Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Post #116 - Info sought on grebe nesting failure!

This is a different sort of post as I am really looking for reader input on a bird health/conservation issue that I have recently found curious and disturbing. I am going to speak very generally about large a nesting population of Clark's and Western Grebes somewhere in Northern California. I am doing it this way since I don't want to outright publicize the location, but I am certain that many of you will know the spot to which I am referring. If you do, please just keep it under your hat, thanks. So, with that caveat out of the way, I want to field opinions as to what seems to be a complete nesting failure of a population of several hundred if not several thousand grebes. 

Grebes EVERYWHERE, but no chicks to be found anywhere?!?!?

I first visited this particular location on July 5th of this year, and I was completely blown away by the number of birds I observed. I saw only 1 chick on that visit, but countless other birds were sitting on eggs at that time. I figured I had arrived just on the front end of what was surely going to be an huge hatch-out of grebe chicks in coming weeks. Consulting the Cornell Lab page on Western Grebe, it stated that the incubation period for the species is 24 days. I figured that if I returned in a few weeks, more of the eggs would have hatched by then. You can understand my surprise when I returned on July 24th - 19 days later - and found zero recently hatched chicks. If all of the eggs that I observed on the July 5th were just-then laid, sure, it would make sense that none of them had reached the required 24 days of incubation to hatch. But that seems really unlikely, particular once you read on.

Western Grebe on nest - Aechmophorus occidentalis
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II + 1.4x III on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/2000 at f/5.6, ISO 400, handheld

Fast forward to my third visit, on August 13. I thought for sure there would be all sorts of chicks by then, but, again, I found loads of birds sitting on eggs and no chicks (well, one, photo below). At that point I realized that something had to be very seriously wrong as the entire population hatched effectively zero young from what were certainly thousands of individual eggs from hundreds of individual pairs. To complete the timeline, a friend of mine visited the area this past weekend, on September 9, and said that all the nests had been totally abandoned. What the heck is going on?!?!!??

Western Grebe with chick - Aechmophorus occidentalis
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II + 1.4x III on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/1600 at f/8, ISO 400, handheld

What was really strange is that the adults looked generally healthy to my eye. Notably, I did not see a single adult bird catch or consume a fish in any of my three visits. That lead me to wonder if a food shortage could have affected the nesting success of the entire population (though that would more likely affect chicks than unhatched eggs)? I also wondered if the unusually heavy rains that Northern California experienced this winter might have contributed. Perhaps increased runoff deposited more of a certain toxin in the water? Altered the sediment composition? Changed the osmolarity, etc? I really have no idea what cold explain the apparent nesting failure, so I'm really grasping for any possible explanation.

So, I am looking to generate some discussion about this topic. I'd love to have what comments people make as official blog comments below. That way they are part of the post and others can read follow whatever discussion we can together generate. So with that, I want to hear what people think is going on with these birds......

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Post #115 - Arizona birding! Plus Desert Photography at Elephant Head Pond!

What the heck happened to summer?!?!? It seems as though we've jumped right into fall! With that in mind, I want to quickly rewind to the first week of August, a week that I spent birding and photographing in Southeastern Arizona. Beyond what is fast becoming an annual pilgrimage to that birding Mecca (see Post #72 and Post #73 from last year), this year's trip was additionally motivated by 3 long-staying rarities that I wanted to add to my ABA list: Common Crane in Mormon Lake, Rose-throated Becard on the Santa Cruz in Tumacacori, and Tufted Flycatcher in the Huachucas. I found all three of those birds plus Five-striped Sparrow in California Gulch, so it was a great trip on the birding front, one that pushed my ABA list to 721! Both the crane and sparrow were so far away so as to not be worth photographing, but I did get record shots of the other two.

Rose-throated Becard                           Tufted Flycatcher

As for photography, I spent a wonderful morning at Elephant Head Pond in Amado adjacent to the the Santa Ritas Mountains (Madera Canyon). For those not familiar with this spot, it is desert photography at its finest. Seed and suet are put out every day, and many species  (Gambel's Quail, White-winged Dove, Curve-billed Thrasher, Hooded Oriole, Northern Cardinal, Gilded Flicker, Lucy's Warbler, Pyrrhuloxia, etc) cycle through the property to graze on the handouts each day. There are several blinds, and photographers are free to configure a wide array of perches however they like. The place has recently changed ownership and is now run by world-renowned wildlife photographer Dano Grayson. Dano is a really great guy and has some of the most amazing photography stories I've ever heard, so be sure to engage him if you make it to his place. If you're interested in shooting at the Pond at Elephant Head, you can get in touch with Dano at dano@danograyson.com. Tell him I sent you! I should also mention that Dano has a second set of blinds higher up in Madera Canyon that gets a completely different set of birds (Hepatic Tanager, Black-headed Grosbeak, Acorn Woodpecker, Mexican Jay, etc) than the pond. It's totally possible to spend one day down low and another up high.

With that I'll throw up a few of the shots I collected during my single morning at the pond. The flicker is the bird I most wanted this year. He was lured - only briefly - to this perch by a bit of suet packed into the back of the cholla skeleton. The idea in all of these shots is to get the bird to land on perch that has been positioned to be both fully lit and sufficiently far from the backing foliage that the background is rendered smooth and creamy. For best results, the perch should be at least twice as far from anything in the background than it is from the photographer.

***click on images for higher resolution views, 
particularly those landscape/horizontal oriented***

Gilded Flicker - Colaptes chrysoides
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II + 1.4x III on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/3200 at f/5.6, ISO 800

White-winged Dove - Zenaida asiatica
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 on EOS 7D2
1/3200 at f/5.6, ISO 800

Pyrrhuloxia - Cardinalis sinuatus
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II + 1.4x III on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/3200 at f/5.6, ISO 800

Do notice that the above two shots both utilize the same perch, albeit at different proportions in the final image. That's always a dead give-a-way for set-up shots. The idea is to make set-ups shots look as natural as possible, and that's really hard to do if the same perch is used repeatedly. Varying perches will alway give the most interesting results. It's also a lot of fun to try to get exactly the bird you want on exactly the perch you want (see also these examples from last year).

These 2 cardinal shots were actually my favorites of those that I collected this year. Believe it or not, they were my first nice shots of this species. They were very common where I lived in Boston (2011-2013), but I was always focused on photographing shorebirds or generally rarer species. I kept assuming that I'd catch up with cardinal at some point but never did - until now!

Northern Cardinal - Cardinalis cardinalis
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II on EOS 7D2
1/3200 at f/5.6, ISO 800

Northern Cardinal - Cardinalis cardinalis
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II on EOS 7D2
1/3200 at f/5.6, ISO 800

I'll leave you with one technical tip. It is really important when shooting in bright desert sun to be mindful that you don't blow away the whites or completely saturate the colors of bright birds like the cardinal. If you overexpose, you'll lose all that lovely feather detail and be left with birds that look like nondescript blobs.

So, that's it for this installment. I'm sure migration and my upcoming pelagic trips will yield some interesting content in the next few weeks. Beyond that, I head to Taiwan in October and Ecuador in December, so please stayed tuned for recaps of those trips as the year winds down. Cheers!

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Post #114 - Bike-chasing California's most famous seabird......

This is a Northern Gannet. It is a large seabird that nests colonially in the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans. On the map below, nesting colonies are shown as green dots, and the dispersed, wintering range is shown in aqua. They are unique among boobies (Sulidae) in that they prefer high, northern latitudes to more tropical climes. Though it's tough to tell from this photo, they are quite large; They average 3 feet in length, and they sport a wingspan that of nearly 6 feet. They subsist entirely on fish and such, and they are well-known for their arial acrobatics as they plunge, like winged darts, into the ocean in pursuit of prey.

Northern Gannet - Morus bassanus
Cape St. Mary's Ecological Reserve, Newfoundland, Canada
Canon 400mm f/5.6 on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/1600 at f/8, ISO 400

Northern Gannet range

So, why the heck am I writing about an Atlantic seabird in a post about California?!??! Well, in April of 2012 a Northern Gannet appeared on the Farallon Islands, 30 miles west of San Francisco (please see my recent post on the Farallons). Birders were understandably shocked by the first Pacific record of Northern Gannet but were even more surprised by how long the wayward bird stayed on the Farallons - 2 full years! The bird finally disappeared in March of 2014 only to reappear on Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay just two weeks later. It spent that spring and part of the summer in the bay before returning to its more familiar Farallon haunts. Since then, it has bounced between points on those islands, SF Bay, and points along the coast of San Mateo County. The bird generally spends a few months in a particular area before moving elsewhere for an equivalent length of time, and it is occasionally seen from seawatches and on pelagic trips as it transits between its preferred spots. I first saw this bird in Half Moon Bay in February of this year when I came to SF to look for an apartment. At that point, it had been in the Bay Area for nearly 5 years. 

Northern Gannet sightings
April 2012 - August 2017

Since I moved to San Mateo in May, sightings of the bird have been very thin; There was only 1 summer observation, that being on the Farallons on July 17. So, when the bird recently reappeared at Devil's Slide just south of Pacifica on August 2nd, I jumped at the prospect to add the bird to my slowly growing San Mateo County bike-only birdlist. I was in Arizona when the bird was rediscovered, so my first attempt at the bird had to wait a while and ultimately resulted in a 38-mile, round-trip miss; 2,700 feet of climbing to get over the coast range and back made that strike-out hurt even worse.

The gannet has frequented the whitish rock 
outcropping, left of center. Pretty cool that I can
bike to this from my apartment!

Undaunted by failure, I yesterday made a second attempt at the bird and was successful! I spotted the bird among a HUGE feeding frenzy of birds at least a mile from shore. I am familiar with this species from my time in the east, so making the ID at such a distance was very easy. It wasn't doing much, just floating around, but it shortly took off and flew into the rock where it has been seen recently by other birders.

This was taken through my Zeiss Gavia 85 at 60x.
I wish I would show you how many birds 
were to the right of this - thousands!

After that success, I headed south along the coast to do a bit of birding at Half Moon Bay. I headed for the harbor, set up my scope, and surprisingly saw a Northern Gannet sitting on the aptly named Sail Rock 400 yards from shore. Incredibly, the gannet had followed me 10 miles south, returning to a roost it had in the past used though not for the previous 6 months. I thought the whole thing was really fortuitous. 

The gannet in Half Moon Bay, 40 minutes later

My successful gannet chase, complete
with Half Moon Bay extension - 47 miles.

So, of the 130 or so birds species that I've managed to find in San Mateo County using just my bike, this Northern Gannet is by far the best quality bird. Chasing rarities on a bicycle is a horribly inefficient process, but I hope to defy those long odds as I do more of this sort of thing in the future. Finding birds from the bike in an incredibly rewarding feeling, and, regardless of the outcome, I'm staying in good shape. 

It's really cool that this bird has survived and taken up what appears to be permanent residence in Northern California. We often think of wayward rarities as disoriented or weak, and, though that might have been the case when he first appeared, he seems to be doing just fine today. Since he's so large and conspicuous, he's easy to find if he's around. It's because of this visibility that we've been able to track his movements during his California vacation-turned-staycation. 

Lastly, and since this was the week of the great solar eclipse, I'll leave you with the following photo. It's a bit of a departure from my usual style, being as much digital art as photograph. The subject bird was backlit by the setting sun, and I exposed the scene so as to correctly expose the edge of the bird but underexpose everything else. I simply knocked down what few details did come through in post-production to heighten the halo, or eclipse, effect. I hope you like it.....

Great Egret - Ardea alba
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II + 1.4x III on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/5000 at f/5.6, ISO 400
Handheld from kayak

Friday, August 11, 2017

Post #113 - Preparing for fall pelagic season! Come visit me in CA!

Sorry to be gone so long! I was in Southeastern Arizona all last week. I had a great time and will certainly post something about that trip once I have all my photos edited. So please stayed tuned. Following the blog will guarantee you never miss a thing (shameless self-promotion, I know)! OK, on with the show.....

Shorebird migration is now well underway here in the Bay Area, and soon other species will be following those migrational pioneers south. Included are pelagic species, species that are so highly oceanic they spend almost all of their non-nesting time far offshore. Albatrosses, petrels, shearwaters, storm-petrels, jaegers, skuas, alcids, and phalaropes all fall into that pelagic category, and one can reasonably expect to see a nice cross section of these birds on any fall pelagic trip from the Northcentral California Coast (Monterey, Half Moon Bay, and Bodega). September and October are prime time, and there are a number of boat/tour operators that can get you offshore to experience the spectacle of pelagic migration. These include Alvaro's Adventures, Monterey Seabirds, and Shearwater Journeys. All of these operators have years of offshore experience and can get you onto to birds and marine mammals that you want to see. I will be acting as a spotter on a number of these trips, so, if you'd like to join me at any point, please see my schedule at the end of the post.

Sooty Shearwater - Ardenna grisea
Canon 400mm f/5.6 on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/1600 at f/8, ISO 400

The New Captain Pete in Half Moon Bay
A fairly typical boat for Central/Northern CA pelagics.
The SoCal boats are much bigger for those that have been on those.

Water temperatures have dropped compared to the previous few years, and there is a ton of food for both fish and birds out there right now. Reports from early season trips (i.e. summer) have been very positive, so the fall is shaping up to be really good! For those thinking about planning a trip to California for pelagics, I will offer a number of suggestions. 

First, pelagic trips are very popular, and spots on the various boats are limited. Make your reservations as early as possible to guarantee yourself a spot! 

Second, think about booking a number of trips if you are coming from far away. One pelagic trip is highly unlikely to show you all the cool things the ocean has to offer. Taking multiple trips will let you maximize what you can see for the cost of the same plane ticket (if you don't already live here!)

Third, if you book multiple trips, you might think about spacing them out a bit. While waters in Central California are usually not terribly rough, don't under estimate the energy you'll use birding and balancing yourself over the course of 8 to 12 hours. There are a lot of trips, so you could come for 6 days and schedule trips on only even days or odd days to give yourself a break between them. Fall pelagics don't usually get weathered out, but spacing them out a bit also buys you insurance in case the wind kicks up for a day or two. 

Fourth, the volume of bird tends to be highest in September but generally more rare birds are seen later in the season, notably October. Do remember that people who have seen a lot of pelagic rarities have taken A LOT of pelagics over the years. Weird/cool stuff can show up anytime, so these are just general suggestions. 

Lastly, plan ahead to avoid seasickness. Everyone's threshold is different, but take what steps you think you need to prevent your day from being ruined by barfing. Ear patches work well but require a prescription (I think), so deal with that beforehand. Dramamine works fine and should be taken 45-60 minutes prior to getting on the boat. Wrist bands are a scam/joke and should be avoided completely. Getting a good night's sleep before the trip, eating small amounts throughout the day, and drinking plenty of water will all help prevent illness. 

The Big and Badass Black-footed Albatross - Phoebastria nigripes
Canon 400mm f/5.6 on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/3200 at f/5.6, ISO 800

A stocky Northern Fulmar  - Fulmaris glacialis (light phase)
Canon 400mm f/5.6 on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/3200 at f/7.1, ISO 400

A note about pelagic photography - it is REALLY HARD! Pelagic birds move really fast and the boat is usually bouncing around, so getting close, sharp images of these speedsters is a challenge. You will need a fast shutter, something certainly less than or equal to 1/1600 with 1/2500 or 1/3200 being preferable. That's not an issue when it sunny but gets much tougher in cloudy conditions. Teleconverters can help in those bright, high contrast conditions but will greatly hinder your efforts to get flight shots when it's cloudy. So, you'll have to adjust based on the day and the conditions. Remember, you can always crank up your ISO to keep your shutter fast and fix the noise on a sharp, in-focus shot later. If a shot is out-of-focus or isn't sharp, they're ain't a thing you can do after the fact!

Fork-tailed Storm-petrel - Oceanodroma furcata
Canon 500mm f/4 IS on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/2000 at f/4, ISO 1600

So, hopefully this gives you at least a bit of info should you be thinking about coming to California for some pelagic birding. Fall is also the best time for terrestrial birding in California, so it would be easy to fill in some land birding around your schedule boat trips. Please feel free to contact me with any questions that you have, and I will do my best to point you in the right direction. It would be great to see some of you out on the water this fall!

My pelagic schedule for this fall - Remember these a just a few of the many tips offered!
Sat, August 26            10hr Half Moon Bay      Alvaro's Adventures
Sun, September 10     10hr Half Moon Bay       Alvaro's Adventures
Sat, September 16       10hr Half Moon Bay      Alvaro's Adventures
Sun, September 17      8hr Monterey                  Monterey Seabirds
Mon, September 18     12hr Monterey               Monterey Seabirds
Mon, September 25     12hr Monterey               Monterey Seabirds
Tues, September 26     8hr Monterey                 Monterey Seabirds
Sun, October 1             8hr Monterey                 Monterey Seabirds
Mon, October 2           12hr Monterey                Monterey Seabirds
Sat, October 7             10hr Half Moon Bay      Alvaro's Adventures
Sat, October 14           10hr Half Moon Bay      Alvaro's Adventures
Sun, October 15           8hr Monterey                 Monterey Seabirds
Mon, October 16         12hr Monterey                Monterey Seabirds

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Post #112 - Boating for Birds - Inflatable Kayaks and Clark's/Western Grebes

I've known for a long time that shooting from a kayak is a fantastic way to photograph birds, but I've until recently never tried it for myself. Several obstacles have stood in my way. First, kayak rental places open too late to make renting a worthwhile photographic option A kayak rental that opens at 9am at this time of year is useless as that's a full 3 hours after sunrise; The best light is long gone by that time. Second, my wife and I live in a tiny 1-bedroom apartment with no storage or outdoor space to keep a hard-shell kayak. Third, we have no trailer or roof rack to move a kayak around even if we had the space to store it. 

Enter the inflatable kayak, the solution to all our our problems! I first shot from friend's Sea Eagle FT385 three weeks ago, and I was so impressed with it that I ran out and bought one for myself. Kayaking is super fun, good exercise, and a great way to get close to water birds. The kayak rides so low in the water that birds find it generally non-threatening. My particular model can be configured to seat one or two paddlers. It it super stable, and, at no point in our SF Bay test run did it feel like we could possibly tip over. Set-up/inflation is snap and easily handled by one person. Paddling into the wind isn't much fun but is possible if required.

Our new inflatable kayak with furry passenger, Roody the Beagle!

Our initial test complete, I headed north this past weekend (without Sonia) to photograph what I hoped would be grebe chicks. Unfortunately, the chicks hadn't yet hatched so I had to settle for the adults. It hardly mattered at they kept me plenty busy on their own. Kayaking to reach the birds was perfectly pleasant, and I found the birds as approachable as I had hoped. I love getting low angles on water birds, and the kayak put me in the perfect position to do exactly that. Enough of my drivel, let's see some photos!

Exploring the area

The boat balanced wonderfully with all my gear in front of me.

Another grouping of grebes

I will say that that it was incredibly challenging to get nice, clear shots of birds with so many of them swimming around. The feeling was not dissimilar to shooting in a seabird colony where there's so much activity that's it often difficult to isolate on bird from the ever-swirling masses. I'm usually looking for super clean backgrounds, but I found working with the birds in their habitat a fun diversion/challenge as well.

Western Grebe - Aechmophorus occidentalis 
On nest and in habitat.
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 7D Mark II
1/3200 at f/7.1, ISO 400

Western Grebe - Aechmophorus occidentalis 
Detailed headshot to show facial pattern.
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II + 1.4x III on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/2500 at f/5.6, ISO 400

Clark's Grebe - Aechmophorus clarkii
Detailed headshot to show facial pattern.
Compared to Western above, note less black around eye
and more orangey bill with less black.
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 7D Mark II
1/3200 at f/5.6, ISO 400

Clark's Grebe - Aechmophorus clarkii
Adult on nest
Canon 500mm f/4 IS + 1.4x III on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/3200 at f/5.6, ISO 400

Clark's Grebe - Aechmophorus clarkii
Mates changing incubation shifts
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 7D Mark II
1/3200 at f/5.6, ISO 400

Clark's Grebe - Aechmophorus clarkii
Feeding in foliage
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II + 1.4x III on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/3200 at f/5.6, ISO 400

Clark's Grebe - Aechmophorus clarkii
Adult on nest
Canon 500mm f/4 IS + 1.4x II on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/3200 at f/5.6, ISO 400

You can see from my shooting info that I carried a number of lenses and bodies. Switching between them was a snap, and I had plenty of room to stash gear in between and in front of my legs. The entire morning really was amazing. Photos aside it was incredible to have such intimate views of these beautiful birds. I'm in Southeastern Arizona next week but will most certainly return in a few weeks to try for the chicks. I will be sure to post an update when I do!

Western Grebe - Aechmophorus occidentalis 
I surprised this individual coming around the reeds!
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 7D Mark II
1/2000 at f/5.6, ISO 5=400

If you like these photos, please consider following me on Instagram. My user name is dorian_anderson_photography. 

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Post #111 - Bay Area bird chasing - bicycle style! Bonus shorebird photos.....

Really fast before we get started! I just wrote an article on Guatemala for the Nature Travel Network. All of the photos in the accompanying photo gallery are my own. Please check it out, especially if you're thinking about a trip to that wonderful country! I'm happy to field questions if you have any. OK, now for the main event......

It's been roughly two months since Sonia and I moved from Norwalk/LA to San Mateo/SF, and I am thoroughly impressed with the bike-birding prospects so far! I didn't do any bike-birding in the Southern California sprawl, and a badly strained calf muscle kept me sidelined for the first few weeks that I was in the Bay Area. Needless to say, I wasn't in the best shape when I finally resumed bike last month, but I've since built up my fitness exploring the bayshore. I now regularly patrol a length of shoreline that runs from San Francisco Airport southeast towards Redwood City. Coyote Point just behind my apartment has proven particularly productive, and I imagine that the entire bayshore will only get better as fall and winter approach.

My local stretch of SF Bay shoreline

As I've always been one for setting goals, my most immediate intent is to push Bay Area bike list north of 200 species. I am currently at 112 for San Mateo County, so I've got a long way to go. Summer is the slowest birding season in the Bay Area, but I fully expect to reach that plateau once fall migration commences. I can hear Josiah Clark and Rob Furrow laughing right now. Those two ironmen routinely tally 180+ species on their annual bicycle Big Day in April! I'm still learning the area and getting into shape, but I hope to be able to keep up with those guys in a few months. How far beyond 200 I can can reach is yet to be seen, but the my photography interest will certainly limit my bike-birding to some degree as the two are usually mutually exclusive. That being said, I have biked my rig to Coyote Point on a few occasions, so there's at least some hope of integrating the two passions!

Long-billed Curlew - Numenius americanus
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II + 1.4x III on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/2500 at f/5.6, ISO 800

To reach 200 species, I'll certainly have to do some amount of chasing. That process started this past weekend as I made my inaugural trip over the mountains to the coast to chase a continuing Willow Flycatcher at Burleigh Murray Ranch State Park. I made it to within a mile of the bird when Alvaro Jaramillo called me with news of his Wedge-tailed Shearwater just of Miramar Beach in Half Moon Bay. I immediately abandoned the flycatcher in favor of the shearwater. That chase was not to be though as 3 hours of scanning produced exactly zero shearwaters of any sort. I really wanted that bird. It would have been an amazing bike list addition. It's not too often I can get a bike lifer after the 618 species I rang up in 2014. Oh, and the flycatcher? I rode back to Burleigh Murray and missed that too. Sweet......

My route from my apartment to the beach and back

Elevation profile of my ride

The ride home over the mountains was hard and hot but not as disappointing as many might think. The real beauty of the bike is that the rider extracts value even when the sought birds are missed. I got some much needed exercise, and I had a great day exploring the coast. I did add 16 new birds (#'s 93-108) to my bike list (Heermann's Gull, Sanderling, Common Murre etc), so I did make some progress towards my goal of 200. Equally important, I burned zero gas which means zero (well almost, my body put out some CO2) emissions and zero dollars spent on transportation. I even found what I though would be a great photo spot to which I returned the following morning - in the car - to shoot. I was not disappointed!

Marbled Godwit - Limosa fedoa
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II on EOS 7D2
1/2500 at f/4, ISO 400

Willet (western) - Tringa semipalmata
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II on EOS 7D2
1/3200 at f/4, ISO 400

If you like these photos, there are many more at my official photography website, or at my Instagram account!

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Post #110 - Birding the mythical Farallon Islands!

Really fast! If you like the sort of bird-motivated content I provide below, please consider "following" the blog by signing up with the blue "Follow" button in the "Followers" section in the right hand column of this page (just below Blog Archives) - Thanks!

Now on with the show!

The Farallon Islands are located 30 miles west of San Francisco in the otherwise open Pacific Ocean. They are just close enough to land to register but just distant enough to have their full mystery preserved. At just 0.16 square miles combined, they are tiny. Only on the clearest days - those precious few free of San Francisco's trademark fog - are the islands visible as a innocuous, nondescript dots on the distant horizon. It is only with a closer, generally boat-based inspection that their true character is revealed. A sense of rocky intimidation is experienced as one's craft bobs beneath the overhead cliffs, the constant swirl of whitewater at their bases only heightening that sensation. There is little to no vegetation to disguise their rugged character, and is completely possible to imagine the islands as the perfect setting for some shipwreck or survival epic, something alone the lines of "Lord of the Flies" meets "Naked and Afraid". It is no wonder that the Farallons hold such a special place in California birding lore. 

Red pin indicates the Farallon Islands.

Their mythical qualities aside, a very real 355 bird species have been eBirded from the Farallons. All of the expected West Coast species have been tallied, and beyond those all sorts of rarities have been found over the years. Eastern vagrants include Northern Gannet, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Worm-eating Warbler, Cape May Warbler, and Golden-winged Warbler. Pelagic rarities such as Short-tailed Albatross, Cook's Petrel, Hawaiian Petrel, Great Frigatebird, and Red-tailed Tropicbird have all materialized from the depths. The list of Asian vagrants is the most impressive, what with Eurasian Dotterel, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Little Stint, Ruff, Red-throated Pipit, Brown Shrike, Dusky Warbler, Arctic Warbler, Little Bunting, and Common Rosefinch checking-in over the years. The list of birds that have occurred on the Farallons is hardly to be believed. I mean how the hell does Northern Saw-whet Owl or Sage Thrasher make it out there?!?!? Sadly though, most of us won't ever set foot on the islands as they are protected as part of a National Marine Sanctuary; Only a lucky few researchers are afforded that most intimate of Farallon experiences!

The Farallons during my visit last weekend.
These are the Southern Farallons, by far the largest group.

Despite the restricted land access, anyone is welcome to enjoy the islands from a boat. The summer months are the best time to do this as the Farallons are the largest Pacific seabird colony south of Alaska. With upwards of a quarter million individuals, Common Murres dominate. Combing through their hoards, we also found good numbers of Pigeon Guillemots, Tufted Puffins, and Rhinoceros Auklets. Cassin's Auklets were particularly prevalent with nearly 500 individuals observed, many at very close range. Beyond alcids, we spotted Pelagic and Brandt's Cormorants, Western Gulls, and Black Oystercatchers. The light was really bad what with the fog and sea spray, but I did manage a few shots to show you what everything looked liked.

Common Murres through the fog 

More murres

Common Murre bringing food to nest

Common Murre chilling

Pigeon Guillemot doing the same

Tufted Puffin streaking by at some distance from the boat

Cassin's Auklet - best looks I've ever had at this shy species

Beyond the expected species, we were stoked to find one Brown Booby and one Blue-footed Booby perched high on the Farallon cliffs. These generally tropical birds were clearly holdovers from the northward push of warm water that ran up the West Coast from 2014 to 2016. That northward expansion of warm water brought with it not only increased numbers of boobies, but also more traditionally warm water pelagic species such as Black-vented Shearwaters and Craveri's Murrelets. As water temperatures have cooled to their historical averages (low- to mid-50s) in the past half year, the vast majority of those warm water birds have collapsed back to more southern and temperate latitudes, the two individual boobies we observed being very obvious exceptions. I suggest this article from NatGeo for those interested in reading a bit more about the recent influx of warm water in the North Pacific.

Adult Brown Booby

Adult Blue-footed Booby

Marine mammals were also in great abundance as California Sea Lions, Northern Fur Seals, and Steller's Sea Lions covered what available, rocky real estate they could find. With that veritable buffet, it's probably not surprising to hear the the Farallons are a great place to observe Great White Sharks, particularly in the fall when they are the most abundant. We saw several Humpback Whales, and I'm sure Orcas are occasionally present as well. So, even if birds aren't your thing, there's plenty of sea life and scenery to experience at the Farallons!

Northern Fur Seals with single Western Gull photobomber 

A hefty looking Steller's Sea Lion as 
identified by his golden coat. 

The particular boat trip that I took (Alvaro's Adventures), coupled the Farallons with some more traditional pelagic on the outgoing and return transits. Since it was still early in the season, shearwater numbers were low, but we did find a few Sooties and a few Pink-footed. Several Black-footed Albatrosses also showed nicely, but most exciting was a significant concentration/raft (50-70 individuals) of storm-petrels on the return leg. The flock was comprised of 3 species, mostly Ashy with maybe 10 Fork-tailed and a pair of Wilson's mixed in. This bodes well for the fall pelagic season as storm-petrels have been scarce on the Northern California Coast the last few, warm-water years.

The Farallons are quite close to the continental shelf. 
It's easy to swing into the deepwater in transit.

So there it is, a recap of my inaugural visit to the Farallon Islands. I will most certainly be back in the future, so maybe I can fill you in a bit more of Farallon history with that future post. If you're in the Bay Area, I highly suggest a visit. The boat trip itself is a nice break from the hustle and bustle of the mainland. I'm hoping to get back out there as soon as possible!

The end! 
Glad to find a use for this otherwise useless shot......