Two weeks in the fall on South East Farallon Island: sketches

Over the past year I have visited the Farallon Islands three times. Located approximately 30 miles west of  San Francisco’s  Golden Gate Bridge  these  craggy rocks  lie within San Francisco county: it is hard to believe as they are  a wild  place, the home or resting place to numerous birds and  marine mammals.


I  spent  a couple  weeks to a month  in each of South East Farallon Island’s  (SEFI) three  research seasons  working part-time as an intern for Point Blue (PRBO) helping to collect a variety of data to add to their long-term data sets. The remainder of  my time  was devoted to  photographing and sketching the wildlife, primarily birds in the fall and spring, in winter  much of my focus was on the seals and sea lions. As we head into October, the  shorter days combined with the slightly crisper weather, my thoughts have turned to the couple weeks I spent on SEFI during  last fall’s migration season.

In the Fall every day was different. In the morning, at dawn, there was a sense of excitement, what migrant might have landed on the island that day. As one walked around the island one was always on the alert for the next new thing, perhaps a Harris’s Sparrow in amongst the Golden-crowned Sparrow flock, a fly by Black-throated Green Warbler or a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker would make a brief appearance on the lighthouse. There was always something new to see…….

During my stay there was a big push of western migrants, several Varied Thrushes,

100’s of Red-breasted Nuthatches and

many Golden-crowned Kinglets littered the island ….

The 5th record for the Island of Evening Grosbeak landed next to me on the railing at the lighthouse.


Western warblers also made an appearance: Black-throated Gray

and Townsend’s.

Not only were there the many  typical western migrants but also a few eastern warblers such as this male Black-throated Blue Warbler:

A  few Western Palm Warblers were frequently found hopping about  in Twitville, an area of Malva sp..  Although this is an introduced plant it is kept in a couple well defined areas to attract migrants. An occasional Magnolia and one of my favorites Chestnut-sided Warbler, were also found in this area and in the cypress trees by the houses. In fall the Chestnut sided Warblers are a lovely grass green color above

A number of sparrows and buntings made their way to the islands last fall: Lapland Longspur and Harris’s Sparrow

A place to always check was underneath the water tank on lighthouse hill, frequently thrushes liked to hide and forage in the moist shadows such as this Hermit Thrush.Usually a few Rock Wrens  could be found  hopping about on the rocks of light house hill, they remain on the island throughout the fall and the winter.

And there  was  the “house” Black Phoebe  that flew back and forth from the biologist house to the carpenter shop catching kelp flies and other insects.

Several species of owl make there way out to the Farallones in fall: Long and Short-eared and the below two, Barn and Burrowing. The latter two species can spend many months on the islands feeding on the abundant introduced house mice. As the winter progresses  the house mouse population crashes so when the endangered Ashy Storm-Petrel begins to return to the island to nest Burrowing Owls  add them  to their diet.

Last fall a Barn Owl  frequently roosted in one of the cypress trees by the Coast Guard house.

The Burrowing Owls roosted in caves,crevices  and tunnels on the islands’ rocky hillsides.

A number of shorebirds winter along the coast of SEFI, Wandering Tattler  were commonly seen creeping around the rocks in places with odd names such as  Garbage and Sewer Gulch or Sea Pigeon Cove.

There was too much to see and do during those two weeks on SEFI, the time flew by and before I knew it I was putting my feet back on the California mainland.