August Birthday in the Farallon Islands

Jackson and I woke up by sunrise of his fourteenth birthday with a relatively light fog over San Francisco Bay. Today was to be one of the highlights of our California trip, a six-hour excursion to the Farallon Islands, almost 30 miles out into the ocean. Among the birds we hoped to see were the Rhinoceros Auklet, the Tufted Puffin, the Common Murre, different Phalaropes, the Pink-Footed Sheerwater, and the Brown Booby (something that keeps eluding us). But with so few people visiting these remote islands, the bird counts, though extremely high for certain birds, made it difficult the probability of seeing some of them. The fog also worried us.

After a quick “Happy Birthday” from Jackson’s sleepy sister and mom, we slipped downstairs to catch our ride. I had suggested we walked, but based on yesterday’s excursion, we knew that would be pushing it.

By the time we arrived at the marina where the Oceanic Society’s 40-foot boat, The Salty Lady, would be departing on its whale and bird tour, there were some signs of hope. Golden light was piercing holes in the gray fog. And among the sidewalks were numerous Brewer’s Blackbirds.

Eventually, the captain of the boat came out to introduce the tour and what we were likely to see, with whales and sea mammals top on the list. This was, above all, a whale watch. But when asked if anyone was there to see the tens of thousands of birds, our hands rose alone in the crowd and we were marked as the local bird experts. Of course, that was far from the truth. Well, at least not me.

Finally, we walked down the winding gangplank to the boat, the skies brightening more and the clouds not so close to our heads. Before stepping onto the boat, though, we noticed a Black-Crowned Night Heron perched on another nearby boat.

Though the boat was fairly crowded with tourists of various ages and interests, we were comfortable and eager to get out to the deeper seas. So, finding an opening along the railing, we got ourselves ready to spot shorebirds, gulls, and terns we didn’t have yet. Within minutes of rounding the jetty, we were rewarded with Western Sandpipers and a Western Grebe – two new birds.

Golden Gate Bridge

Ahead of us, the Golden Gate Bridge burned bright in the rising sun and fog. The day before we had hiked along the cliffs just beyond, where we saw our first Pigeon Guillemot. By the end of this trip, we knew there would be scores more. But even as terns and gulls soared us around us, another spectacle took us by surprise. Within the shadow of the bridge, a Thresher Shark jumped out of the water, probably capturing some sort of meal (a seal or sea lion or other marine life).

For the first half hour, the going was smooth. However, as the bridge grew smaller behind us and the cliffs loomed high, the skies darkened with denser fog and the waves picked up. Soon, water was soaking me and I struggled to keep the equipment dry. Jackson, who had made the wise choice of moving to the other side, remained perfectly dry.

After a while, I had figured out the best positions along the boat and Jackson and I kept a lookout for more birds. Along with a few spottings of humpbacks, pods of seals, and playful porpoises, we eventually began noticing large rafts of Common Murres, thousands of them. They speckled the water and would take off in clumsy flight through the tops of waves.

Above them and in the distances, Sooty Sheerwaters wheeled and skimmed cleanly above the waves. Of the 300+ we saw, six ended up being Pink-Footed Sheerwaters.

Halfway through the journey out to the islands, we began chatting with some of the Oceanic Society crewmembers, many of whom were very knowledgeable and experienced with pelagic birds. One person, in particular, fell into deep conversation with Jackson about what we would find and what other types of birding they have done. Later on, the crew member would also give us an important tip on where to find California Condors. Another crew member, the sea lion expert, awed us with his travels and work in Alaska and two-week tours along the western coast of Mexico and Central America.

After about two long hours, the crown of the Farallon Islands began to slip in and out of view, growing taller and taller. And as it grew before our eyes, so did the number of birds. Murres, cormorants, and gulls were everywhere in the water and air. Then two darting streaks of color flew near the bow and someone yelled out Tufted Puffins, or Tuft Puffs as we like to call them. Unfortunately, we only saw them as streaks and would not be satisfied until we could get a clearer view and maybe a picture.

Red-Necked Phallarope

Also dotting the water were tiny, slender birds that Jackson kept pointing out as Red-Necked Phalaropes. These were firsts for me, but not for him. He had told me about them before, but for some reason, I thought they would be much larger.

Having been caught up in the sheer number of birds swimming and flying, we were both shocked to soon find the giant pillars of stained rock towering over us. And just as shocking was the smell of brine and guano attacking our noses. Imagine tens of thousands of birds and thousands of sea lions and seals inhabiting a small island of rock and what that means. And not only were there the odors wafting along the breezes, but the cacophony of bird calls and barking. Finally, adding to the mixture, the boat pitched and rolled on the choppy waves while spinning so that all onboard could get different perspectives. Here more than anywhere else was that tiny seasickness pill most welcome.

At one point, the boat did steady and we began searching for the Rhinoceros Auklet and the Brown Booby. Scanning the rocks and water hundreds of times blurred our attention elsewhere. It was only at the last minute, when we noticed no people around us, that we turned to see them all crowded around the animal carrier perched at the edge of the boat. Then we heard splash and cheers. The baby sea lion had been released. Briefly we saw it surface, the big, round, puppy eyes catching us. Then it slipped back under to join its giant extended family.

Soon the Salty Lady began moving around the island, revealing cavernous openings in the sides of the cliffs where water rushed through and exploded upward. Around one reach of rock, the science encampment was revealed. It was a small cluster of buildings, docks, and equipment, with thin paths webbing across the island. Over time, these people must become desensitized  to the smell and sound, but hopefully not the awe of the world around them.

Further along, two of the onboard naturalists were standing with us looking for the more unique birds of the island. Again, finding a few small dark birds among thousands of much larger ones seemed impossible. All the same, “Rhinoceros Auklet” was called out at 2:00, right near us. And when I finally picked it out, I was amazed at how much smaller it really was.

Tufted Puffin

Seconds later, 5 Tuft Puffs flew across the bow of the boat, their brilliant beak colors clear against the gray sky and water. We were even able to snap photos.

Gray Whale

Still, no  Brown Booby. And yet we hoped that furthest end that we cruised to would reveal the elusive bird. Again, we scanned rock, sky, and water. Juts more layers of seals, sea lions, cormorants, and gulls. Common Murres thickened the water. However, between us and the boat, a spray of water exploded upward and then the head of a Gray Whale surfaced, followed by it arching body and, lastly, its fluke. It was hard to fathom how such a large whale could be only a few hundred feet off the rocks. The island must drop off in a sheer cliff below.

The whale – and other whales in the distance – continued to be active. But it was time for the long journey home. We still hoped to find more birds. But were getting tired from standing for four hours, our leg and back muscles constantly bracing against the pitch of the boat.

We had no idea what the seas had in store for us.

Within a half hour, we were slamming over much bigger waves than we had on the way to the Farallon Islands. By the time we were halfway back, the waves and wind grew. Soon the spray rushed over the bow of the ship to the back area where we all stood. A lucky few had seats. The even luckier, or smarter, ones had found seats inside. But Jackson and I lurched back and forth, our muscles never relaxed. At the same time, we were focused on other things, pushing away the exhaustion. We spent almost the entire trip back watching for birds or talking about them with one of the younger naturalists onboard. His past experiences filled us with future possibilities.

Still time ground on, as the captain told us that we had to slow our speed to take on the waves. But as we neared the cliffs leading to the Golden Gate Bridge, the sun began to fight through and give us moments of warmth and energy. And soon more birds began flying around us, including more terns and gulls we hadn’t seen while leaving San Francisco. These included one Mew Gull, which was new to us.

After docking, we thanked everyone and the younger naturalist encouraged us to visit Pinnacle National Park for the California Condors on our way to Joshua Tree. Then we wobbled our tightened bodies down the plank and up onto firm ground. When we turned to look out to the bay, the bridge, and beyond, the whole experience seemed to be a dream or a journey to another world shrouded in the thickening fog. It was a good birthday.

In the end, we saw, among other birds, 10-20 Red-Necked Phalaropes; 4,000 (probably thousands more) Common Murres; 300 Sooty Sheerwaters; 6 Pink-Footed Sheerwaters; 7 Tufted Puffins, 1 Mew Gull, and 1 Rhinoceros Auklet. And of course, there were tens of thousands cormorants, gulls, sea lions, and seals.

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