Pants have received its first layer of white and green bird crap, the smell of uric acid emanates from my hands; field work has officially begun. Attendance of birds in the wooden artificial burrow boxes strategically placed around the island is on the rise. Yesterday while enduring steady rain and blistering 30 knot winds, we discovered five new Cassin’s Auklets incubating freshly laid eggs during a scheduled burrow check. Taxonomically Cassin’s Auklets are in the Alcid family, closely related to puffins, murres, murrelets, and guillemots; and unlike other groups diving birds, use their wings to essentially fly through the water reaching incredible depths (200+ feet) in pursuit of pelagic invertebrates and fish.
Cassin’s Auklets are among the first seabirds to breed on the Farallones, with the male and female sharing the duty of incubating an egg and rearing a chick. Arriving under the protection of darkness, each parent will return to its burrow most nights to relieve the other from the nest; with a bill load of seafood during the rearing period once the chick has hatched. Their unique calls can be heard in the late hours of night, so it’s been fun to see them up close and in hand (aside from the scatted carcasses we’ve been finding, bits and pieces from Peregrine and Burrowing Owl kills).
Common Murres have also been loafing in vast numbers along the jagged hilltops that dominate the landscape, reclaiming their small patch of turf and strengthening pair bounds in preparation for their breeding season. A few days ago we began resighting banded murres in a colony on the northeast side of the island from a blind atop a cliff facing Shubrick Point, using steady binoculars and a good deal of patience. Looking down from the blind, the stark contrasting plumage of the murres forms a fluid like motion of black and white, enough to induce motion sickness for those with weak stomachs. I occasionally had to look away for several minutes to let my mind manage the optical abuse.
The highlight of the day, more so than measuring the Cassin’s, was a spelunking expedition led by Pete (the PRBO biologist) and accompanied by Cat and Jonathan from the USFWS, Ilana with PRBO, and myself into Rabbit Cave, a deep crevice in Lighthouse Hill. A certain narrow passage into the main chamber required crawly through mud on hand and knees… and it was awesome. We visited a site where the embalmed remains of an Aleut woman were discovered many decades back. She was removed by a team of geologists I believe, rumor has it her ghost now roams about the island (no sightings as of yet). Pete also pointed out some old graffiti that read “Stewart 1906” on a wall in the terminal chamber. Supposedly the endemic Farallon cricket can also be spotted in Rabbit Cave ‘although we found little evidence of it’ (which is a mild reference to “The Life Aquatic” if you caught that).