Farallones: A Landbird Life Raft

Cameron RuttBirding, Field Work, RaritiesLeave a Comment

My first full day (9/8) on Southeast Farallon Island (30 miles west of San Francisco in the Pacific Ocean), I saw a total of eight individual landbirds (passerines and near-passerines), including a single, lingering House Wren. In the days and weeks that followed, the persistent September doldrums left much to be desired, and most days were devoid of any appreciable influx of songbirds. However, the sum of these now intervening five weeks have done much to reverse those dull, first days.

I’ve now spent 39 nights on Southeast Farallon Island and have seen 162 species, which puts me tied for 46th all-time on the Faralist, far down among the ranks of birders who’ve invested some serious time on the Farallones. More specifically, I’m tied with David Sibley’s tally, but nowhere near those massive checklists of Steve N.G. Howell (260) or Peter Pyle (363). The Faralist spreadsheet tabulates those species seen (and missed) by every participating birder, allowing you to see precisely how you stack up with the competition. For a first-timer like me, this island-centric birding mentality makes me a minor celebrity of sorts. Every time that a species new to your Faralist appears, the other birders are quick to ensure that you, too, are well aware (whether it’s a Thayer’s Gull, American Kestrel, European Starling, or Pine Siskin…a few of my more recent additions).

As great as the regular fare of western migrants are, these are not the species that come to mind when people think about the Farallones. Vagrant-wise, fall 2013 was slow out of the blocks, but has begun to heat up down the stretch. Two first-island records certainly don’t hurt in that regard (boosting the total Farallon list to a whopping 422 species!). The Blue-footed Booby incursion that marched its way up the California coast reached just far enough northward to include us (Figure 1), which is great because this latitude appears to be the general endpoint for their impressive 2013 post-breeding dispersal. We’ve now had 3-5 different Blue-footed Boobies here, with multiple birds on two different days (last seen 10/8).

Figure 1. One of at least three different immature Blue-footed Boobies present on the Farallones during the past month (here seen blending in with Brandt's Cormorants), with the lighthouse in the background.  Alongside the first Northern Gannet for the Pacific Ocean, which continues to call the Farallones home - 1.5 years after its arrival - this makes two wayward Sulids, from disparate realms, to cohabit this rock.  28 September 2013 (Cameron Rutt)

Figure 1. One of at least three different immature Blue-footed Boobies present on the Farallones during the past month (here seen blending in with Brandt’s Cormorants), with the lighthouse in the background. Alongside the first Northern Gannet for the Pacific Ocean, which continues to call the Farallones home – 1.5 years after its arrival – this makes two wayward Sulids, from disparate realms, to cohabit this rock. 28 September 2013 (Photo by Cameron Rutt)

The other first-island record was a surprise Williamson’s Sapsucker (Figure 2) that popped in for a brief visit along with a large influx (817 landbirds) of almost exclusively western birds (with only three individual eastern vagrants), the final American sapsucker to make its appearance here. Although Williamson’s Sapsuckers are a common breeder elsewhere in the state, they are very rare west of the Sierras in most of California, let alone an island surrounding by 20-30 miles of water.

Figure 2. Male Williamson's Sapsucker. All four species of sapsuckers have now been recorded on the Farallones: 24 Red-breasted, 5 Red-naped, 3 Yellow-bellied, and this Williamson's Sapsucker. 4 October 2013 (Cameron Rutt)

Figure 2. Male Williamson’s Sapsucker. All four species of sapsuckers have now been recorded on the Farallones: 24 Red-breasted, 5 Red-naped, 3 Yellow-bellied, and this Williamson’s Sapsucker. 4 October 2013 (Photo by Cameron Rutt)

During the course of my stay, I’ve only managed to see seven individual vireos (our four Warbling Vireos representing the most abundant island vireo), but that doesn’t seem so paltry when one is a Yellow-green Vireo (Figure 3). This bird showed up in our “yard” on a day that ostensibly contained only one other songbird arrival, a Clay-colored Sparrow.

Figure 3. Yellow-green Vireo. Amazingly, there are actually four species of vireos with less records for the Farallones: Bell’s Vireo (3), White-eyed Vireo (2), Plumbeous Vireo (2), and Yellow-throated Vireo (1). 29 September 2013 (Photo by Cameron Rutt)

A good diversity of flycatchers have compensated for whatever this fall lacked in vireos. Our five Hammond’s Flycatchers and eight Least Flycatchers are both well above average for a given year. In fact, for the entire state of California, there has only been one other Least Flycatcher entered into eBird for all of 2013! The honors for rarest flycatcher, however, unanimously goes to Great Crested Flycatcher (Figure 4). This one-day wonder looked decidedly lost as it hunkered among rocky crevices, very un-flycatcherlike.

Figure 4. Great Crested Flycatcher

Figure 4. Great Crested Flycatcher.  Although there have been 11 other Great Crest Flycatchers at the Farallones, the last confirmed record was 27 September 1989, nearly 25 years ago. 10 October 2013 (Photo by Cameron Rutt)

Our second best flycatcher – Tropical Kingbird (Figure 5) – continued our southwestern theme for the fall and appeared much more accustomed to island life, even vocalizing. If any one day can showcase the crazy potential of this place, perhaps it was 10/14. That day saw arrivals of Tropical Kingbird, Brown Thrasher, Hutton’s Vireo, and Ovenbird; On top of this, we sighted 33 Humpback Whales and a close pod of 75 Risso’s Dolphins. And as if this wasn’t enough, a Great White Shark attack just offshore provided the icing on the cake (but perhaps not so for the seal…).

Figure 5. Tropical Kingbird

Figure 5. Tropical Kingbird. 14 October 2013 (Photo by Cameron Rutt)

Landbirds and seabirds aren’t the only vagrants to layover on the Farallones. After all, tantalizing records exist for Eurasian Dotterel (three!), Sharp-tailed Sandpiper (9), and Little Stint (1). Although this fall hasn’t provided many shorebird highlights – or even just plain shorebirds, for that matter – an extremely confiding Pacific Golden-Plover (Figure 6) made that fact a little easier to swallow.

Figure 6. Juvenile Pacific Golden-Plover. Although the rather drab plumage tones on this bird might suggest American Golden-Plover, structure indicates otherwise. In this image, you can see three primary tips extending beyond the tertials, long tertials nearly reaching the tip of the tail, and a large bill. 12 October 2013 (Cameron Rutt)

Figure 6. Juvenile Pacific Golden-Plover. Although the rather drab plumage tones on this bird might suggest American Golden-Plover, structure indicates otherwise. In this image, you can see three primary tips extending beyond the tertials, long tertials nearly reaching the tip of the tail, and a large bill. 12 October 2013 (Photo by Cameron Rutt)

In all, the memories of that first day now seem rather distant: the single House Wren – which has now spent 55 days on the Farallones (two weeks more than me!) – the only carryover from that songbird-less island. The addicting thing about this place is you just never know what will jump out from behind that next rock. Or what vagrant will be there to greet you on another seemingly mundane spin around the lighthouse. Only time will tell…

More Farallones photos from this fall can be seen here:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/chrysoptera/