Los Farallones

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

Lightning Strikes Twice at the Farallons

November 3rd started as any ordinary day on the island. Jim Tietz was up at the lighthouse counting pelicans and most of the crew was eating breakfast. Unbeknownst to the residents, a Red-flanked Bluetail was in flight over the Pacific. Joey Negreann opened the mist nets at 9am and was ready for the day. As Jim walked down from the lighthouse at 9:10, he called out that a bird was caught in the PRBO House net. As he approached the net, the identity of the bird quickly became clear to him. Jim immediately radioed, and everybody came to look at the second island record of Red-flanked Bluetail. For opening the nets, Joey was honored with banding one of North America’s rarest birds.

Red-flanked Bluetail captured on 3 Nov 2019

Amazingly, lightning struck twice when another Red-flanked Bluetail arrived a few days later on November 7th. Melissa Simon found this second individual at the lighthouse in the afternoon. The whole crew ran up to the lighthouse to catch a glimpse. Seeing that this bird was un-banded, we confirmed it to be a new individual. Shortly after, we caught it in our mist nets and banded it as well.

Red-flanked Bluetail captured on 7 Nov 2019.

Why all this excitement over this small songbird? The Red-flanked Bluetail is a bird that breeds across Siberia and winters in Southeast Asia. Considering it is a long-distance migrant, the fact that it had been found in California isn’t necessarily that surprising. Long-distance migrants can be misoriented or get caught up in weather events that take them far from where they intended to go. A more common long-distance migrant that ends up on the Farallons each season is the Blackpoll Warbler. Native to North America, Blackpolls make a trans-Atlantic journey from Canada flying out over the Atlantic before hitting trade winds and ending up in South America. However, the rarity of our Red-flanked Bluetails is clear. Whereas there are hundreds of records for Blackpoll Warbler on the Farallons, there are only three now for Red-flanked Bluetail. These misoriented migrants from Siberia (“Sibes” as we birders call them) have to fly a long way to get to California. One theory is that they make non-stop flights across the Pacific Ocean, where there is no place to stopover to refuel – most probably don’t make it.

Interestingly, the first Red-flanked Bluetail arrived this season, almost to the day, on the 30th anniversary of the first one ever to be found in the lower 48. On November 1, 1989, Farallon biologists extracted and banded a Red-flanked Bluetail from the same mist net we did. Other than the three individuals seen on the Farallon Islands, only two others have been discovered in the state of California and only six in the lower 48 states. Since the 1989 record, all subsequent records have occurred within the past decade.

The first Red-flanked Bluetail in North America south of Alaska, captured at SE Farallon Island on 1 Nov 1989.