Los Farallones

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

Farallonathon 2020

Farallonathon 2020

From September 27 to October 3, the fall crew took part in the 29th annual Farallonathon, the Southeast Farallon Islands’ spin on Point Blue’s annual Bird-a-thon fundraiser. The Farallonathon was established in 1992 to highlight diversity on the island while showcasing many of the fall wildlife monitoring programs.

The rules are simple (well, not really).

Points are awarded for each unique species of bird, marine mammal, bat, fish, dragonfly, and butterfly seen throughout the week. Points are also awarded for sightings of breeding birds, the resident Arboreal Salamander, and the endemic Farallon Cricket (Farallonophilus cavernicolus). Five points are awarded for bird species that are, or were at the beginning of the Farallonathon, reviewed by the California Bird Records Committee (CBRC). New species of migrant animals recorded on the island are awarded ten points. Shark attacks (and other instances of foraging) earn five points each, but shark sightings only receive one point.

Day 1:

After a couple weeks of thick fog, we decided to start our weeklong Farallonathon at the first signs of improving weather conditions. Late September into early October is a sweet spot in fall migration on the west coast of California, where one has the opportunity to see late migrating warblers and flycatchers and early migrating sparrows. Thanks to good visibility and moderate northwest wind, we counted 60 species of unique migratory birds, two butterflies, one moth, and four dragonflies on Farallonathon Day 1. Exciting migrants included a Long-billed Curlew (who we think has been hanging out on the island on and off for the past month or so), Elegant Terns, the fall’s first Varied Thrush, a young Black-throated Sparrow (the fourth individual sighted this fall), and two vagrant eastern warbler species: a Blackpoll Warbler and a couple Western Palm Warblers.

Running total: 7 Breeding Birds + 5 Pinnipeds + 2 Cetaceans + 60 Migrant Birds + 2 Butterflies + 1 Moth + 4 Dragonflies + 10 (CBRC Birds, Brown Booby and Northern Gannet) = 91.

A great start and everyone was in high anticipation for what the next 6 days would bring!

A Black-throated Gray Warbler. Photo: Evan Lipton
A Western Palm Warbler, an eastern vagrant. Photo: Jim Tietz
A Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. Photo: Jim Tietz

Day 2:

Weather improved to almost ideal conditions for migrants to find the island: a light south wind and seven miles visibility by the morning. While the wind brought some hazy conditions due to smoke from wildfires burning on the mainland, along with it came some exciting birds! Highlights included a Rock Wren, an Olive-backed Swainson’s Thrush, a Sage Thrasher, a Grasshopper Sparrow, a Bobolink, and our first White-throated Sparrow and Lapland Longspur of the season. However, a young female Vermilion Flycatcher took the crown for best observation of the day. Spotted in Twittville on the AM area search; it was the first record of this southern tyrant flycatcher species for the island.

Weather degraded as the day went on, and our visibility decreased to about an eighth of a mile by nightfall. Thankfully, with the new migrants, 10 points from the first island record of Vermilion Flycatcher, and an additional 5 points from a shark scavenging event spotted off Shubrick in the morning, our day 2 running total went up to 123 points.

Running total: 91 + 5 (Shark Attack) + 17 new Migrant Birds + 10 (Island Record) = 123.

If the fog clears, we could be well on our way to a high score!


The first Vermillion Flycatcher recorded on the Farallon Islands. Photo: Jim Tietz
A Western Meadowlark. Photo: Evan Lipton

Day 3:

The weather on day 3 had us questioning if we even should have started Farallonathon when we had. With foggy conditions and low visibility from the previous day continuing into the morning, part of the crew headed off to West End to count Northern Fur Seals. On their voyage, they resighted 21 tagged individuals, including an individual tagged by Point Blue during the fall of 2018.

On the main island, residents kept on counting birds, and we ended the day with three new migrant species including Vaux’s Swift, Tennessee Warbler, and Clay-colored Sparrow. We also sighted a Pigeon Guillemot, an island breeding bird that had become less common around on the island during mid-fall.

Running total: 123 + 3 new Migrant Birds + 1 Breeding Bird = 127

Haven’t lost hope yet!

The island’s most reliable vagrant, Janet (to some Morris) the Northern Gannet, photographed during the islanders’ trip to West End. Photo: Jim Tietz

Day 4:

On Day 4, conditions for migrants to find the island improved slightly from the day before. The visibility fluctuated throughout the day from a quarter of a mile to 10 miles. When we could actually see the ocean, we added a few ocean-dwelling bird species to our Farallon list including Eared Grebe, Pomarine Jaeger, and Rhinoceros Auklet, an island breeding bird.

The winds shifted to a moderate northwest wind, and while this was great for clearing some of the smoke that lingered around the island, it was not the excellent migrant conditions we were hoping for. Even with the northwest winds, some new migrant songbirds found the island including a Barn Swallow, a Chestnut-sided Warbler, a Townsend’s Warbler, an American Redstart, and a Pine Siskin.

A salamander was found in the lighthouse (and returned to more suitable habitat under a damp rock pile).

Running total: 127 + 8 new Migrant Birds + 1 Breeding Bird + 1 Salamander= 137

Hoping for a good sea watch!

A Chestnut-sided Warbler, a vagrant from the eastern United States. Photo: Mike Mahoney
A Grasshopper Sparrow. Photo: Evan Lipton

Day 5:

Weather conditions were similar to the previous day, and smoky conditions persisted. Even with three miles of visibility around the island and moderate northwest winds, we still managed to add Northern Pintail, Green-tailed Towhee, and Brown-headed Cowbird to our migrant bird list. We also added a point to our running total for Ashy-Storm Petrel, a Farallon breeding bird, when chicks were seen during a nest check.

Running total: 137 + 3 new migrant birds + 1 Breeding Bird = 141

Come on, sea watch!

A Green-tailed Towhee photographed in the morning haze. Photo: Mike Mahoney

Day 6:

The morning of the sixth day brought clearer skies and some hope that we could continue to add to our list with some added sea watching. Unfortunately, foggy conditions returned in the late morning, blanketing the island into the evening. Thankfully, there was enough time with clear skies for us to spot a Northern Harrier zipping over the island. On the AM area search, we also found a juvenile Hooded Oriole, a species of Oriole whose occurrences have been increasing on the Farallones, likely as their populations shift northward as they track the expansion of palm trees in urban areas. And even with the thick fog in the evening, we added a point with Slate-colored Junco (a subspecies of Dark-eyed Junco).

Running total: 141+ 3 new Migrant Birds = 144

Well, at least we’re not in last place!

A Hooded Oriole. Photo: Jim Tietz

Day 7:

Unfortunately, Farallonathon 2020 ended on a slow one. Foggy conditions persisted throughout the day, keeping the island bird list low. Thankfully, we were able to spot Surf Scoters on the AM sea watch to add to our Farallonathon Bird list. In a last ditch effort for points, we journeyed over to Rabbit Cave before midnight to search for the endemic Farallon cricket. With the additional point from the cricket, we brought our 2020 Farallonathon total to 146.

2020 Farallonathon Total: 144 + 1 new Migrant Bird + 1 Endemic Cricket= 146


Over the past 28 years, the point scores have varied widely, ranging from 122 in 2017 to 240 in 2001, with an average score of about 168 points. This year we came in sixth to last place with a below average score. Because Farallonathon is not a “standard” survey conducted at a specific time period during the year with the same amount of effort, it’s hard for us to interpret trends throughout the years. However, avian diversity on our Farallonathons has trended lower over the past 20 years resulting in fewer points, which is probably due to lower overall bird abundances following global trends. We are also detecting fewer shark predation events for reasons that are not well understood.

Explore the graph of our Farallonathon Scores over the years and our species list below. And as always, stay up to date with what the resident researchers are finding with our daily eBird lists.

Farallonathon Scores


Farallonathon 2020 Species List


  1. Gray Whale
  2. Humpback Whale


  1. Northern Fur Seal
  2. Elephant Seal
  3. Harbor Seal
  4. California Sea Lion
  5. Steller’s Sea Lion


  1. Great White Shark


  1. Green Darner
  2. Variegated Meadowhawk
  3. Black Saddlebags
  4. Blue-eyed Darner

Butterflies and Moths

  1. Painted Lady
  2. Orange Sulphur
  3. Large Orange-underwing Moth

Breeding Birds

  1. Ashy Storm-Petrel
  2. Common Murre
  3. Cassin’s Auklet
  4. Rhinoceros Auklet
  5. Pigeon Guillemot
  6. Brandt’s Cormorant
  7. Pelagic Cormorant
  8. Double-crested Cormorant

Migratory Birds*

  1. Eared Grebe
  2. Northern Fulmar
  3. Pink-footed Shearwater
  4. Sooty Shearwater
  5. Brown Booby
  6. Northern Gannet
  7. Brown Pelican
  8. Surf Scoter
  9. Northern Pintail
  10. Northern Harrier
  11. American Kestrel
  12. Merlin
  13. Peregrine Falcon
  14. Killdeer
  15. Wandering Tattler
  16. Whimbrel
  17. Long-billed Curlew
  18. Ruddy Turnstone
  19. Black Turnstone
  20. Least Sandpiper
  21. Phalarope sp.
  22. Pomarine Jaeger
  23. Heermann’s Gull
  24. Ring-billed Gull
  25. California Gull
  26. Elegant Tern
  27. Mourning Dove
  28. Eurasian Collared-Dove
  29. Barn Owl
  30. Burrowing Owl
  31. Vaux’s Swift
  32. Anna’s Hummingbird
  33. Red-shafted Flicker
  34. Willow Flycatcher
  35. Hammond’s Flycatcher
  36. Western Flycatcher
  37. Pacific Slope Flycatcher
  38. Black Phoebe
  39. Say’s Phoebe
  40. Vermillion Flycatcher
  41. Hutton’s Vireo
  42. Warbling Vireo
  43. Barn Swallow
  44. Red-breasted Nuthatch
  45. Rock Wren
  46. House Wren
  47. Ruby-crowned Kinglet
  48. Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
  49. Swainson’s Thrush, Russet Backed
  50. Swainson’s Thrush, Olive Backed
  51. Hermit Thrush
  52. Varied Thrush
  53. Northern Mockingbird
  54. Sage Thrasher
  55. American Pipit
  56. Cedar Waxwing
  57. Orange-crowned Warbler
  58. Nashville Warbler
  59. Tennessee Warbler
  60. Yellow Warbler
  61. Chestnut-sided Warbler
  62. Audubon’s Warbler
  63. Myrtle Warbler
  64. Yellow-rumped Warbler
  65. Black-throated Gray Warbler
  66. Townsend’s Warbler
  67. Western Palm Warbler
  68. American Redstart
  69. MacGillivray’s Warbler
  70. Blackpoll Warbler
  71. Common Yellowthroat
  72. Wilson’s Warbler
  73. Western Tanager
  74. Green-tailed Towhee
  75. Spotted Towhee
  76. Chipping Sparrow
  77. Clay-colored Sparrow
  78. Brewer’s Sparrow
  79. Vesper Sparrow
  80. Lark Sparrow
  81. Black-throated Sparrow
  82. Savannah Sparrow
  83. Grasshopper Sparrow
  84. Sooty Fox Sparrow
  85. Lincoln’s Sparrow
  86. White-Throated Sparrow
  87. White-crowned Sparrow
  88. Golden-crowned Sparrow
  89. Oregon Junco
  90. Slate-colored Junco
  91. Lapland Longspur
  92. Bobolink
  93. Red-winged Blackbird
  94. Western Meadowlark
  95. Brewer’s Blackbird
  96. Brown-headed Cowbird
  97. Hooded Oriole
  98. Purple Finch
  99. Pine Siskin
  100. Lesser Goldfinch

*Ordered using old Taxonomy