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Each of us has a place that looms large in our imagination.

farallones from SF_0024

For many a San Franciscan, this is probably such a place.  It has been for me in the thirty years since I moved here, and even more so over the past decade when this became our view.  Over the years, I'd circled the island on boats a number of times but had never had the opportunity to set foot on this faraway land not thirty miles from my window, as it is closed to the public.  And then...

farallones from SF_0446

First, a little history:  

The earliest written record of the islands was by Sir Francis Drake who visited them in 1579, and took eggs and seals for food.  The islands were not visited often over the next couple hundred years, but they were exploited for the fur trade starting in the early 1800.  By mid-century, the hunters (primarily American and Russian) had extirpated Fur Seals from the islands; they would not inhabit the islands again for nearly 150 years.  

sea lions_0262

The exploitation of the islands wasn't over, though - San Francisco's population explosion in the wake of the gold rush fueled a demand for eggs, and the seabirds who nested there were a great source.  Most popular were the eggs of Common Murres, which were large and thick shelled - better to survive the boat ride back to the mainland.  For a decade or more it was a booming business, and then an "Egg War" between two rival companies left two men dead and ended the egging business for the most part.  Eventually, egging was outlawed completely.

Rubble of some old military buildings, with Saddle Rock being obscured by fog.

The first lighthouse was installed in 1853, and it was manned until 1972, when an automated unit was installed.  In addition to Coast Guard presence, the island also hosted radio facilities for the Navy, starting early in the 20th century, and a radar installation during WWII with nearly 100 sailors stationed on the island.  The first biologists came in the late '60s as the Fish and Wildlife Service began managing the islands, which had been declared a refuge.  Later, in 1981, the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary was created to protect the waters around the islands.

That's the lighthouse up at the right.  That's the lighthouse trail on the slope below.  The hill is only 380' high, but that's still like climbing a 35 story building.

My husband is a broadcast engineer; he spent a few decades in commercial radio until that ceased to be fun and now he works independently.  His work takes him to all sorts of interesting places - the kinds of places I like to go, like Sierra mountaintops, bayside marshes and now, the Farallon Islands.  They'd been having some problems with ship-to-shore communications and he made a day trip out there to take a look at things for them.  (I was green with envy.)  The radios were basically okay, but the antenna was shot.  It's not in the most hospitable environment.  A new antenna was arranged and when he went to install it, I was able to join him on the island to help with schlepping and stuff.

The last few feet of the lighthouse trail.  This is serious schlepping.

We left before sunrise from Richmond, motoring out in a sailboat with the week's grocery run.  I made sure to take my Dramamine because I had no desire to spend my one night on the island recovering from nausea, but we had remarkably smooth seas - I've had rougher rides on the Tiburon ferry.  

boat trip_1743
Passing Angel Island before sunrise.

It took about an hour to get past the Golden Gate, and then several more hours to get to the vicinity of the islands.  This is where it gets tricky - there's no dock; no place to tie up.  Instead, everyone and everything has to be transferred to a smaller craft which is then lifted by a crane onto the island for offloading.  I came damn close to making a disaster at this step - when you make the jump from the big boat to the little one, you have to just go for it.  I hesitated for an instant and almost ended up in the ocean.  Yikes and a half.  (For an even bigger yikes:  You can see the boat at the end of this video.  Fortunately, I didn't see this until after our trip.  More about that next week...)

boat trip_1827

Disaster averted, we headed for the island and the next bit of fun - the crane ride.  Our calm seas made the hookup process easier - I can only imagine what it would have been like during some of the recent storms we've experienced.  They've done it hundreds of times, though, so it was no problem. Once the hook is set, the whole boat is lifted up and set down into a cradle on the landing for unloading.

east landing_1835

One thing you don't see in this photo is the Horned Puffin that was swimming around by the landing when we arrived.  It was the first record of one at the island in seven years, I think they said.  Not bad for my first five minutes out there.  :-)

You know what this birdblog needs?  Some birds.

So hubby got to work on the antenna right away.  With any luck, he could get it installed in one afternoon, thus saving him from having to make a second hike up (he doesn't walk the best after an accident a few years ago)... and leaving the next day free for a little walking around.  

The lighthouse base no longer has the Fresnel lenses of yesteryear - it's just a couple of smaller pieces of equipment mounted on the old base.  But I can see that tiny thing from my living room, 30 miles away.  (That's hubby in the red shirt, climbing onto the roof.)

First they had to take down the old antenna, which had corroded badly in the salt air.  Next was installing and testing the new one.  What with the rather sheer drop-off, he needed to clip on to the tower... but the climbing belt was down below.  I somewhat justified my existence by making a trip down to get it.


With him safely clipped on, I could go back to looking around.  They'd let me borrow a scope, and pointed out a few of the hotspots to scan.  The view...

Toward the west - next stop Hawaii:

To the north, from the lighthouse platform.  That's Arch Rock, and to its right, you can see just a bit of Sugarloaf.

Looking north to Sugarloaf from the lighthouse platform.  In the distance, you can see the end of Pt. Reyes (the lighthouse and Chimney Rock) just to the right of Sugarloaf on the horizon.  The rest of Pt. Reyes, Bolinas, and points in between are to the right of that.

The reason I spent so much time staring at Sugarloaf and Arch Rock was because I was searching for a bright white bird that was not a gull (or an egret - we were surprised to see a pair of Great Egrets hanging out).  The big story from the island has been the appearance of a Northern Gannet this summer - the first Pacific Ocean record for the species.  It turned up a week or so before hubby's first visit to the island, and I was excited that it was still being seen when we went out.  Finally, after a couple of hours of searching, there it was!  Even more incredible was the appearance, a few moments later, of a Brown Booby - another member of the same family who occasionally turns up in the area, but generally lives far south of here.  Getting the two into the same scope view was even exciting to the biologists who are out there watching this stuff every day.
noga brbo_1896 med

With the gannet finally seen, I could take in the other birds in a more relaxed way.  The numbers this time of year are nothing like breeding season, when every flat surface has a nest on it or below it (many of the seabirds here nest in burrows).  The murres and Cassin's auklets are long gone, to points unknown.  There were a few Pigeon Guillemots still straggling behind, greeting us at the landing.  But the gulls are still quite abundant, as are the Brandt's Cormorants hanging out with the sea lions here.

Here are some of the gulls hanging out on a formation known as "Chocolate Chip" - that white bird at the right is the Great Egret who tricked us earlier.

One other thing you can see well from up here is the North Farallones Islands - rising steeply from the sea about ten miles north.

At last the antenna is installed and working, so it's time to head back.  As we're walking down, some of the biologists are heading up for their evening surveys.  One is looking at something from the path, and points out a burrowing owl soaking up the late afternoon sun.


We take advantage of the last rays and have a beer on the front steps while watching the sunset.  It's hard to believe we're there in our shirtsleeves (well, most of us) at this place that is so often shrouded in fog.  No complaints.

It was a lovely sunset and to cap it off, we even got to see the green flash.  (no photo, sorry!)

More next week...

Originally posted to lineatus on Sun Dec 09, 2012 at 06:00 AM PST.

Also republished by Backyard Science and Birds and Birdwatching.

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