If you're looking for that gateway to excitement, normally it doesn't start with: Marry an Engineer. And yet...
I'm the one who loves wild places and wildlife. I sit at a desk and stare at a computer screen all day. My husband loves electromagnetic waves and things I don't understand. He is a broadcast engineer and spends a number of his days in salt marshes and on mountain tops and, occasionally, on the Farallon Islands. Every now and then, I get to join him.
I wrote about my first trip with him last November here and here. That trip was a great introduction to life on SE Farallon Island - it was a beautiful weekend and we were there overnight. Bill replaced an antenna for their ship-to-shore radio, and fortunately the installation went well, so I had a lot of time leftover to walk and watch birds.
Arriving on the island - you transfer to a smaller inflatable, and the whole thing is lifted by a crane onto the landing. The island is only open to those who are working there, and the difficulty of accessing it safely helps reinforce that.
This trip was also scheduled to be an overnight but with complications in arranging boat trips, it ended up being just a single day - about six hours on the island. Once again the work went fairly smoothly, so I did have some time to birdwatch, although much less time than before. There was a lot to see this time because it was during the high point of breeding season.
And seriously, there was a lot to see. Tens of thousands of birds breed on the islands. I don't want to say it has to be seen to be believed, because I believed it long before I saw it. But it does have to be seen to be fully comprehended, I think. So much life in so little space.
There are several species of birds that breed in fairly large numbers on the island, but the overwhelming impression is of the Western Gulls. They are the first to meet you when you step from the boat onto the island, and they are with you every step of the way as you walk the island's trails.
Looking down the Lighthouse Trail - you can see how close to the trail the nests are. If you look closely at a larger version of this photo, you can see a few of the nests that are actually on the trail farther down.
Tens of thousands of Western Gulls breed on the islands, and at times that feels like an understatement. They are everywhere. As we carried the radio gear to the lighthouse, we had to step carefully because some of them were even nesting directly on the trail. (That doesn't create too much disturbance as the trail is only used a few times daily for researchers to go up and down to the observation points.)
We were issued hardhats for the walk. The gulls can be quite aggressive anyway, and even more so because chicks were just starting to hatch in good numbers while we were there. The chicks are extremely vulnerable to predation by other gulls during their first few days and weeks, so the adults are understandably defensive. I took a few solid knocks to the hardhat during my schlepp.
Gulls aren't the only birds breeding on the islands. Several species of alcids breed there, including a small number of Tufted Puffins who are at the southernmost edge of their breeding range. I didn't see any of them, but I wasn't able to spend a huge amount of time scanning. Much more abundant are the Common Murres that they sometimes associate with. The species was nearly wiped out by egg hunters in the 1800s, but have rebounded strongly. Still, 150 years later, the population is probably below what it was before the Gold-Rush era egg hunters.
A closer look reveals that the "scrub" is actually tens of thousands of Common Murres. The larger clumps (at top center) are Brandt's Cormorant nests, and at the top right you can see a few Sea Lions.
There are several different colonies of Murres scattered around the islands, of which that is the largest group (IIRC). It was interesting to me to find out that birds fro the different colonies tend not to interbreed, even though they're separated by fairly small distances. Murres and Puffins aren't the only alcids on the islands. Some of the species are burrow-nesters who are most active at night, like Cassin's and Rhinoceros Auklets. I'd really hoped to see a Rhino Auklet in breeding plumage. It would have been fairly easy to get a good look if we'd spent the night, but at least I was able to see a few on the water near the boat landing. (No pix, alas.)
Much easier to see were the Pigeon Guillemots who were nesting in crevices among the gulls. One of the most fun discoveries for me was finding out that these guys sound like gigantic Allen's Hummingbirds - they make a loud "zzzzinnnng!" call in flight. I could not figure out why I was hearing so many hummers, especially since there's virtually nothing for them to feed on, until one of the Guillemots flew directly over my head, calling. Awesome!
Two species of cormorant nest on the island, Brandt's and smaller numbers of Pelagic. The Brandt's cormorants seemed to be scattered in small colonies, like the one you see at the edge of the Murre colony in the photo above. I had a bazillion questions about all of the birds but, sadly, much less time to ask the biologists. (Probably fortunate for them.)
It's not just birds who benefit from this sanctuary. We humans had done a real number on marine mammals up and down the west coast, between whaling and seal hunting. Five species of seals/sea lions use the island regularly, and their numbers have gradually increased in recent decades. On this visit, I saw mostly California Sea Lions, and they were quite abundant around the edges of the islands.
I'll close with a few more photos... it's so hard to choose favorites.
Another view of North Landing. By the building on the left side, you can see the steps used by the Sea Lions; only one is there now. Across the inlet from the building is the rock where the cormorants are perched in the photo above.
Western Gull with fuzzy babies. They still had their "egg tooth", meaning they were very recently hatched. This nest was in that cylinder that you can see in the Lighthouse photo. It seemed like a secure site - a gull fortress.
More fuzzy babies in a nest near a path. In this one, you can see the egg tooth - the light spot at the end of its bill. This hard little bump helps them push against the shell to bust their way out, then falls off within a few days of hatching.
I felt fortunate to set foot on the islands last fall, and even more fortunate to have been able to return. On clear days when I can see the islands from home, I can look out and remember this wonderful abundance of life.
If you'd like to see more of the Farallones for yourself, there is a great webcam, courtesy of the California Academy of Sciences. It is mounted on the lighthouse, and you can control the camera to view different parts of the island.