Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Gannet is Back

Every so often if you’re observant enough life will present you with lessons to learn from. For example it is important when working in the field or traveling around interesting locations to always have ones camera ready for the unexpected. I have been observant enough in my experiences to recognize this lesson; however I seem to have failed to learn from it.  A few days back, during my routine evening Common Murre resighting at North Landing, I missed a unique opportunity to photograph a very lost and likely confused seabird. After spending just over an hour staring through a scope at murres incubating their eggs, a decided to take a break and do some initial tripod setup for photographing the stars later that night. My goal was to get the islets of Fisherman’s Bay and the North Star Polaris in frame and leave the camera out for 2 hours while shooting continuous 30 second exposures, to capture the rings of star trails around the northern point of the sky. As I was framing the shot and working out the best focus, Western Gulls which are now setting on eggs of their own, began giving out warning calls. They persistently scream at us whenever we walk down the paths and give out a high pitched repetitive shriek when they’re threatened, so I looked up expecting of seeing a Peregrine Falcon pursuing a helpless victim. Instead a saw a large white bird with black wing tips and a pale yellow head hovering above me. It took me a few seconds of disbelief before whispering to myself…”the Gannet!”. There it was, a Northern Gannet, a bird that should be hunting fish off the Eastern Seaboard, was holding stationary in the wind a few meters above my head. I happened to have my camera in hand, pointed it up at the bird, pressed the shutter release, heard the click of the shutter, pressed review to check the exposure, and read the following words “ERROR NO MEMORY CARD” on the LCD screen. Here was my one chance to photograph this highly unusual once in a lifetime sighting of a misplaced bird on the Farallones, and I had no memory to record it. Blast. This has happened to me on many occasions, American Oystercatchers in Baja, Yellow Nosed Albatross in Australia, Little Penguins in New Zealand, so I wasn’t surprised to be greeted with the error message again. I ran back to the house to grab a card, yelling ‘NORTHERN GANNET IS BACK’ to Ryan and Emma as I passed them by, but by time a had made it back to North Landing the bird was nowhere to be seen. Oh well, at least I still had enough memory space in my brain to see it again, and this time close enough to look it straight in the eye.

 Fortunately my plan to photograph the stars moving around Polaris (well the earth spinning in such a way that the stars appear to move around Polaris from our perspective) was a success. The photo is looking across Fisherman’s Bay at the most scenic cluster of islets and SE Farallon, from left to right: Aulon Islet, Arch Rock, Chocolate Chip, and Sugar Loaf.

Aside from unobstructed views of the night sky, this has actuallybeen an interesting month for celestial events. We witnessed a partial annular eclipse on May 20th just before sunset. I had been watching the fog moving in and out throughout the day, and I was worried it would block our chances of seeing the eclipse, but actually it worked as a natural filter and made it easier to view. I set up a tripod and my long lens with a piece of welder’s glass tapped to the objective end to photograph the transit, and grabbed another welder’s helmet for others to look through. I was working out the exposure levels when I noticed a slight round sliver encroaching the bottom left corner of the Sun,  “It’s Happening!” I yelled as I ran for the others. We thought it wasn’t going to happen for another hour, so everyone was spread out on the island finishing up their daily tasks. Eventually everyone was alerted and we gathered to watch the entire event, beers in hands and smiles on faces. An annular eclipse is when the Moon is too far away from Earth to completely block out the Sun, instead leaving a thin ring of fire around the Moon during the climax. Our location on the Farallones was just outside the alignment for seeing a complete ring, but the crescent Sun was still impressive. On June 5th an equally impressive and rarer celestial event will take place where Venus, the second planet from our star, will pass between Earth and the Sun. With the appropriate filters, or a pinhole camera, you can watch the tiny dot of Venus track across the surface of the Sun. This only happens twice in a lifetime. The first of our lifetime was 8 years ago, with the transit in June being the last; it won’t happen again for another 243 years, so it’s worth the effort to see.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Preface: It's Late, I'm Tired

Welcome to the mad house ladies and gentleman; the breeding season has officially begun. Eggs, eggs and, hey look over there, more eggs. Western Gulls are now for the most part aggressively defending full clutches of three eggs, Common Murres are popping out their single beautifully painted green egg, Brandt’s Cormorants have constructed fair built nests with some containing the first of five eggs, and Cassin’s Auklets are hatching their first chicks of potentially two broods. All of these eggs equate to many hours of sitting in wooden boxes staring through scopes; following the incubation, rearing, and fledging of all breeding species for the next two months. Luckily we get a fresh shipment of coffee beans every two weeks.

Last night was a double header, diet sampling for Cassin’s Auklets and mist netting for storm-petrels. Shortly after writing the daily journal and finishing the superb chocolate java chip brownies Emma prepared for use, we downed a healthy serving of coffee and under the cover of darkness made our way to North Landing. The team and I spread out in an area retiled with Cassin’s burrows and waited for the mates coming in for their nightly change over. Birds with chicks are now flying in with crops full of krill, and our mission was to intercept ten birds to collect this bounty of crop krill. Catching them proved difficult for me anyway, but luckily one flew right into my chest and landed in my arms. Unfortunately it refused to regurgitate any krill. This data is part of a long term look at the diet of Cassin’s Auklets, and has shown interesting trends in foraging bouts by parents when the krill is plentiful (which it appears to be this year), and when it’s scarce. Aside from the impact of a hefty incoming Rhino Auklet to the cranium, the sampling went well.

Shorty after wiping the euphausiids from our coat sleeves, we trekked up Lighthouse Hill and sit up a thinly threaded net designed to catch small birds (known as a mist net) in an attempt to snag some very interesting seabirds called storm-petrels. More than half of the world’s population of Ashy Storm-petrels breeds on the Farallon Islands. They are some of the smallest true seabirds, about the size of a barn swallow, and yet are closely related and share a similar life history to albatrosses, the largest group of birds that roam the open seas. Storm-petrels are crevice nesters, returning each night to relieve the mate from incubation and rearing duties. Ashy’s lay a single egg in a protracted breeding season that generally extends from May to October. We managed to capture, weigh, measure, and band 130 birds in a 3 hour period from 11PM to 2AM; mostly consisting of Ashy’s with a handful of Least and Dark-rumped Storm Petrels. Information gleaned from this long term banding data set has shown that Ashy’s can live to be at least 30 years of age, likely longer. Storm-petrels are fascinating birds that we know relatively little about…possible graduate work?

Thursday, May 3, 2012

One for the Record Books

Much has changed on the island since I left for shore leave two weeks ago. The vegetation has matured and is beginning to brown, and more seabirds are occupying their respective nesting habitats. Brandt’s Cormorants are constructing feeble nest bowls with Farallon Weed, stealing their neighbors nest material at every chance. Males are now laying claim to their sites and have begun to advertise to prospecting females. Wings pitched outwards and shaking, neck cocked back, they display their rich blue gular pouches in hopes of enticing a mate.

Pigeon Guillemots are also increasing in numbers. Their high-pitched whistling calls audible over the chorus of screaming Western Gulls, growling Common Murres, and groaning pinnipeds. Pigeon Guillemots are crevice nesters, and can be found almost anywhere there’s a crevice on the island now. Their red mouths and white wing patches add another layer of contrast to the busy landscape.

Western Gulls are ramping up the volume of their alert calls, as a growing number of their nests now contain clutches of one to two brown speckled eggs (a few have maxed out with three). Soon we’ll have to dawn hard hats whenever leaving the protection of the PRBO House, to shield our skulls from the sharp pecks and heavy blows of gull beaks and breast bones.

Many of the shorebirds have flown the coop for their breeding season. Whimbrels, Black Turnstones, and Wandering Tattlers have decreased significantly in numbers. The most dramatic drop has been that of the Eared Grebe, from hundreds when I left to the teens now. Surf Scoters have become few and far between, and the Pacific Loons are finishing up their northern movements through the area.

Cassin’s Auklets are doing extremely well this year, almost all of the 402 nest boxes are occupied with mated pairs incubating eggs. They began breeding a few weeks earlier than average this season, with the first fluffy black puff-ball chicks found several days ago. Soon we’ll be up to the top of our “Extra Toughs” in Cassin’s chicks. As for the other Alcids, Rhinoceros Auklets and Tufted Puffins are settling in for the breeding season. A small number of the rhino boxes contain birds with eggs; we won’t see their chicks for another month or so. Common Murres are also popping out eggs, but much of the 500,000 plus birds still have a few weeks to go.

Normal breeding birds aside, we had one spectacular rarity visit the island that trumps all other rare bird sightings. Woke up the other morning, ate a bowl of Frosted Mini Wheats garnished with strawberries, drained a voluminous amount of fluid from my nasal cavities, and headed out the front door for the morning sea watch. For sea watch, I set up a tripod and scope just outside the PRBO house, and stare at the ocean for five minutes noting any non-breeding birds that happen to fly by. This typically consists of Sooty Shearwaters, the occasional Black-footed Albatross, or Pacific Loons. This day, however, was exceptionally unique; during sea watch a Northern Gannet, a bird which only lives in the North Atlantic, flew through my field of view! The bright white bird with thick black primaries and cream colored head, similar to the Australasian Gannets I had seen in Australia, immediately caught my eye. Simply amazing. The team had sighted this bird last week during my shore leave, and I was hoping there was a chance it would still be around when I got back. Apparently a Northern Gannet was sighted last summer in the Bering Sea, possibly using the Northwest Passage as a route through the arctic when the polar ice cap melted. Who knows, given shifting climatic conditions Northern Gannets may be an increasingly common sight in the North Pacific in decades to come. Either way it’s a first for the Farallones and a first for me, so I’m stoked.