Los Farallones

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


Wow, three straight days of light east wind – there’s got to be a fallout here someday! The cloud cover this morning was about 50% cirrus, which isn’t great, but better than no clouds. The visibility, though, was 30 miles, which means the mainland was clearly visible. I suppose that would be where all the birds headed when, or if, they discovered themselves over the ocean in the morning.

Shark watch starts at 8AM, and from the lighthouse, I could see a fog bank slowly approaching from the west. To the east, the visibility was improving so that I could see Mt. Diablo, but this would be short-lived. Within an hour, the fog was lapping at the island, obscuring West End, and officially cancelling Shark Watch. How would we see shark attacks? Although fog really reduces our ability to see stuff on the ocean and reduces the number of birds that can find the island, it was actually pretty neat watching the fog engulf the island. As West End and Indian Head slowly became veiled in gray, Maintop (slightly east and higher than the other two) remained free of the fog and looked especially crisp in the full, bright sunlight. I was really wishing I had brought my camera. Then streamers of fog began forming off the tops of Maintop and Sugarloaf as the fog drew steadily closer. Although shark watch was officially cancelled as soon as I could not see beyond West End, I stayed at the lighthouse scanning the ocean and hoping to get another shark attack. At 10, I surrendered and headed down the hill. Luckily, the Superfish, a shark tourism boat, notified us of an attack off Indian Head, which we were not able to see well from our vantage point. But, Zach Coffman, an employee of the Fish and Wildlife Service and an islander, just happened to be going over to the Superfish and got great views of the shark as it came up to investigate the small boat he was driving. We got to see it then too and added 5 points!

With the visibility reduced to less than a mile, we figured our day was over for finding new Farallonathon birds. But we were wrong, as we still hadn’t found all the birds on the island that arrived before the fog settled on us. Around noon, Noah pulled an Empidonax flycatcher out of the Twitville net. He noted that it was all yellow below, put it in a bag, and handed it to Oscar. He told him that it was a Western, and asked him to band it because he had to start the shorebird survey. When Oscar pulled it out of the bag in the banding lab, he noticed it had a bright green back, round eyering, and black wings with contrasting white wingbars. He suspected that it was a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, a species that is very similar in appearance to Western Flycatchers. Oscar then notified the rest of us, and we all assembled in the banding lab to check it out. With only 22 previously accepted records in California and just a 55% acceptance record by the California Bird Records Committee (CBRC) due to the difficult in identifying them, Oscar carefully measured the difference in flight feather lengths. The “wing formula” is one of safest ways to identify an Empidonax flycatcher that is not singing. About half of Oscar’s measurements were in the zone of overlap between Western and Yellow-bellied, but the other half were clearly within the range of Yellow-bellied and outside the range of Western. With the measurements and appearance of a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, we would now need photographic evidence. For the next 10 minutes, this bird endured a barrage of shutters clicking at it. We may have taken over 200 photos of it! Why not? We’re not shooting with film anymore!

Late in the afternoon, Sara showed Oscar a photo of a gray bird with a contrasting black cap she had seen in a cave in Sea Pigeon Gulch while she was looking for Burrowing Owls at noon. Oscar recognized this as a Gray Catbird and showed me the photo. We all jumped up and headed down to Sea Pigeon Gulch. The bird was still in its cave. Although this bird is no longer reviewed by the CBRC, it was reviewed in 1992 when the first Farallonathon occurred, so to keep scoring fair between the years, we count this as a CBRC bird. Besides this is only the 17th record for the island!

With the addition of two more migrant birds, a calling Red Phalarope that flew across the Marine Terrace and a Western Palm Warbler that was banded, we added 17 more points to our total. This brought our overall total up to 150 points. With just one more day of Farallonathon, we really needed some new birds and more shark attacks. Stay tuned for the grand finale tomorrow!
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