Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Day 36: I want to nest, I don't want to nest, I want to nest...

Last post about Brandt's cormorants I mentioned they were building their nests in earnest and I was hopeful for them to be laying eggs soon. While I was off the island they did indeed start to lay eggs. But then they left again. All nesting attempts in our main study colonies were abandoned. And then they came back. They started nest building again, even some of the same birds that just abandoned their eggs, were back rebuilding in the same spot. Today, we had several nests that once again have eggs. This on again, off again, behavior is very hard to interpret and that makes it hard to predict what will happen with the latest wave of nest building. Hopefully, like the bird above, they will continue to gather nest material, build their nests, and lay eggs.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Day 35: Oysters anyone?

The Black Oystercatcher is the only shorebird that breeds on the Farallones. They are also misnamed. Oystercatchers don't eat oysters. They eat a variety of intertidal organisms including, mussels, limpets and chitons. The Oystercatchers are another example of a species that has benefited from the protection of the refuge. They were extirpated from the island at one time but since have since recolonized. We currently have around 20 breeding pairs on the island. They breed primarily in areas we cannot access during the summer so the lucky person that gets to monitor them spends many hours at the lighthouse squinting through a spotting scope trying to determine where their nests are. Oystercatchers are the only surface nesting bird on the island that frequently leaves it's nest unprotected, relying on the cryptic coloring of the eggs to keep them safe from the gulls. This cryptic coloring works on humans as well so finding their nests is always a challenge.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Day 34: Saddle up

The view facing south from the house features "the domes" (old water storage tanks) and Saddle Rock. The waves today were making it 3/4 of the way up the saddle. In the winter, waves will crash over the saddle which is over 30ft high. There are small pockets of Murres that breed high up on the rock out of the reach of crashing waves.

Day 33: Gull frontal

I am aware that my blog about the Farallones is in danger of becoming a blog about Western gulls. But that fact is the gulls influence just about every activity we do outside this time of year. They make their presence felt. So naturally I tend to take a lot of photos of them. Today was a gull check day. Right now we are still checking our plots for new eggs although the majority of birds have laid by now. We may even have chicks soon.  As I may have mentioned before, they don't like to be messed with. Gull checks now require a rain coat for protection from the guano rain, and a hard hat to protect from a gull bill to the head. Amy here is checking a nest in her plot and is about to get hammered by the attending gull.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Day 32: Starry, starry night

I took advantage of the clear skies tonight to take this shot of the house. We religiously cover the windows at night to protect the nocturnal seabirds, but the long exposure captured the little light that does escape our curtains. And although we often feel as though we are alone in the middle of the Pacific, the glow of the city lights reminds us San Francisco is less than 30 miles away.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Day 31: Time out

Sometimes we get so busy out here it's hard to take time to enjoy the little things. Like a beautiful view. But even the gulls know when to pause for a good sunset.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Day 30: Not a bird

Despite the fact that this time of year our focus is on seabirds, there are some mammals present. There are five species of pinnipeds here including these elephant seals. Elephant seals breed here during the winter and this time of year, immature seals and females are here molting. Yes molting. They actually grow a new skin underneath their old skin and eventually the old skin peels off. Later in the summer, the big males and their impressive noses (the inspiration for the species name) will show up to do the same. In between molting and breeding, these seals spend all thier time at sea where they dive to incredible depths (up to 2000 feet). Elephants seals were nearly hunted to extinction in the 1800s so we are lucky to have them here today.

Day 29: What's that you say?

Now that the gulls are on eggs, it's loud. Every few feet there is an extremely angry individual telling you what he thinks of you and your kind (you'll have to imagine the sound that is coming from this bird, it's not pretty). Makes it hard to hear yourself think, let alone someone speaking to you. Some individuals are so tenacious that when we check their nests we have to actually push the bird off to see it's eggs. You have to respect that kind of fearless determination.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Day 28: Steamy

It's windy again today, as is typical for this time of year. In fact the wind is critical. It's responsible for bringing essential nutrients to these coastal waters without which there would be no krill, no fish, and no seabirds. However, my popsicle fingers and toes don't appreciate the wind at all. On days like today, hot drinks become critical. If possible, I would have a steaming mug in may hands at all times. Just for fun, I took a few shots of my mug lit by the morning light but it wasn't until I reviewed the photos that I realized I had caught a very rare steam bird taking flight from my tea. Do you see it?

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Day 27: Green egg, blue egg

 I'm back on the island! While I was away, the Common Murres started laying. They lay the largest eggs of any seabird on the island in a variety of colors. Some have mint chip eggs like this one, others have a white or pale blue background, but virtually all of them have dark speckles and streaks. Since murres lay their eggs directly on rock ledges without building nests, their eggs have evolved a unique shape, very wide on one end and tapering to a narrow point. This adaptation prevents the eggs from rolling away, instead the egg will roll in a circle if dislodged. Now that the murres are laying in earnest, many hours will be spent staring at the backs of murres in study plots, hoping to get a glimpse of their eggs. They don't move all that often while incubating and you would be surprised how well they can hide those large eggs.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Day 26: The eye of the corm

Here's my vote for the prettiest eyes on the island. The bright blue eyes of the Brandt's Cormorant are irresistible. Last time I posted a picture of Brandt's,  I mentioned they were attending the colony in good numbers and I was hopeful for an early start to the breeding season. I'm still waiting. I had a very nervous few days last week when the cormorants mysteriously disappeared. The colonies were virtually empty, the one nest in our study colony that had eggs was abandoned, nest building ceased. Then, just a few days ago, they returned in even bigger numbers than before. Still no significant egg laying (we have one nest with eggs in the study colony) but I am once again hopeful.

On another note, I'm leaving the island tomorrow for two weeks so Farallon Photo a day will be on hiatus until I return.

Day 25: Dawn patrol

We were up early this today for some Pigeon Guillemot netting. I didn't get any good pictures of that activity (hopefully next time) but I did catch these Common Murres in the sunrise. This time of year, before egg laying, the murres are arriving en masse at the colony at dawn. About 250,000 of these birds breed on the Farallones so there can literally be thousands of early morning commuters swirling around.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Day 24: It's getting eggy

The gulls starting dropping eggs a few days ago and now they are showing up all over the island. The first eggs are easy to find, just follow the gull that is screaming twice as loud as its neighbors. There is a distinct increase in the volume when the gulls start laying. Right now it's still just a few on eggs but soon the entire island will be screaming. Something to look forward to. Western Gulls typically lay three eggs so these two will likely have a sibling in the next few days.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Day 23: The farallon rhinoceros

Bet you didn't know we had rhinos out here did you? So maybe it's not actually a rhinoceros, but the Rhinoceros Auklet does share one distinctive characteristic with its namesake: a prominent horn. The auklet has a much cooler hairdo though. Rhinoceros Auklets, which are actually closely related to puffins, have begun laying their eggs and it's always a treat to pull one of these out of a nest box. They are quite strong so handling them has to be done with care. That bill can deliver a powerful bite. The farallon rhinos are a conservation sucess story. After being extirpated from the island, they returned to breed in the 1980's and population's have been growing ever since.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Day 22: Night lights

 We had a brief break in the wind yesterday and the new moon is here which usually means one thing: Ashy Storm-petrel netting! This is one of my favorite activities. We set up a net once it's full dark, play the Storm-petrel call, and get ready to catch some of the coolest birds around. These little seabird are about the size of a swallow, spend most of their lives on the open ocean and can live to be 40+ years old! I was introduced to seabirds through Storm-petrels so I have a huge soft spot for them. Last night I set up my camera to try and capture this nighttime activity. The streaks of light you see are from our headlamps as we extract birds from the net and the glow from San Francisco city lights is on the horizon. To read more about Ashy netting and see what they look like, check out the Farallones blog post here.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Day 21: It's Hairy

Happy May Day! Another feature from small world today. This lovely little flower is called marsh sand spurry (Spergularia marina). It's fairly common on the island, a low growing shrub that creates a low green carpet in some areas.  Its leaves and stem are covered in fine hairs that glow when backlit by setting sun.