Los Farallones

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


Although the forecast for the end of Farallonathon looked good, we knew day 2 would be a blow out. Gale force northwest winds are not good for much on the Farallones during the fall, as it gives all the birds on the island a tail wind to fly away, and it prevents new birds from reaching the island. It also makes the ocean rough, which makes it very difficult to spot whale spouts and shark attacks on the ocean. The wind howled all day, so we worked on finding our breeding birds, pinnipeds, and salamander. Around the island, we were able to still locate a few Ashy Storm-Petrels nesting in their crevices; numerous Brandt’s and Pelagic Cormorants still finishing up breeding after one of the later nesting years ever; at least 40 Black Oystercatchers foraging and roosting in the intertidal; a few thousand California and Western Gulls roosting on the island at night; many basic-plumaged Common Murre and Pigeon Guillemots in the bays around the island; and several Cassin’s and Rhinoceros Auklets flying past the island. The Cassin’s Auklets had an incredibly productive year, and a few are still finishing up their second broods. We also get to hear thousands of Cassin’s sing their eerie song every night after the moon sets and they return to the island to prospect for next year’s nest sites. And the newly nesting Common Raven and Peregrine Falcon are virtual residents on the island now. Twelve of the 15 species of breeding birds is a good start – we are likely to find a Double-crested Cormorant, but puffin can be tough, and Leach’s Storm-Petrel is nearly impossible.

Of the six species of pinniped that have been identified on the Farallones, five now have a year-round presence on the island. We conducted a weekly island survey today to figure out how many were present. This entailed counting all the seals and sea lions from the lighthouse and walking around to the coves to find elephant seals and other species that are hidden from the lighthouse. This survey yielded 1,939 California Sea Lions, 40 Steller’s Sea Lions, 30 Harbor Seals, 81 Northern Fur Seals, and 116 Northern Elephant Seals. It’s really great to see that these species are recovering on the island after many were absent for so many decades following the sealing days of the late 1800’s. The fur seals are the most recent comeback story for the Farallones. Prior to the Europeans setting foot on the island, fur seals blanketed the ground with over 100,000 individuals. Within a few years of commercial sealing, they were completely extirpated from the islands and were only occasionally seen for the next hundred years. Over the last few decades, a colony has begun to steadily increase at Indian Head Beach. On 1-Oct, we conducted our first survey of the year there and counted 115 pups and over 160 adults and immature – this is a true success story for conservation on the Farallones!

After the pinniped survey, we conducted our first salamander survey of the year. We checked 106 coverboards, but could only find one salamander. This is the Farallon subspecies of Arboreal Salamander, which is kind of ironic considering that the only trees on the island are three recently introduced Monterey Cypresses and a Monterey Pine. These Farallon Salamanders mostly live under rocks unless you give them a coverboard to hide under. Although only one salamander sounds bad, in reality, they don’t really emerge from their subterranean hiding places until after the first substantial rains moisten the soil. After all, lungless salamanders, such as this one, need to keep their skin moist so they can breathe through it.
Finding migrant birds was a challenge, but seven more were tallied to our list. The most exciting were the three species of jaeger seen during the PM seawatch: Long-tailed, Parasitic, and Pomarine. We also added Merlin, Red-necked Phalarope and Western Meadowlark to bring our overall point total up to 85.
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