:
Day 1: The dawn greeted us with light winds and excellent visibility. Usually, more birds arrive when there is a marine fog layer high overhead, but even with the very clear conditions (we could see Mt. Diablo 60 miles away), we had a strong start, with a large number of birds and a decent assortment of other point-worthy creatures. The most numerous bird species included Hermit Thrushes, White-crowned, Golden-crowned, and Sooty Fox Sparrows, and Audubon’s Warblers.  Vagrants from eastern North America were unusually sparse in this bird wave, but the few highlights included a continuing Brown Booby, a flyover Red-throated Pipit, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Western Palm Warbler, and an Orchard Oriole. We also detected four Blue Whales and 50 Humpbacks! Dragonflies and damsels included Familiar Bluet, Green Darner, Variegated Meadowhawk, Black Saddlebags, and a Wandering Glider. Butterflies seen were Orange Sulphur, Monarch and Gray Hairstreak. We ended day one with a solid total of 95 points.

Several Familiar Bluets were seen on the marine terrace on day one and two. Photograph by Jim Tietz.

Orange Sulphurs staged a mini-invasion on day one and two. Photograph by Jim Tietz.

We’ve been happy to have a few Humpback Whales near the island every day, as well as large concentrations feeding in deeper waters toward the continental shelf edge. Photograph by Jim Tietz.

This Cassin’s Vireo was worth a point on Day One of Farallonathon 2016. Photograph by Dan Maxwell.

This Orchard Oriole was a highlight on day one. Photograph by Dan Maxwell.

Day 2: The weather remained calm and clear on day two, with winds below 10 knots and visibility remaining around 60 miles. New birds for the day included Eared Grebe, Northern Harrier (which remains our only one this whole fall season!), Northern Mockingbird, Blackpoll Warbler, and a Yellow-headed Blackbird. The standout of the day (by far) was a bright juvenile Bell’s Vireo of the eastern subspecies — a first island record worth 10 points! Although there are three previous records of this species for the island, this is the first for this distinctive subspecies; the previous three were from the desert Southwest. Other additions included two Minke Whales near the island and three Mola Mola seen from the lighthouse. Total: 115 points. 
Yellow-headed Blackbird. Photograph by Jim Tietz.

Farallonathoners getting last-minute evening looks at the eastern Bell’s Vireo immediately after its discovery. Photograph by Jacob Drucker.

Eastern Bell's Vireo. 10 points!
Eastern Bell’s Vireo. 10 points! Photograph by Daniel Maxwell.

Day 3: We awoke on day three to the unwelcome damp and cold (but welcome hot waffle breakfast) of a very low level of fog cover with northwest winds. Fog shuts down most activities at the lighthouse due to lack of visibility: no shark watch or whale surveys can be performed as nothing can be seen! These conditions also bode poorly for arriving landbirds, and today was no exception, with many of the invertebrates and birds from the past two days having departed. Thankfully, the eastern Bell’s Vireo remained and was caught and banded, allowing all of us to study this wonderfully bright bird. Only two new birds were detected on the island, a Brewer’s Sparrow and a Black-throated Sparrow— fine creatures, both, but only two points for the entire day! Total: 117 points.
This Brown Booby continued to hang out for the duration of the Farallonathon. Photograph by Jacob Drucker.

Eastern Bell’s Vireo! Photograph by Adam Searcy.

Day 4: Alas, our fog did not lift. Day four proved to be another day of very low visibility and northwest winds. Two new birds were detected, a lovely Tropical Kingbird and a Brown-headed Cowbird. Points were also gained from a nocturnal expedition to the islands’ north side, where we detected five Arboreal Salamanders and four Farallon Cave Crickets. Total: 121 points.
Arboreal Salamander from the path to North Landing. Photograph by Adam Searcy.

Tropical Kingbird. Photograph by Adam Searcy

Day 5: The fog lifted on day five providing a higher ceiling with visibility of 6-8 miles. This is generally much better for arriving migrants, but winds from the northwest increased to 10-14 knots, stronger than we had hoped. No new landbirds were detected but we did spot four flyby Aleutian Cackling Geese, a Flesh-footed Shearwater during evening sea-watch and two young Herring Gulls. A nice addition to the mammal list was a small pod of four Risso’s Dolphins near the island, and an additional five points were gained by our first Farallonathon shark attack! Total: 130 points.
Black-throated Sparrow. Photograph by Adam Searcy.

Shark attack! Photograph by Jacob Drucker

Day 6: The fog vanished completely on day six leaving us with clear skies, northwest winds of 9-14 knots, and visibility at 20-30 miles. As usual, clear skies and northwest winds did not bring migrants to the island, but it was great for birds departing. Thankfully, we detected a shark attack in Maintop Bay, bringing in five much-needed points. Total: 135 points. 
Black-throated Sparrow far from its desert haunts. Photograph by Adam Searcy.

Day 7: The final day of 2016’s Farallonathon brought similar weather conditions as the previous day. However, three points were added when we found a Barn Owl, a House Finch, and a small pod of Pacific White-sided Dolphins, and another shark attack was seen off of Sugarloaf for five more points. A day 7 bonus trip to West End Island for pinniped censusing resulted in a record high total count of 1,430 Northern Fur Seals, which included 29 individuals that had been tagged on San Miguel Island! These 8 new points brought our overall total up to 143 points. Unfortunately, this year’s total was far below the average of 174 points and ranks 22nd out of our past 25 years. The highest score was 240 seen in 2001 and the worst was 129 seen in 2008. Hopefully next year’s Farallonathon will coincide with better weather conditions to bring us more migrant birds.
Chestnut-sided Warbler
Two Chestnut-sided Warblers were seen during Farallonathon. Get those corm flies! Photograph by Daniel Maxwell.

This Barn Owl was inadvertently flushed from Corm Blind Hill and subsequently photographed by Dan Maxwell.

This is one of 30 tagged Northern Fur Seals encountered on our trip to West End on day 7. Photograph by Adam Searcy.

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This stunning Green Flash at sunset was a great way to cap off Day 2. Photograph by Dan Maxwell