Los Farallones

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

Drawing on the the Rock!

 Western Gull, Black Oystercatcher and a Farallon weed leaf
This is  third visit I, Sophie Webb, have made to the Rock or South East Farallon Island (SEFI) in the past 12 months ( in the 80’s and 90’s I worked as a PRBO intern in various programs out here). My last trip to the island was for two weeks in October when the island was drab brown and gray. After the the winter rains the island is returning to the yellow dotted lush green of its springtime Farallon weed cloak.
View of Saddle Rock from the lighthouse
Farallon weed

My stay out here is short in comparison to most of the interns, a mere two weeks. Although this time of year  is considered the “slow” season I have found plenty to do and to look at. My time is split between helping with some of the long term data collection, as all interns here do, and working on my own project, a children’s book about SEFI: the wildlife and the research that goes on here (for 5th grade and up). So I spend a  portion of my day  sketching  and photographing the wildlife.

Most of the focus of this time of year is on the breeding Northern Elephant Seals, so  they are of course the subject of many of my sketches and photos. Their bodies are somewhat amorphous and change shape little, beyond getting incredibly round, (pups), 

A weaned pup

Another fat weaned pup

or quite thin like the cow below.

A cow leaving the colony and her now weaned pup post breeding, notice how the area between her shoulders and pelvis is now concave

Their bodies may not change shape much but  elephant seals’  faces are endlessly enthralling. I suppose it is the large liquid brown eyes and the nose that the females and pups can wrinkle up to alter their expression  and  the huge wobbly inflatable proboscis of the male. 

First there are the cows:

 then there are the pups and immatures:

And a few of my sketches of them:

  cows and pups

 Mostly weaners

Cows and pups


 and a few bulls:

 Two young bulls fight on the Marine Terrace in front of the PRBO house

Bulls fighting, advertising and resting:
what a nose!

A few more sketches:

-07 rests on the marine Terrace

 Bull advertising, a bawling pup and angry cows

Mating: the cows are dwarfed by the bulls

 At this time of year not only are there Elephant Seals on SEFI but several of the breeding seabirds begin to   return sporadically  to the island . Most nights since I have been here, the Cassins Auklets have come in to sing to each other (really a racket) and begin to dig their burrows. There is evidence of new excavations all over the island. 

 A Cassin’s Auklet at night near the path to the Coast Guard house
On my last night on the island during our friday night camel cricket census:
A group of juvenile crickets

A beautifully patterned adult female  camel cricket, note the long ovipositor extending off the back of her abdomen . This species is endemic to the Farallones

we surprised a Rhinoceros Auklet with its striking facial plumes,

Rhinoceros Auklet in full breeding regalia by Spooky Cave at night

There are days, who knows what triggers them, when tens of thousands of Common Murres also return, filling up their nesting areas on Shubrick Point and Fertilizer Flat.

Murres flying off of Shubrick Point in the early morning

 Common Murres on Fertilizer Flat February 11th
  Common Murres

 Many of the Pelagic Cormorants’ facial skin has flushed red and they have the white flank patches of  breeding plumage: a few have begun to fly around the North Landing cliffs with bunches of the Farallon weed they use to build their nests in their beaks.

Pelagic Cormorant
All around the edge of the island, in the intertidal, Harbor Seals  haul out or play in the water, perhaps the latter pre-copulatory interactions. They will begin pupping in March.

  A hauled out Harbor Seal enjoys the cooling spray at North Landing
Two young seals “playing” in Garbage Gulch

Harbor Seals have beautiful extravagant whiskers . 
Harbor Seals hauled out near East Landing

100’s of California Sea Lions and Steller Sea Lions  loaf about on the rocks. The air is filled with the noise of their constant barking and growling:

California and Steller Sea Lions (the latter the large pale animal in the upper right) in Sea Lion Cove
California Sea Lions

California Sea Lions,: the head of a sub-adult male at the top shows the beginning of the exaggerated  forehead formed by their enlarged sagittal crest

Unlike the elephant seals it is the odd shape of the sea lions’ bodies that I find interesting to draw, their faces are lovely but not nearly as plastic as those of the elephant seals. The same is true for the Northern Fur Seals that we saw on our visit to West End. I like in particular how their long floppy flippers fold and droop. Although I think the fur seals long whiskers and aggressive attitude make their faces somewhat more expressive than the California Sea Lions or perhaps it’s simply that they  are more interesting by being less common.

Northern Fur Seals on West End
 Several species of shorebirds make the Farallones their winter quarters

A Willet,  several Whimbrels and Black Turnstones roost on Low Arch Terrace
Black Turnstones are stocky and somewhat plain looking until…..

they fly

 Whimbrels and Black Turnstones roosting
Black Oystercatchers both winter and breed on the Farallones

Birds do not solely find refuge on the island itself but 100’s of Eared Grebes spend the winter on the surrounding ocean  as do Pacific Loons and a few ducks.

One of the dense flocks of Eared Grebes that feed throughout the winter around the island
A male Red-breasted Merganser posing at North Landing

At this time of year  there are still a few landbirds
about, some Audubon’s Warblers, a couple Fox sparrows, several Black Phoebes and Rock Wrens and at least four Peregrine Falcons. One odd bird  that I believe has been here since early November is a Rough Legged Hawk. It spends its time soaring around or perching on Tower Point. Now that most of the mice seem to be gone, I wonder what it is eating?

Rough-legged Hawk soaring over Tower Point, viewed from the lighthouse.

This blog entry brings my time on the Farallones to a close. It has been a wonderful  two weeks of fine weather,  wildlife and the good company of Ryan Berger, the PRBO Farallon biologist, and the two winter interns Erin Pickett and Nick Sisson.

The Northern  Elephant Seal seal cows are leaving, weaning their pups to begin their”winter” as the seabirds slowly begin to ramp up to their breeding season. The Farallones is a remarkable place, year round it teams with life and the unexpected. Plus where else could one see Northern Fulmar, Northern Fur Seal, Northern Elephant Seal and Northern Gannet all in a single day!

The Northern Gannet
A view of Saddle Rock from the steps of the PRBO house one sunny afternoon