Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Post #110 - Birding the mythical Farallon Islands!

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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......


  1. Glad to have another bay area bird blogger around, welcome! There's not many of us.

  2. Glad to see there's more of us out there. Your blog looks really extensive. It felt like I hardly like I dented it in the 20 minutes I spent on it. Hopefully our paths will cross in the field sometimes soon. Cheers!

  3. Hi Dorian,

    Any thought to perhaps documenting your SF experience systematically.
    You could put together a superior guide to the Bay area, simply because you know the ropes and yet are essentially a newcomer. Plus you have those wonderful photos to tie it all together...

    Obviously this is more a hope than a suggestion, something like that takes time and you only have so much. But it would set a marker on the 2017 state of the birds in SF.

  4. Thanks for idea, but I've already got too many balls in the air! I'm still struggling along with my book about my bicycle Big Year, but, when that's finally done, I'll have a lot more time. Even keeping on top of this blog is a struggle right now. I'm just hoping to keep this going strong enough that people enjoy it and learn a few things.