A screen capture of the Southeast Farallon Island webcam from September 25th, showing a Nashville Warbler clinging to the lighthouse antenna.
On the morning of September 14th
, a birder named
Matt Brady turned on his computer in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, opened an internet
browser, and clicked on the Farallon Islands webcam to do a little virtual
birding. The live camera, maintained by the California Academy of Sciences and mounted
atop the Southeast Farallon Island lighthouse about 30 miles west of San
Francisco, was pointed at that moment at an antenna array—the highest point on
the isolated island, which is a migrant trap. A little bird flitted into view
and perched. Brady squinted at his screen. He realized that it was a
Yellow-throated Warbler, a very rare species in California—almost 2,000 miles
away from where Brady sat comfortably at his desk in Louisiana.
He immediately called the crew of biologists stationed on
the Farallones, who, several times zones ahead, were just rolling out of bed. A
vagrant like a Yellow-throated Warbler is a big deal on the island; despite decades
of daily coverage, there had been only five previous records. The crew, all
serious birders, sprinted out the front door of their hundred-year-old house
and up a steep hill to reach the lighthouse. Sure enough, the warbler was up
A color-banded Townsend's Warbler alights in front of the webcam.
That may have marked the first time a vagrant bird has ever
been spotted, identified, reported, and chased via webcam—a significant moment in
postmodern birding. Pretty soon, others caught on; such luminaries as Alvaro
Jaramillo and Kenn Kaufman began posting regular sightings in a Facebook group called
“SEFI Remote Birdwatching” created this fall by Matt Brady. In September, viewers
identified a Blackburnian Warbler, American Redstart, Ovenbird, and Chestnut-sided
Warbler on the Farallon webcam, all rare species in California. On September 25th, a Hermit Warbler,
Nashville Warbler, and Magnolia Warbler appeared within a span of a few
An Ovenbird "photographed" with a screen capture on the Farallon webcam.
It wasn’t long before Farallon webcam addicts started
competing with each other to see who could identify the most species of birds
onscreen. A Google spreadsheet was created to keep track of who had seen what.
Although more than a dozen birders have submitted their totals so far, Matt
Brady’s webcam list far exceeds anyone else’s. At last count, his personal
total was 35 species out of 40 recorded thus far from the webcam, including 12
species of warblers—or, as Brady calls them, “weblers.”
“The most important variable is how much time you spend
staring at the cam a day,” Brady advises. He admits to keeping a small window
open with the webcam running in a corner of his computer screen while he
studies. For the first time in eight years, he is
not spending this fall season with the crew of Farallon biologists; the webcam lets
him stay in touch with the place he knows so well.
The webcam zooms in on Brown Pelicans, Brandt's Cormorants, and Western Gulls.
Others have also become dedicated watchers. A birder named
Christian Schwarz has been keeping a laptop propped next to his main work
computer with the Farallon webcam running full screen, full time. “All my
coworkers think it’s a really boring screensaver,” he remarked.
Hardcore webcam watchers have even invented an ironically
derisive term for real, in-the-flesh sightings: “meat birds.” When a rare
Prairie Warbler was seen on Southeast Farallon on October 5th but
failed to pose for the webcam, virtual birders scoffed at an update posted in
the webcam’s Facebook group. “This sighting is irrelevant,” one remarked.
A Hermit Warbler perches in view of the webcam.
The star at Southeast Farallon this summer, a Northern
Gannet that was first spotted on April 25th
and has hung around ever
since—the first of its kind ever recorded in the Pacific Ocean—eluded virtual
viewers for a while. But on September 13th
, Californian birder Oscar
Johnson logged on to the webcam and caught a glimpse of the distinctive bird
flying past, and, on October 9th
, Matt Brady was able to point and zoom
the camera at the gannet perched on its favorite rocky cliff. At home in
Oregon, I happened to log on just at the right moment to watch the famous bird
preen, stretch its wings, and settle down on a rocky ledge, live on my computer
monitor but hundreds of miles away.
Clearly, you can’t count webcam birds on your life list,
and neither can you count meat birds on a digital list. But the question highlights an increasingly gray area. Today’s birders use
such advanced technology to identify birds—image stabilization, parabolic
listening devices, high-speed cameras—that the birds we “see” sometimes aren’t
even detectable by normal human standards. In one sense, a webcam is just an
extremely powerful spotting scope. So, where do you draw the line? Must the
same photon strike both the bird and your eyeball?
Red-breasted Nuthatches have made several webcam appearances this fall, as part of an unusually heavy influx on the Farallones.
The Farallon webcam runs year round; September (and early
October) is the best month to look for migratory songbirds, but you never know
what might show up—Great White Shark attacks on Elephant Seals have also been
observed on the webcam. Recent virtual sightings have included a Brown Booby,
Wandering Tattler, Golden-crowned and White-crowned Sparrows, Brewer’s and
Red-winged Blackbirds, and even a passing Violet-green Swallow.
If you want to test your digital skills and patience, the
link is below. Me, I’m off to find some real birds—in the meat, so to speak—closer
Click here to read Noah Strycker's past ABA blog posts.