Los Farallones

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

The Farallonathon has Begun

On Sept 28th, we started our annual fundraiser that we call the Farallonathon!  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. Instead of counting just species of birds on a single day, we count all of the animals we encounter including birds, fish, marine mammals, insects, and any other wildlife we find over an entire week.  We even assign points for rare and interesting wildlife events such as shark attacks and birds never before seen on the Farallones.

DAY 1 – We started out with light southeast winds, but dense fog limited visibility to just 1/4 mile. This meant that few birds would be able to find the island. However, we quickly spotted the Northern Gannet that was first found on April 25th. Since this was a first record for the Pacific Ocean, it was also a first island record, which means that it was worth ten points.

Thankfully, the fog lifted by 10 am, and the migrants that were flying around began to descend upon the island. We were immediately inundated in the banding lab with Red-breasted Nuthatches. Apparently their food supply crashed on their breeding grounds, and they are irrupting southward in huge numbers in search of food. On this day, we estimated a total of 54 individuals on the island, with 42 birds banded. This photo is of a nuthatch perched on the lichen-encrusted wall of the lighthouse. With high enough magnification, it is possible for us to see the microscopic insects that crawl over the walls. With their proportionately large eyes (compared to humans), the nuthatches and other birds are able to see and take advantage of this abundant food source

A huge surprise, though, was an Arctic Warbler that we found in the Coast Guard House mistnet. This is a species that breeds in the boreal forests of northeastern Europe, Asia, and Alaska. They mostly winter in southeast Asia, so they are extremely rare in North America outside of Alaska. In fact, prior to this bird, there were only eight records, 1 in Baja California and 7 in Alta California, which includes one previous record from the Farallones in 2005. Because this is a CBRC bird, we received five points for this wayward vagrant. The relatively short wing and bill, along with the yellow wash to the underparts and greenish upperparts, indicate that this was probably of the Alaskan subspecies, kennicotti.

Besides the two mega-vagrants (Arctic Warbler and Northern Gannet), we also found a mega rare bird for the island, a Ruddy Duck. Nearly all ducks are rare at the Farallones, with the exception of Northern Pintail and Surf Scoter, but it has been well over a decade since a Ruddy Duck was last seen on the island. The white cheek indicates that this is a male. In  eclipse plumage, males attain a drab appearance such as this duck, but in breeding plumage they have a bright rufous body; this bird had one rufous feather on its right side.

Several other species arrived this day as well including a Western Palm Warbler, a Chestnut-sided Warbler, and 8 Vaux’s Swifts.
We also saw all 5 species of normally occurring pinnipeds on the island: Harbor Seal, Northern Elephant Seal, Northern Fur Seal, Steller Sea Lion, and California Sea Lion.  This Harbor Seal was swimming just off shore.
We also add Farallonathon points for butterflies and dragonflies.  Most of the species we see on the Farallones are highly migratory.  Variegated Meadowhawks, such as the one below, frequently make the over-water crossing to the island.
We finished this first day with a total of 96 points: 9 for the breeding birds (Black Oystercatcher, Western Gull, Pelagic Cormorant, Brandt’s Cormorant, Common Murre, Pigeon Guillemot, Rhinoceros Auklet, Cassin’s Auklet, Tufted Puffin); 61 for normal migrant birds; 5 for pinnipeds; 2 for cetaceans (1 for the resident gray whales and another for a Humpback Whale off Fisherman’s Bay); 1 for a butterfly (Red Admiral); 3 for dragonflies (Green Darner, Black Saddlebags, and Variegated Meadowhawk); 5 for a species that needs to be reviewed by the California Bird Records Committee (Arctic Warbler); and 10 for a first island record (Northern Gannet).
DAY 2 – The winds in the morning were still light, but the fog was thicker and dropped our visibility to just a few miles for the entire day.  Still we managed to find 2 new butterflies (West Coast Lady and Painted Lady), and 15 new migrant bird species including a female Black-throated Blue Warbler,  a Magnolia Warbler, an Ovenbird, and a Tennessee Warbler. This increased our Farallonathon total to 113.

DAY 3 – Dense fog continued this morning, dropping visibility to just 1/8 of a mile.  Around noon, a strong northwest wind blew away the fog, and visibility increased to 30 miles, so we could easily see the San Francisco Peninsula.  Neither of these developments boded well for migrant birds to arrive on the island, as the strong northwest winds aided the birds that were over the ocean back to the mainland.  Although we could not find a single new Farallonathon point, we were able to get Peter Pyle, the founder of the Farallonathon, three new species for his Faralist.  He was on a pelagic trip with Shearwater Journeys, and we were able to get him on the Eurasian Collared-Doves, the Ruddy Duck, and the Northern Gannet.  His island list increased to 363, but our Farallonathon total remained at 113.
DAY 4 – More strong winds out of the north and northwest and high visibility (we could see Mt Diablo 60 miles away) meant that we would not see many new migrants.  With the morning winds coming off of Point Reyes, though, and news of big flights of Broad-winged Hawks in Marin, we were hoping that this species would cross the ocean and provide a first island record.  Unfortunately, this did not happen, but two White-tailed Kites did brave the crossing, and we saw them pass to our east.  Three other species of migrant birds were also new: Pacific Wren, Swainson’s Thrush, and Spotted Towhee. We also found our second bat of the fall hanging in one of our three Monterey Cypresses.  We also added a point for the Farallon Cave Cricket, the only endemic species on the island. The only good news to the increased visibility was that we were able to spot a shark attack in Mirounga Bay, which is worth five points.  These points increased our total to 124.
DAY 5 – The northwest winds and high visibility continued to plague our Farallonathon, and we were only able to add 2 more migrant birds, a pair of European Starlings and a “heard only” Black-bellied Plover.  An Ashy Storm-Petrel survey revealed several active nests for another point.  Although the great visibility ruined our chances for a migrant bird wave, we were able to find a pod of 50 Short-beaked Common Dolphins swimming past the island.  Luckily they didn’t come too close to the island as the sharks were busy in the afternoon, with two attacks in Mirounga Bay off Saddle Rock.  The first involved three sharks and lasted for nearly 30 minutes.  The second was closer to shore and ended fairly quickly.  The two attacks added 10 points and the two additional sharks at the attack added two more to increase our overall total to 140.
With only two more days to go, we’ll need some good weather to come close to the record.  The forecast looks promising, with south winds and an increasing marine layer.  So long as we don’t get fog, we may get a good wave.
So, what’s a typical ‘score’ for a Farallonathon?  During the last 20 years, scores have ranged from a low of 129 points to a high of 240 (a good year for shark attacks)!  The very first Farallonathon began auspiciously with a mega-rare Asian vagrant, the Northern Wheatear, but ended with only a modest 152 points due to very few shark attacks. 

Please consider supporting our research by pledging either a per-point amount or a flat donation for the event.  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 unique islands and the marine environment that surrounds them.
To donate a flat amount online, simply go to the Farallonathon team webpage: and donate online. If you prefer to make a donation based on our point system or do not want to use the online method, please email Jim Tietz (,  Pete Warzybok (, or Russ Bradley (  Your participation allows us to continue studying this unique and vital ecosystem on the California Coast.

Thank you,
Jim Tietz
PRBO Farallon Biologist