An algae-covered, two-story, four-bedroom, 140-year-old wooden house on a tiny, windswept island of crumbling granite, 20 miles west of the Golden Gate Bridge, boasts the biggest yard list in North America. More bird species have been recorded from within arm’s length of this house than any other residential structure north of Mexico: the latest addition, an Evening Grosbeak last month, was #360 on the yard list.
And I’ve got the bragging rights. I live here. I’m sitting inside that house right now.
Maybe you’ve heard of Southeast Farallon Island, or SEFI, but you’ve probably never been here, unless you’ve worked for Point Reyes Bird Observatory, which is contracted to manage the island to protect its amazing wildlife. It’s a weird and special place. At little more than 60 acres, Southeast Farallon forms the main part of the Farallones group, jutting out of the Pacific Ocean in a series of rocky pinnacles, sea caves, and hazardous cliffs. Though technically within San Francisco city limits, few urbanites know of the island’s existence. (A particularly clueless city dweller looking at the rocky silhouettes visible on the horizon once asked if they were Hawaii.)
In spring and summer, a quarter million seabirds congregate on these cliffs—more than anywhere else in the continental 48 states. In winter, the islands host the lower 48’s largest breeding colony of marine mammals. And, because of the seals, more adult Great White Sharks congregate here than anywhere else in the world; just last week, I watched from the front steps as a 17-foot shark decapitated an Elephant Seal in a bloody spectacular burst of gore just offshore. Seasonal biologists, living in this old house, keep careful track of the birds, seals, sharks, and whales, trying to make sense of it all.
The house was built originally for a crew of lighthouse keepers, and designed to hold two families. A hundred years ago, maintaining the light was important. The Farallon beacon—the first lighthouse on the west coast—guarded against shipwreck outside busy San Francisco Bay. After the U.S. Coast Guard automated the light in the 1960s, though, all the keepers left, glad to forsake this isolated, weather-beaten rock.
We keep our yard list with great care. From the house’s concrete front steps, we can look for albatrosses over the deep blue Pacific Ocean—when fog doesn’t obscure the view—or crane our necks around the corner to peer into a single, scraggly, 20-year-old Monterey Cypress tree, where at least 201 bird species have perched—or listen at night to the sounds of Cassin’s Auklets and Burrowing Owls. Any bird seen from within arm’s length of the house counts on the yard list. A complicated Excel spreadsheet called the “Faralist” officially chronicles the yard list, and it is kept on the desktop of the main living room computer, accessible to anyone on the island.
Top yard-listing honors have been contested over the years. Paul Lehman, whose personal yard list on the New Jersey shore tops 300 species, once challenged the Farallon house list on the basis of group effort. The Faralist, he said, shouldn’t count because, with a rotating cast of biologists, no one person has ever seen all the birds here. True enough. But, in response, Peter Pyle, who worked on the island for 30 years, added up his personal Farallon house yard list. It came to 324 species—the indisputable all-time biggest personal yard list in North America.
After a month and a half on SEFI, I’ve barely seen 150 species on the island, never mind the “yard.” It takes years to build up a big Farallon list. As a seasonal intern, I’m only here until December (this year, anyway). Besides trying to beef up the yard list, my job on the island, among a crew of six, involves bird banding, surveys, and shark watches, dawn to dusk, seven days a week. I drink filtered rainwater, take one quick shower a week, and get pretty excited when a rare bird drops in. Fall is peak season for vagrants around here, so you never know what might show up. SEFI might be the best vagrant trap in all of North America, at least outside Alaska.
Speaking of which, we had a Smith’s Longspur here last week, the first one ever found on Southeast Farallon and California’s eighth record. It hung out in a patch of grass a few hundred yards from the house, but skulked like a mouse on the ground. Definitely not visible from the house, so no good for the yard list. Maybe next time…