Los Farallones

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


Two days ago we began our annual Farallonathon. The Farallonathon is similar to a Bird-a-thon, but on the Farallon Islands, we do things a little different. Instead of counting just species of birds, we count all of the animals we encounter including birds, fish, marine mammals, insects, and any other wildlife we find. We even assign points for rare and interesting wildlife events such as shark attacks and birds never before seen on the Farallones.
Initiated in 1992, the Farallonathon was created to recognize the truly unique elements of the Farallones, while at the same time participating in PRBO’s Annual Bird-A-Thon. The Farallonathon consists of a one week bio-blitz where we identify as many species of wildlife as possible.
Money raised from this event goes directly to supporting Farallon research allowing us to purchase biological equipment, food and supplies for island personnel, and pay PRBO staff to analyze and publish the data we collect. The information gathered from our research helps us and others protect the wildlife that use these special islands and the marine environment that surrounds it.
To pledge your financial support for our research, you can pledge a flat amount or you can make your pledge based on the Farallonathon point system. If you pledge your support, you will receive a detailed summary of our experience at the end of the Farallonathon week. Your participation allows us to continue studying this unique and vital ecosystem on the California Coast. Please consider supporting our research by pledging either a per-point amount or a flat donation for the event by going to our donation page at:
On October 3rd, Farallonathon – Day 1, we were not expecting to have a good day and were not planning to start Farallonathon, but the winds were very light, the skies were overcast, and visibility was limited to just 5 miles. These conditions are ideal for bird migrants to reach the island, and we started our day full of anticipation. As we began our surveys, we were not disappointed by what showed up. As I headed up to the lighthouse to begin shark watch, I flushed several Swainson’s and Hermit Thrushes from under the water tank on the hill. I also saw that the Blackburnian Warbler that arrived on 1-Oct was still present. Once I reached the lighthouse, I climbed to the top to see what was hiding under the metal grate – a place where many birds, and a few mega-rare ones, have hunkered down to get out of the wind. From under the grate, several more thrushes flew out faster than I could identify them. This was turning out to be a good day.
Meanwhile, Dan Maxwell was passing Twitville on his way to start a shorebird survey, when he heard a call that stopped him in his tracks. Dropping from the sky, a large bird flew down into the Lavaterra bushes. Dan immediately recognized it as an Evening Grosbeak and ran back up to the houses to tell the others. Although this species is not super-rare on the coast, here on the Farallones, this is a bird that we have all dreamt of seeing because this charismatic bird was the first on the island since 1979! Upon hearing the news, Matt Brady, Noah Strycker, and Oscar Johnson ran out of the house to check it out in the Coast Guard House trees where it had flown while Dan was running back to the PRBO house. While they were all enjoying close-up views of the bird, they began spotting other birds such as a female Canada Warbler and an Ovenbird from the previous few days. Up at the lighthouse, I tried in vain to see the grosbeak in the trees with my spotting scope, but it stayed hidden under the canopy. Eventually, Oscar came up to the lighthouse so I could see it. Ironically, the bird would fly to within 10 feet of me soon after I returned to the lighthouse to resume shark watch.
An hour later, Matt came up to relieve me from my shift at the lighthouse. While we were talking, a Long-billed Dowitcher flew by with a Pectoral Sandpiper. A few minutes after that, a flock of ducks came flying past the lighthouse. I noticed the pintail, but Matt immediately noticed a female-plumaged teal in the flock with big, pale blue patches on the leading edge of the wing. I studied the duck through my spotting scope and could see that the chin was white, which suggests Blue-winged Teal instead of Cinnamon Teal. My photographs also supported this identification by showing that the bill was relatively small. As I was studying the Blue-winged Teal, Matt also pointed out that there were two Northern Shoveler in the flock. Because most ducks are rare on the Farallones, a flock of three species was incredible.

We finished the day with 59 species of migrant birds, including 13 species of warbler. We also found a Green Darner (dragonfly) and a Familiar Bluet (damselfly) for two more points. Our two resident Gray Whales and 7 transient Humpback Whales gave us another two points. Overall, we finished the day with 63 points. Not spectacular, but the Evening Grosbeak and ducks are not points we are likely to get again, so after looking at the calm winds forecasted for Wed-Fri, we decided this would be a good first day for our Farallonathon.

Again, please consider supporting our research by pledging either a per-point amount or a flat donation for the event by going to our donation page at:  Thank you!