Visualizing Long-term Data by Michael Johns

Point Blue Conservation Science has amassed an impressive long-term dataset on the breeding histories of known-age Cassin's auklets on Southeast Farallon Island. These data are visualized in the figure above. The dedication to maintaining and checking 400+ artificial nest boxes every 5-days for the past 34 years has allowed researchers to reveal some unique patterns in the life history of this small seabird. For example, Cassin's auklets are the only member of the taxonomic Alcid family to attempt two complete broods in a single breeding season, known as double brooding. In a recent study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, my colleagues and I used these data to examine how double brooding impacts future reproductive potential and survival for birds that attempt such a behavior multiple times over the course of their lives. It turns out that so called "repeat double brooders" represent a subset of high quality individuals that can offset the short-term costs of increased reproductive effort, living well into old age and producing more offspring than birds that never double brood. Visit the publisher’s website by clicking HERE

Orange is the New Fairbanks by Michael Johns

For a brief moment in time, vegetative colors in the far north shift from the middle of the visible spectrum (green, where photosynthesis occurs), to the " far right" shades of amber and red. September in interior Alaska offers a narrow window for fall foliage, with reduced day-lengths and colder nightly temperatures signaling to the trees and shrubs a change in the season. The tundra is particularly breathtaking this time of year, as the grasses become fiery orange and the ground cover of blue and bear berries develops a rich red hue. Contrasting this warm color palette are patches of mint green lichen, wind swept grey granite, and the occasional stunted dark green spruce. The golden hour of sunset, still prolonged given the sun's path at such a high latitude, only serves to enhance the overwhelming golden look of the landscape. 

To take advantage of this narrow window of fall colors, we packed up the truck for a quick overnight camping trip with our friend Kyle, at his "secret" berry picking spot just over an hour's drive outside of town. Clear skies offered sweeping views of Minto Flats, a 500,000 acre wetland and state game refuge. As darkness fell, a complete absence of the moon allowed the Milky Way an it's billions of other worlds to shine. Later in the night, material flowing from our own star triggered a decent display of northern lights over our tents, with subtle pinks and purples not visible to the naked eye revealed with a long-exposure of the camera. Waking up to a frosty morning tundra and sundogs were a sobering reminder that winter is just around the corner. 

Winter Movements by Michael Johns

After several years of geolocator tagging work (see image below), we finally have enough information to begin to paint a better picture of the non-breeding winter distribution of Cassin's auklets from Southeast Farallon Island. At the start of any research project, the most important first step in the analysis process is to visualize the data. The idea behind this visualization was to depict three key environmental characteristics of the auklet's winter habitat in a single plot; sea surface temperature (SST), depth, and distance from island. SST will be used as a proxy for productivity, as colder water in this region is generally associated with nutrient rich upwelling processes, depth to characterize the preferred ocean zone (shallow shelf, steep slope, or deep abyssal plain), and distance from island to explore the possible limits of their dispersal. 

Glancing at this plot, you can see by October birds are fairly spread out between 45°N (dark purple colors - Northern California area) and roughly 33°N (orange colors - Southern California). They are also exposed to quite a range of SST, from 14°C up to nearly 22°C. By late January, all of the birds are relatively close to the island (small bubble size) and experiencing roughly the same SST, before spreading out again in late February, with most birds staying at around 35°N. The 2015-16 season was a particularly warm year for SST, which my explain why only birds in the northern reaches were finding water colder than 14°C. The next step in this exploratory process is to look at auklet movements during the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons, which were moderate to average years for SST in the eastern north Pacific. Ultimately, these and possibly additional environmental covariates will be used to model the winter habitat use of Cassin's auklets off the California Coast. 

Note the geolocator tag on the left leg of this Cassin's auklet. Geolocators are devices which record ambient light levels that are later used to estimate latitude and longitude. 

Tagging data courtesy of a partnership between Point Blue Conservation Science and the USFWS. Remotely sensed environmental data were downloaded from the NOAA repository https://coastwatch.pfeg.noaa.gov/erddap. This plot was created in R with the ggplot2 package. 

New Aurora Season by Michael Johns

The Kp index, a measure of the strength of geomagnetic storms from the sun, spiked last night; jumping from a mild 3 to a strong 7. It turns out the Earth had passed through the wake of a coronal mass ejection, where the sun essentially burps out a giant plasma cloud that travels outward from the source as solar wind. This wake weakened the magnetosphere of our planet, allowing solar wind to spill into the upper atmosphere and take on the form of bright green aurora. Space weather forecasters were not predicting this event, a surprise display of northern lights that kicked off the 2018-19 aurora season. 

Ken's Pond in Late Summer by Michael Johns

A brief visit from our good friend Laura prompted a much needed cabin retreat, this time a return trip to Ken's Pond. This public use cabin offers sweeping views of the snow-capped Alaska Range towering over a small beaver pond. Accessible by "highway vehicle" in the summer, we traversed the 5 mile rutted dirt road in my Tacoma to a pullout at the top of a ridge line, where we walked the remaining 800 yards down to the cabin. Highway vehicle is a bit generous for this road, as 4 wheel drive and a high clearance was necessary for navigating the deep mud puddles and trenches.   

As is typical for Ken's Pond, the wind was fierce. The high altitude wind shear, however, created some awesome lenticular clouds; stationary UFO-shaped features formed when a steady stream of moist air encounters an obstacle, in this case a mountain range.  

Highlights from our quick overnighter included circumnavigating the pond, a rousing game of scattergories categories, admiring Noosa, pond-chilled beer, finding coal, wind, and sightings of a beaver (Ken), caribou, and a bull moose. Another memorable visit to Ken's Pond.

Listers by Michael Johns

The Farallon Islands are uniquely situated for people interested in the hobby of finding and identifying birds, otherwise known as "birding". The cluster of jagged rocks are located just far enough offshore to provide a stable platform for spotting rare pelagic species like the Cook's petrel, and close enough to the mainland to catch vagrant song birds and other terrestrial species lost in the fog at sea. Over the course of 50 years of research out on the Farallones, some biologists and staff have been keeping a detailed list of all of the different bird species they've encountered while out on the island, a record known as "The Faralist". This figure is a graphical interpretation of that list, modified from R code for a similar graphic depicting the number of days spent on island by various people over the years. Collectively, a total of 429 different species have been seen from the Farallones; not bad for a small collection of guano-covered rocks with only 3 trees.

Download a high resolution file of this figure HERE.  

Final Chicks of the Season by Michael Johns

Ashy storm-petrels are endemic to the California Current System, which means their entire population occurs in the offshore waters of the California coast. Half of the world's estimated 10,000 individuals breed on Southeast Farallon Island, their chattery calls a regular sound after the sun goes down in the summer. They are amazing swallow-sized seabirds that spend much of their lives exposed to harsh winds and rough seas, thriving on small planktonic items they pluck from the productive surface waters of the Pacific. These enigmatic relatives of the albatrosses have a more prolonged occupation on the Farallones compared to the other breeding seabird species, extending chick provisioning efforts well into early October. They are generally the last chicks to hatch on the island, small grey puff balls that can be viewed on occasion in shallow crevices if you look hard enough. 

Rabbit Cave by Michael Johns

We monitor the breeding population of Rhinoceros auklets on the Farallones by checking artificial wooden nest boxes distributed across the island. These boxes are visited on a regular basis to note which ones contain an active breeding pair, whether those pairs are successful at hatching an egg, and ultimately how many pairs end up fledging a chick; giving us an estimate of the annual breeding success for this species. In addition to the nest boxes, we also monitor breeding activity in Rabbit Cave, a large vestige of the islands geologic past that acts as a kind of massive burrow for Rhinoceros auklets. The entrance to Rabbit Cave starts out as a narrow crawl space that opens up into a cavernous amphitheatre at the back. 

Landscape of a Year by Michael Johns

Animals tend to be fairly predictable in their reproductive timing and migration patterns. The figure above depicts a series of density curves, with peaks and troughs corresponding to the average timing of key biological events for a select number of marine species that are monitored on or from Southeast Farallon Island.

Pinnipeds, a taxonomic group that includes seals and sea lions, are found hauled out on the island year round, with peak pupping events occurring in the summer. Northern fur seals, which have made an astounding recovery on the Farallones following the days of the Russian Fur Trade, remain at sea for several months of the year and are only seen in force from summer to late fall. Whales are also visible from the island year round. Gray whale numbers peak in January as they migrate south to their breeding grounds off Baja California Mexico, and again in March during a northward migration back to their feeding grounds in Alaska. Humpback and blue whales are most abundant in the productive summer months, where they are seen gorging themselves on krill and schooling fish. For seabirds, breeding occurs only in the summer months, with the exception of the ashy storm-petrel which extends chick rearing well into October. Three distinct peaks represent the timing of egg laying, hatching, and chick fledging. 

The study of seasonal life-history patterns is called phenology, and it can tell us a lot about the stability of a system. As I mentioned, animals tend to be fairly predictable in their phenology. Individuals cue in on environment and biological signals, so shifts in the timing of reproduction or migration can indicate changes in environmental condition, food availability, or the health of a population. For species found on the Farallones, the major cause for concern in the face of a warming ocean is the availability of key prey items, namely krill, which sustain the rich biodiversity in this region. A mismatch between the timing of krill and the timing of reproduction for seabirds can lead to major declines in breeding success, and subsequent declines in population numbers. 

Data courtesy of a partnership between Point Blue Conservation Science and the USFWS. The plot was created in R with the ggplot2 and ggridges packages. 

Sei Whales Off The Farallones by Michael Johns

In addition to daily opportunistic sightings, we conduct standard 1-hour whale watches from atop Lighthouse Hill to document the timing and abundance of Cetaceans around the Farallon Islands. These data are useful in particular for showing where whales are in relation to shipping lanes leading into San Francisco Bay, to better inform mitigation measures aimed at reducing the number of ship strikes.

On one particular whale watch, during an exceptionally calm day, I came across a feeding flock of 6 black-footed albatross and several dozen pink-footed shearwaters. I considered the possibility that this flock was associated with killer whales, since albatross have been known to scavenge on orca kills, and killer whales had been reported in recent days just south of us in Monterey Bay. Sure enough, after watching for a few minutes a tall black dorsal fin came into view, followed by two smaller fins. A pod of transient killer whales that were feeding on some unknown pinniped at the surface. After radioing the sighting to the rest of the crew, everyone made it up to the lighthouse for a look before they eventually departed to the west. 

After the killer whales had left we decided to keep looking around for other sightings. Within minutes a blue whale surfaced right next to the East Landing mooring ball, in water probably half as deep as the length of the animal itself. As if that wasn't good enough, someone pointed out a small pod of whales swimming toward the island. They were all dark baleen whales with a visible blow, six of them traveling in tight formation towards an islet we call Sugar Loaf. Initially, I assumed perhaps it was a group of minke whales, clumping together in response to a pod of their natural predators nearby. The shape of their rostrums, size, behavior, and blow were all wrong though, and as they got closer we couldn't see an signs of white patches indicative of minkes on their pec fins. They were too small to be fin or blue whales, too big to be minkes, and definitely not a toothed whale. The only other obvious possibility for this part of the world is the sei whale, a species of rorqual found in temperate waters worldwide, but generally seen much further offshore and rarely sighted off California. 

To put this sighting into context, only 17 sei whales have ever been seen on the Farallones since 1987, and generally the sightings consisted of a solitary individual. Not only did this group contain a Farallon record breaking 6 animals, but they swam close enough to the island for us to get excellent looks for a prolonged period of time, and even photos of the event (of which my favorite is of a western gull pondering whether it can eat one of the whales). Truly a rare and amazing sight. 

Photos taken through Point Blue Conservation Science | USFWS

Relative Size by Michael Johns

Probably the most important question in the conservation work that we do, and the most popular question people have about the Farallones, is the population size of the various seabird species on the island. The answer, such as roughly 250,000 murres, 20,000 auklets, and 500 puffins, may not be fully appreciated when taken at face value. The figure above is an attempt to put these numbers into context by representing each population as a collection of boxes, where the area of each box is scaled in proportion to the other boxes. With this visualization, you can see just how abundant Common Murres are in relation to Pigeon Guillemots or Tufted Puffins. With continued monitoring and management, hopefully all of these boxes will continue to grow in size.

Data courtesy of a partnership between Point Blue Conservation Science and the USFWS. The plot is called a "Treemap", created in R with the ggplot2 and treemapify packages. 

Spring Snowfall by Michael Johns

During my brief break from the island, it snowed, in May. Winter is reluctant to release its icy grip on Fairbanks, which doesn't seem to bother our dog Noosa all that much. I won't be back up north until August, just before another long winter settles in. 

Cassin's Known-age by Michael Johns

One of the more exciting projects we conduct on the Farallones is the Cassin's auklet known-age study, which was first initiated in 1983. The birds are known-age because they are banded as checks, and once those chicks recruit into an unoccupied nest box we can gather valuable information on mate selection and retention, changes in breeding performance with experience and age, and signals of individual quality; all of which help managers better understand how individual contributions lead to population level changes. The work involves checking the contents of over 400 nest boxes distributed across the island, and taking various measurements of adult birds like bill depth, wing chord, and weight, which are used to determine body condition and sex. 

Photo taken through Point Blue Conservation Science | USFWS

April Showers by Michael Johns

This spring has been dominated by unsettled weather. We've been receiving a steady stream of moisture from the south, with descent downpours occurring every week. The weather makes for some dramatic early morning scenes, and has also been keeping the yellow flowers of the Farallon weed around for a little bit longer. 

Photo: Point Blue Conservation Science and USFWS

50 Years of Bands by Michael Johns

It's been 50 years since scientists from Point Blue Conservation Science (then Point Reyes Birds Observatory) began a continuous monitoring effort on SE Farallon Island. Some of this work includes banding certain species of seabirds to learn more about their movement patterns, survival and mortality rates, population status, and individual breeding behavior and success; all important information guiding management decisions and tracking the potential effects of climate change. Point Blue has amassed an impressive sample of banded birds since work first started in 1967, totaling nearly 125,000 individuals as of 2016. The graphic below illustrates the total bands put out by year and cumulatively since 1967 for 8 target species. 

Navigating With The Sun by Michael Johns

One of the easiest ways to study basic life-history and behavior of seabirds is to outfit them with devices the passively record data for you. The tricky part is getting those devices back in order to download and analyze those data. So far this season, we have recovered 19 geolocator tags that were secured to the legs of Cassin's auklets breeding in artificial nest boxes last year. These tags are designed to be very small and light, and have zero affect on the breeding performance and survival of birds that carry them. Geolocators record ambient light levels experienced by the bird as it flies around it's environment. These light level recordings are later used to estimate roughly where the bird was twice a day throughout the deployment period, using the timing of sunrise and sunset (which varies depending on longitude) and the duration of day-length (which varies by latitude). The photo above shows a row of tags calibrating in the sun on SE Farallon Island. 

Noting The Weather by Michael Johns

For roughly 50 years now, researchers on the Farallones have recorded daily island weather observations that include the wind intensity and direction, air temperature, and sea conditions. And for roughly 50 years the instruments used to collect these data haven't changed much. This long time series of direct weather observations provides information on meteorological and oceanographic patterns that impact the productivity and success of species that breed on the island, from short-term phenomena such as El Nino, to long-term trends associated with climate change. Recently, strong gusts from the Northwest have been tipping the anemometer needle beyond the 30 knot mark, a good spring wind to drive the upwelling.