The Farallones: Far-out and Far-flung

Cameron RuttBirding, Site Guide3 Comments

Spelunking and birding aren’t two hobbies that usually have much in common, unless, perhaps, one is searching for rockfowl in West Africa. I never thought my lack of caving experience was any detriment to my ability to find or identify birds. That is, until I came to the Farallones (Figure 1), a collection of rocky islands thirty miles west of the Golden Gate Bridge (Figure 2).

Figure 1. Southeast Farallon Island as seen from a sailboat just offshore.

Figure 1. Southeast Farallon Island as seen from a sailboat just offshore.

Figure 2. Thirty miles to the east, the Golden Gate Bridge can be clearly seen on a day with good visibility.

Figure 2. With good visibility, the Golden Gate Bridge can be clearly seen, thirty miles to the east.

Birding in the Farallones is quite unlike birding on the mainland. For starters, it’s definitely more challenging. Many of the assumptions that aid in the identification of birds elsewhere are useless here. And that includes some major ones: range, habitat, and behavior.

Although these islands are nearly as far west as one can go in the Lower 48, the Farallones are at the avian crossroads of East (Figure 3) and West. A warbler in the virens (or Black-throated Green) complex could be any of North America’s five species (amazingly, this includes one record of Golden-cheeked Warbler!). All of America’s warblers in the once great Oporornis have occurred here, too, which means that a sturdy, furtive warbler could be Mourning, MacGillivray’s, or Connecticut Warbler. A colorful Empidonax may be a Yellow-bellied or a Western Flycatcher. And that Spizella you just flushed could be a Brewer’s, Clay-colored, or Chipping Sparrow. In fact, most highly migratory North American landbirds have wound up here at one point or another, sending far-flung representatives to be tallied, one-by-one, to the growing list (~420 species). And then there’s the mega rarities: Brown Shrike (twice!), Lanceolated Warbler, Dusky Warbler (twice!), Red-flanked Bluetail, Olive-backed Pipit, Little Bunting (twice!), and Common Rosefinch. When you add in southwestern strays like Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, Yellow-green Vireo (seven), Grace’s Warbler, and Red-faced Warbler, you begin to understand just how magical this place can be. The possibilities are almost limitless.

Figure 3. Although Northern Waterthrushes breed as far west as Alaska, they are primarily an eastern migrant. Like many other "eastern" warblers, this species is regular on the Farallones in autumn.

Figure 3. Although Northern Waterthrushes breed as far west as Alaska, they are primarily an eastern migrant. Like many other “eastern” warblers, this species is regular on the Farallones in autumn.

In most birding settings, habitat usually provides another good cue to a bird’s identity, and we expect to see certain species in their preferred grasslands, thickets, or woodlands. Not so here. So far, there’s been a Least Flycatcher foraging on bare ground, a Warbling Vireo in a patch of grass tussocks, and a tree-bound Bobolink. Whether the birds like it or not, there are few available options for habitat here. There are four – count ‘em, four – woody plants on this island (two Monterey cypress, a Monterey pine, and one shrub). But what the island lacks in vegetation, it more than compensates with rock (Figure 4). The whole island is a rock, in fact, with a plethora of rocky outcroppings, craggy hills, precipitous cliffs, and small caves. Here, many a new arrival reluctantly morphs into the equivalent of a Rock Sandpiper, Rock Pigeon, or Rock Wren.

Figure 4. Home sweet home. One of the two former lighthouse keeper's houses, they were originally constructed in the 1800s. In the background is Lighthouse Hill, with a peak elevation of approximately 360'.

Figure 4. Home sweet home. One of the two former lighthouse keeper’s houses, they were originally constructed in the 1800s. In the background is Lighthouse Hill, with a peak elevation of 360′.

If that’s not enough to rattle one’s birding confidence, there’s one more thing (in addition to the throttling winds, that is). Birds don’t act normally out here. Everything seems more timid – and for good reason, as Peregrine Falcons routinely rip through Farallon airspace (Figure 5). There might be a warbler tucked beneath human infrastructure, unwilling to budge. Or a wary blackbird, hiding in the lee of one grass clump before scurrying to the next. And then there’s the caves. The other day, we had a Dusky Flycatcher zip into the Rabbit Cave, never (visibly) to reemerge. A few hours later, an unidentified songbird darted into another unnamed cave. As I slowly approached and peered inside, I realized that there, at the far end, was a songbird-sized hole…

Figure 5. Juvenile Peregrine Falcon. We've already seen these birds giving songbirds a workout and suspect that a Chestnut-sided Warbler may have met its demise at one of these birds' talons.

Figure 5. Juvenile Peregrine Falcon (one of at least four different individuals). We’ve already watched Peregrines giving two songbirds a workout and suspect that a Chestnut-sided Warbler may have met its demise at one of these birds’ talons.

Although the fall 2013 season has gotten off to a decidedly sluggish start, you just never know when that next hesitant songbird might be an Asian vagrant. And really, compared to mainland standards, we’ve been doing alright. In the past ten days, we’ve had Least Flycatcher (2), Ovenbird (1), Chestnut-sided Warbler (2), and Clay-colored Sparrow (3; Figure 6), which are all great species for California. It’s just out here, the expectations – like that next inbound migrant – are atmospheric.

Figure 6. A rare bird throughout California (with more than 10 locations submitting eBird sightings in the past month), three have wound up on the Farallones in the past week alone.

Figure 6. A rare bird throughout California (with less than 10 locations submitting eBird sightings in the past month), three Clay-colored Sparrows have wound up on the Farallones in the past week alone.

More Farallones photos can be seen here:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/chrysoptera/

  • This is high on my list of places I would love to visit some day. It seems like there are always interesting things happening on the Farallones.

  • I’d love to take a fall and spend it on the island. Every season seems epic. I guess I can live it through the cam.

  • Luke Musher

    Sick summary, dude!