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So what's it like to live on a remote, rocky island 30 miles from millions of people?

(This is Part 2 of the Farallones story - you can read Part 1 here.)

Most of the island's residents make themselves at home on the rocks or burrowed below them.  For the few humans who spend time there, two houses originally erected for Coast Guard lighthouse keepers provide shelter.  The door signs are a more recent addition, honoring some of the natives.

They are known as the PRBO House (Murre) and Coast Guard House (Sally); we stayed in the "Sally" house - named for the Farallon Island Salamander, an endemic species.  While it wasn't the Ahwahnee, I have to say that the view from our room was equally dramatic; no complaints!

Those specks mostly aren't birds, but they're from birds... (on the window)

I don't know how typical our evening was; in addition to biologists and island manager, there were three other visitors who were working on some maintenance/construction projects - a total of ten people.  We had a beer as we watched the sunset, then a  nice communal dinner at the Murre House.  Hubby brought some cornmeal crust pizzas, and one of the other visitors made up a big pot of chicken mole (his tradition when he visits the islands).  We also brought some beer and a couple of bottles of wine, and the biologists spoiled us at dessert with fresh-made ice cream.  Maybe when it's just the regular crew they eat at separate times, but this was a nice treat.

Farallones from SF_0084

There was another, more practical reason to get together - at the end of the day, everyone compared notes and compiled a log of the day's sightings. The islands may be in San Francisco County, but the standard for a "good" bird was very different than on the mainland.  I knew this before going out, but it was still kinda fun to realize what a cause for excitement a backyard bird was.  Everyone had radios, and an uncommon bird for the island was announced right away so that others might get a chance to see it; a sharpie's flight was tracked from one end of the island to the other.


They were very patient and kind to me with my million questions - it was (probably) my one and only night on the Farallones and there was a lot I wanted to know.  After dinner, we walked back to our house and stared at the clear dark sky.  There were so many more stars out there... the Milky Way actually looked, well, milky.  I had to linger and take in the stellar sights.  

We turned in early, there were entertainment options - all the classics, as you can see.

Because the antenna installation had gone smoothly, Sunday was open for walking around a bit.  You can't go too far in any direction since the island is only 78 acres (much of it vertical); movement is further limited by the need to stay on trail to protect fragile nesting burrows.  Still, even a short walk reveals wonderous vistas.  I was up before dawn, and stepped out the door just as there was enough light to navigate the trails safely.


I'd planned to go to the lighthouse and watch the sunrise there, but kept getting distracted along the way.  About 2/3 of the way up, I realized the sun was already above the horizon, and decided to head down and continue my walk around the island.  I had to stop and take in the view to the north - the first rays of sunlight bathed the peaks in a shell-pink glow.


Heading west, then around the island clockwise, I passed one of the mistnet stations.  The nets were furled, but a Say's Phoebe was using the support pole as a convenient perch.  There were several of them scattered around the island.  Another passerine that I frequently encountered was Rock Wren, but they eluded photos.  (They're one of the few passerines that have bred on the islands.)  

sea lions_0202

Continuing around, I came across these California Sea Lions sprawled on the rocks.  Note that one of them has a number dyed on its side - researchers are tracking movements between the islands and several locations on the mainland.  (Unfortunately, I can't remember who's doing the tracking, so I'm not sure where you should report it if you ever spot one of them.)

bltu seal_0206

I made my way around to the North Landing, the old landing site.  (It's still usable in emergencies, but  it's manually operated.)  At the end of the channel next to the landing, an Elephant Seal gazes serenely while Black Turnstones wander about.


I wandered around and just generally took in the other-worldliness of the place.  A few wisps of fog were trying to decide whether or not to invade, so I headed back in case it closed in suddenly.  Besides, there were other things happening back at the houses - they were going to open the mistnets.

brcr banding_2004

Passerine banding fascinates me - this Brown Creeper doesn't even weight 10 grams, literally less than 1% of what some of the hawks we band. So tiny, so delicate, and yet powerful enough to make it to the island.  We have lots of them around our cabin in the Santa Cruz Mountains, but I've never had the chance to see one up close.  The patterns on its feathers are even more beautiful than I'd realized; the huge claws seemed crazy for a bird of this size... until I remembered that it spends its days climbing trees.  In a matter of minutes, it was out the door and on its way back to the trees.


Moments later, they picked up this Savannah Sparrow.  From almost anyplace along the coast that you can see the Farallones, you will have Savannah Sparrows flitting nearby; on the islands, they're not so common.  This one was missing one of its rear (hallux) claws and part of the toe.  It had healed over completely, and the bird seemed to be in good health.


I'm not sure what their band recovery rates are like overall, but this caught my eye in the vestibule to one of the houses - a color banded leg bone on the floor.  The vestibules are crucial for keeping the houses clean during breeding season. With tens of thousands of gulls and seabirds breeding on the island, shoes get gunked up instantly and they're not allowed indoors; this is where you change to indoor footwear.  

humans high tide_2066

After lunch, I was able to follow one of the biologists as she did a high-tide shorebird survey.  We started at the East Landing and walked the perimeter of the island counting the shorebirds who crowded in to stay above water.  Since this required walking off-trail, I followed very closely in her footsteps and sometimes waited further back as she went into the most sensitive areas.

bltu high tide_2064 copy

A small sea cave (above) provides shelter for a flock of Black Turnstones (below)

bltu high tide_2064

Our walk took us past the old water collection and storage system.  There was a large concrete pad which sloped gently and channeled rainwater to a pair of cisterns.  It had been abandoned a number of years earlier, and was now used primarily as a helicopter landing site when needed.  There is another, newer water collection pad near the East Landing.


Above the newer collection pad, there had been some enormous water tanks perched on the hillside (photo taken from a boat offshore a few years ago).  The other people working on the island while we were there had been dismantling the now-unused tanks and salvaging the lumber.  One thing that it was going to be used for was salamander "shelters" - they sawed the planks into 12" x 12" squares and placed them around the island. Farallones Salamanders will hide underneath them, and then biologists can conduct survey counts by lifting the board - much better than lifting rocks to look.

dead rhau_2073

With life so abundant on the island (and we were there in the slow season), it's inevitable that there is some death, too.  That happened dramatically on Sunday morning, when there was a shark attack on a seal just offshore (I was on the other side of the island and did not see it, though I did see the results of an earlier attack).  The thing is, there aren't many scavengers on the island so the bodies just lay there and decay slowly, like the Rhinoceros Auklet above.  It's disconcerting at first, but soon it becomes one more part of the scene.  It did give me a renewed appreciation for the work of vultures, raccoons and their pals.


We were on the far side of the island when they radioed to say the boat was on its way and I needed to get to the landing (it was there earlier than expected).  I felt terrible for being late getting back; this was a great opportunity and I didn't want to be "high maintenance".  I'm glad that I was able squeeze as much as possible into those hours, surrounded by birds, beauty and biology.  Now when I look west, those jagged rocks on the horizon have a whole new meaning.

boat trip_2148
The sun sets behind us as we pass through the Golden Gate on the way home; Marin Headlands to the right.

A few links that you might like if you want to learn more about the islands:

Farallones blog (by the biologists):
Farallones webcam (joint venture with California Academy of Sciences:
Island wildlife (Pt. Reyes Bird Observatory):

Originally posted to lineatus on Sun Dec 16, 2012 at 06:00 AM PST.

Also republished by Birds and Birdwatching.

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