Los Farallones

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

Peak of the E-Seal season: brawling bulls, caring cows, plump pups, and more!

Things are heating up for the winter Farallon crew. The Elephant Seal colony is in the peak of the breeding season with 52 cows, 33 nursing pups, 3 weaned pups (a.k.a. weaners), and 7 large males on the Southeast Farallon Island. During a trip to the West End Island on 1/29, there were an additional 40 cows, 27 pups, 2 weaners, and 6 large males spotted!

To keep track of the cows on a daily basis, we stamp them with a number on the sides and rump using a temporary dye. These stamps will be lost once they begin to molt (shed their fur) after the breeding season. To identify cows between breeding seasons, we use flipper tags and documented scars/markings that are logged in a photo database. The tag’s color indicates which breeding colony it was tagged in. The drill holes seen in the photo below are used by the Farallones and Point Reyes National Seashore to ensure that the tag can still be read after the numbers have faded.

Also, breeding age animals that are successfully identified from year to year are given names. Using all of these tools, we have identified 20 cows from last year that returned to the breeding colony this year. 9 of those are currently with a pup and 2 have already successfully weaned their pups, one of which you can see below.

Generally the Elephant Seal breeding season if from the New Year until early March, but within that time, there can be quite a bit of variation from year to year. 3 of the returning cows have arrived on a drastically different schedule this year: 2 arrived much earlier and 1 arrived later. Sleepy, who weaned a male pup last year after 29 days, arrived 3 weeks earlier and only stayed for 17 days without pupping. Honeydrop arrived a month earlier than last season and had a pup, unlike last year. We suspect her late arrival to the colony last year was due to a failed attempt to pup at one of the coastal breeding sites and after her loss, she decided to come to the Farallones to molt. Freesia, however, arrived 2 weeks later this year. She has not pupped yet, but there is still time. Stragglers are still trickling in everyday and we are still waiting on the infamously late cow, Thelma, to arrive.

The males have changed roles as well this year. Harem master (Or beach master in colonies with beaches) is a very sought after role on the island; it is when the male defends a group of females so that only he may breed with them. Martin, who was harem master to the smaller Mirounga Beach breeding site last year, now rules the larger breeding site on Sand Flat. However, on 1/26 a larger male named Lemmy, (seen above) came to challenge Martin for the role of harem master. Two of the field assistants were lucky enough to see the fight and catch it on camera.

Lemmy won the fight and stayed in the Sand Flat colony for 3 days before he was spotted on West End nestled amongst the females there. Martin has returned to the Sand Flat colony and continues to be harem master… for now.