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An Eruption of Stars

Tuesday 15 August 2017, week 14: Buldir Island

“Steph, the volcano’s erupting,” Kevin calmly stated as I walked toward him in the twilight.

Over my left shoulder lay the comfort of camp, the dark mass of Buldir Eccentric – our volcano – beyond North Marsh visible behind it. As we watched, a glow rose around Eccentric’s back side, illuminating its crestline through the darkness. The moonlight crept its way up the sky as the moon inched its way to the summit of Eccentric; as the moon peeked over the top, the eruption began. Eccentric was erupting the moon and bringing our seasonal lives full circle.

Instead of going to bed, we had been setting up mist nets for this year’s first night of fork-tailed and Leach’s storm petrel diet sampling. Last August our final session of storm petrel diet sampling had occurred on a similarly clear, starry, moonlit night. Since those nights come just a handful of times a season, we were in awe of our good fortune to be surrounded by stars late into the night. After we’d taken down the nets and put away our gear, the 3 of us stood on the deck and enjoyed the starry heavens. We gazed in all directions as we tried to identify constellations and watch shooting stars while we brushed our teeth. It was the perfect way to wrap up our final diet sampling of the season.

Never did we imagine we’d be blessed with the timing of storm petrel diets and starry nights again this year. It happened, though, and the eruption of the moon brought out a clear night for stars and a plethora of Leach’s storm petrels. Fortunately they don’t possess the same self-entangling skill as the parakeet auklets, nor do they have the strength to make their bites very painful. Our setting for sampling storm petrels is also nicer: we spread the nets above visqueen in the tall grass between North Bight Beach and Main Camp; the walk home takes maybe 3 minutes.

Although typically we spotlight storm petrels to draw them to the net, we weren’t being very effective. Then for unknown reasons, the birds began to seemingly appear in the net. From ~ 01:00 to 02:30 we’d no sooner have shone a light on the net to verify its emptiness than one of us would begin removing a Leach’s and call out, “I’ve got 3 other birds in the net down here.” The air was full of mostly Leach’s storm petrels. By the time we managed to find both nets empty, we quickly closed them up and just stood under the stars and swooshing storm petrels. The moon, hanging just over the ridge behind camp, still provided enough light for us to make out the birds’ silhouettes and wow us with their numbers. The bubbly murmurs of the Leach’s and the pig-like squeaks of the fork-taileds played the soundtrack of the night air we’ve slept to all season.

As we wrapped up the late night we once again found ourselves brushing our teeth under the stars. It’s a good life.

Afterthoughts on 16 August: We did our 3rd round of storm petrel diet sampling last night, and guess what? God treated us to another night of stars. With no moonlight it felt like we were working beneath blankets of constellations and galaxies. The sky was so inky dark and the stars so present that I wasn’t the only one having trouble focusing on spotlighting birds. I’d follow a bird with my light until it’d rise above the background ridge’s height and become harder to track, and then – well – my light gained its own life as my eyes got distracted by the stars. I couldn’t help it!

Today was the 3rd day in a row of Eccentric and most of the island being clear of fog and most clouds. Since this year has been wetter than last year, this stretch has been a treat. We even went exploring a new corner of the island on our hike back from Spike a few days ago! With the days quickly winding down, we’re enjoying all the nice weather we can get.

Saturday 5 August 2017, week 12: Buldir Island

Dear Olympus TG-4,

Normally I wouldn’t say anything about how discontent I am with you, but enough is enough. Your problems have driven me so far that I nearly cast you down to die on the rocks of Main Talus. It honestly would have made me very happy, but I have a few weeks left on Buldir, and sometimes your work is adequate enough; I’ll keep you around until I’m back in civilization. After that, you can expect that I will not resemble the Steph most people know when I destroy you. I’m looking forward to it!

Even though he told me about you and made the sale, I don’t blame my friend for my disappointment in you. In fall 2015 I was looking for a new point-and-shoot camera and decided to go for a shockproof-waterproof-extreme durability model for my outdoor-oriented life. Olympus had created you, the TG-4, and had received pretty good reviews for its work, if I remember correctly. After spending time researching you, I decided you would be worth the slightly higher price tag. Oh boy, was I ever wrong.

How much do I hate thee? Let me count the ways:

1. When I researched your specs, you were touted to have the ability to shoot in RAW format. Too bad your RAW is too new and different to be compatible with my Adobe programs.

2. For as long as I can remember, you’ve sometimes decided when to end my movie recording instead of working until I tell you I’m done. I’ve checked many times, and you don’t quit only when there’s no room remaining on the memory card. No, rather, there seems to be no rhyme or reason to when I’m in charge or you’re in charge.

3. You’re a camera. Therefore your primary function is to capture shots of the world around me. Why do you often change the tones of the colors to something other than what I see with the naked eye? More importantly, why will you capture the wrong tones, and then turn around to capture the correct colors when I try again 10 seconds later? And then you’ll go ahead and give everything that blue hue again in the next shot! More than anything else, this is why you’re a POS. (Sorry, Mom.)

4. You suck at creating panoramas. My old Nikon point-and-shoot did a better job. My Samsung phone does a better job. A phone’s primary function is to make calls, not outperform a camera!

5. Your low battery indicator gives me a whole 10 minutes of advance warning – if I’m lucky. Usually it’s more like 5 minutes. Thanks for the heads up.

6. For being a waterproof camera, you sure don’t know what to do about humidity or clear blue skies. Last year on Buldir you decided to fog up the lens on our brilliant days. As a result, when it was not foggy, I have some foggy pictures. That’s why I sent you back to Olympus and wanted to thank your maker for the foggy memories.

7. When I sent you in to get fixed shortly before your warranty ended, I thought Olympus had probably identified a few of your problems. The note that came along when you returned to my life was not very informative, and ultimately I think you reverted to your old ways. There have been no “bless the maker” comments from me.

Since I’m generally a happy person who has nobody to whom I need to write hate letters, this has been fun. Really! Kevin and McKenzie have heard my complaints (and apologies for the complaints) for two summers now, so it feels good to get this out to the one who makes me fume. I don’t think I’ve ever had such hateful feelings for an object before. Well done to be the one to get my ginger rage flowing!

Sincerely full of anger,
Steph

PS – I will give you one teeny, tiny thank you for working when I boated across a lagoon and floated through mangrove canals in Reserva de la Biosfera Sian Ka’an on the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. You successfully worked underwater.

PS – To anyone who’s not my camera and still reading this, I had a big smile on my face and hit some keys very emphatically while I wrote. It was fun! But seriously, do not buy this camera.

Emergency Contact

Saturday 29 July 2017, week 11: Buldir Island

When I was traveling in Hawaii a few years ago, I spent some time in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Knowing that Mauna Loa is the largest mountain in the world – by combined landmass above and below the ocean – I wanted to climb it. In order to do so, I needed to obtain a backpacking permit from the backcountry office.

The permit form required my basic information, hiking plans, and car license plate number. Those were easy enough to fill out, but the last item was tricky for me.

Emergency contact.

As I stood there trying to figure out whose name to fill in, the ranger said, “It can’t be that hard to come up with someone who cares if you go missing.”

Usually I’d just list my parents and their phone numbers, but they were traveling internationally at the time. I didn’t want to go grab my phone to pull up any other relatives’ numbers, not to mention my brother still had no phone. I was stuck. Fortunately I realized I had Teri’s number memorized, so I listed her and gave her a call to let her know my plan. (Unfortunately she failed to listen to her voicemail until after I’d returned a few days later, so she wouldn’t have known to worry about me anyway. That’s not the point of the story, though.)

When backpacking alone or living remotely, it’s good to have someone back in civilization who cares about your safety and well-being. Mid-month provided us with a hiccup in our day that reminded me how nice it is to have a safety plan and people in offices who care to know we’re fine.

The 17th of July was a day of surveying our beaches for COASST surveys (dead birds). We’d made our low pass of beach A, looked at the waves around the corner from NW Point, and covered ~ ¼ of the way back when we were interrupted by the obnoxious beeping of the pager as we worked up the skull of what was going to be bird #84 for the year. Knowing it could be a pager test or a real alert, we pulled out the little messenger to see the message “Call Jeff. Tsunami threat from Commander Is earthquake.” (Jeff is basically the guy who keeps an eye and ear out for all the AK Maritime field camps.)

That was a new message! We stopped our COASST work and hurriedly walked back to camp; Kevin’s legs gave him a commanding leader pace that McKenzie and I couldn’t match. It brought back the Full House line that I’d used on my friend Alesha in Mexico. “Wait for me; I have little legs!”

When McKenzie and I gained the cabin, we found Kevin seated with satellite phone in hand, phone directory in front of him. Naturally the satellites had chosen this time to refuse to provide a signal. Kevin had managed to start calls that immediately dropped, but that was it.

We fired up the radio to see if we could get through to Lisa in Adak but called her on multiple channels without getting a response. Maybe she was also heading to higher ground?

Not knowing where things stood, it was time to leave camp. We loaded a couple backpacks with the bare minimum – databooks, cameras, water, snacks, TP, and the satellite phone – before climbing the muddy chute up to the storm petrel plots on the hillside behind camp.

Naturally it was just as we sat down at the top that we got another pager message, this one saying “If there WAS tsunami, supposedly past you by now (ETA Adak 15 min). Please still call Jeff so he can reassure the bigwigs. Thanks!”

From Jeff we learned that a 7.8 magnitude earthquake 6 miles deep near Komandorski Island had been the trigger. The concern for a tsunami was small enough that there had only been an advisory – not even a warning or threat. We were cleared to head back downhill to camp and carry on with our day. After all, Shemya had recorded a dangerous 4 inch wave. How cute.

Having our contacts in Adak and Homer keeping a distant eye on us was nice. As much as a number of us field techs take remote field jobs to get away from civilization, we do appreciate knowing someone back home cares about us.

Tuesday 25 July 2017, week 11: Buldir Island

“Boogity boogity!!” yells Kevin as he jumps up from behind a concealing boulder.

Since the alarm is not directed at me, I can do nothing but laugh as I watch a grown man make a fool of himself. No, it’s not Halloween around here; it’s a session of parakeet auklet diet sampling. If my previous post seemed to romanticize whiskered auklet diet sampling, this post will be nearly the opposite. I’m not sure if I’ve done anything more ridiculous in fieldwork than ambushing parakeet auklets.

While typically we collect diet samples from parakeet auklets at the Spike Camp beach by setting up a fine mesh mist net stretched between two poles, that method wasn’t as productive this year as last. Standing between the water and the cliffs, the mist net has five shelves (or pockets) that are in the birds’ flight path as they approach their burrow nests in the cliff face. The parakeets are supposed to be oblivious to the net, get caught, puke, and not get too tangled before we can run to them from our hiding spots. In actuality they often get themselves tangled to high heaven and become bite-y, stressful birds to untangle.

Parakeet auklets typically begin returning to their burrows around 21:30, but most of them end up staging just offshore until around 23:30. The slow trickle of birds makes for nice even sampling with ample time for untangling; 23:30 is roughly when the magic hour begins and all hell can break loose. In 2016 we dubbed one session “The Night from Hell” because we had 9 parakeets caught in the net at once and ended up needing to break the law of mist netting by cutting a few free. The onslaught began around 23:15 and kept us stressfully busy untangling until at least 00:30. From that experience we learned to close the net early while using someone as a scarecrow to help divert birds away from the net.

Because of windy evenings that made the net more visible, crested auklet bycatch, and low parakeet sample returns, we ended up spending more time trying to ambush parakeets this year. There isn’t an exact science to ambushing them, so Kevin, McKenzie, and I winged it by using a combination of hiding, jumping, being “big and scary”, and spotlighting.

Being positioned awkwardly behind large boulders – so that we wouldn’t be seen from the water – is as comfortable as it sounds. Parakeets are naturally wary, and even “new” rocks on their mental maps of the beach can spook them from returning straight to their burrows. The 3 of us stationed ourselves behind boulders and waited for birds to fly in and land on prominent rocks nearby. Then we struck.

“BAHHH!!!” I yelled as I leapt up, flailed my arms, and stumbled my way toward the parakeet perched 15 feet away. Behind me I could hear McKenzie laughing at my out-of-character volume and antics.

“Bonzai!!!” cried Kevin as he jumped, ran, and illuminated the rock where another parakeet had landed. Again, McKenzie’s laughter joined the background sounds of kittiwakes, murres, gulls, and fulmars.

Watching adults be “big and scary” is pretty hilarious, especially when the observer doesn’t see the bird at all. If anyone had been strolling down the beach and come across us, they would have thought us certifiably insane.

As the startled birds flew toward the water, we watched for the dribble of puke that we hoped would come. Often we couldn’t tell for sure and would need to scan the rocks and boulders below their rough flight paths. Scraping a puke stream dribbled down a 10 foot path wasn’t ideal, but at least it was a sample!

By the end of our last ambushing session, I knew I’d given the outing my best shot. My throat felt raw, and my voice came out hoarse when Kevin, McKenzie, and I had our end-of-sampling discussion. I hadn’t yelled that much or with such passion since being at a UAF – U of Michigan hockey game back in my college years. “DON’T LET HIM HAVE IT!!” I’d yelled at a UAF Nanook as a Wolverine stole the puck. My friends Bryson and Teri – not used to seeing such anger come from me – were maybe a little scared of me by the end of the game.

I’m happy to say a few parakeet auklets are now scared of me – maybe McKenzie and Kevin, too.

Saturday 15 July 2017, week 9: Buldir Island

It’s 23:49 as the credits begin to roll on the laptop screen. Dramatic music plays as amazing images of Planet Earth II’s “Jungles” and “Deserts” episodes dance through our heads. Popcorn consumed and entertainment over, it’s time to change gears.

“Hello, bed,” Kevin longingly says as he enters the bunk cabin.

Bed will have to wait, though, as our own planet earth experience awaits. The 3 of us change out of our warm, comfy sweatpants and light down jackets in exchange for long johns, warm tops, hats, gloves, headlamps, XtraTufs, and Helly Hanson raingear.

Our pockets and butt bags loaded with sample jars, puke spoons, fine tip Sharpies, walkie talkies, and Fenix flashlights, we hit the trail at 00:07, bound for the boulder beach of Crested Point. After 5 minutes of swishing through the tall grasses of the inland trail, we cross the creek and carefully walk down the beach, somehow managing to not hurt ourselves as we walk in dim light on unstable boulders for another 15 minutes. Shortly after 00:30, we’re stationed along the boulders on the high beach, ready to ambush the whiskered auklets that will soon begin flying in to feed chicks in their crevice nests.

Waves break gently against the boulders, providing a soothing soundtrack to accompany the transition from twilight to darkness. The light breeze is enough to be refreshing but not chilling. As the details of our surroundings become harder to see, we turn on our lights to illuminate the auklets’ path from the water to the beach.

The sound of incoming frantic wingbeats means we’ve probably heard our first whiskered arrival of the night around 00:45. As we scan for whiskered auklets with our eyes and ears, fork-tailed and Leach’s storm petrels swoop overhead as they begin their nightly activity.

While scanning the rocks behind me, my light reveals an auklet, which freezes in the bright light. Hoping to get my hands on the little bird, I awkwardly clamber my way over the boulders to reach it, trying to keep my light fixed on the bird in the process. I reach out to grab the skillfully slippery little bird and smile when I manage to wrap my hand around it. Unfortunately for its chick, but fortunately for me, the auklet begins to puke up its orange meal of copepods. Holding the bird over a flat rock, I stroke its throat to elicit the regurgitation of the remaining meal. Once the whiskered seems to have given all it had, I apologize to the bird and release it back into the night. Then begins the fun of using a spoon to scrape the goopy diet sample off the rocks.

Down the beach Kevin and McKenzie are doing the same: scanning the beach with their lights, waiting to ambush incoming auklets, and collecting diet samples. By 01:54 the whiskered auklets’ arrivals have petered down, and we’ve called it a night, happy with the evening’s haul of 8 samples.

While walking our same perilous path home, we find a Leach’s storm petrel in the trail. For its own safety, we play “pass the bird” from Kevin up front to me in the back. With a “good night” to the bird, onward we sleepily walk, reaching home at 02:14.

We weigh and record the mass of each diet sample before adding 70% ETOH to each jar; this is one of the few times each season when we actually turn on one of camp’s small overhead lights. Once we’ve all washed our hands, we make a pit stop at the cooler for a 02:29 snack of a couple quail eggs.

A few minutes later I’m delighted to see the maid visited the bunk cabin and was kind enough to turn on the kerosene heater. We won’t be crawling into cold beds tonight. Flossing, tooth brushing, and late night pee trip done, I climb into bed and fall into the reading trap at 02:36.

Finally at 03:07, I’m ready to call it a night. The best part? We get to sleep in tomorrow.

COASSTing Along

Saturday 1 July 2017, week 7: Buldir Island

“Got one!” may be read as a phrase full of excitement. Oh boy, something’s been found! Hearing that phrase when Kevin, McKenzie, and I are all walking the boulder beach is not a welcome pronouncement here on Buldir. It indicates one of us has spotted part of a dead bird, which is not bad news in itself. After all, everything dies eventually. No, the news is unfortunate because it means yet another stop to measure, tag, photograph, and record data for our COASST surveys.

Most of the work we do for AK Maritime is rather enjoyable. Learning to navigate our plots, finding and monitoring various species’ nests from incubation through chick fledging, hiking across the island to Spike Camp, collecting diet samples, taming our trails with machetes, and living on a far-flung island make for a good life. The task that we never look forward to is our biweekly COASST survey. (Those letters stand for something, but I can’t find what for in our guidebook.) So, it’s now what Kevin made up on the spot: Conserving Our Assorted SeaSide Treasures.

COASST is a citizen science program run by the University of Washington and other agency collaborators. All along the West Coast and on various beaches across Alaska, citizens – or seasonal UFWS employees – search for dead birds or measurable parts of birds. Then these birds are identified down to species, ideally, based on either how true to life the dead birds are or based on foot type, culmen (bill), tarsus (leg), and wing measurements.

On Buldir probably 75% of our dead birds are identifiable based on measurements alone. Plenty of times we have just a single wing, foot, or head to measure because the body part is a component of a gull pellet; lots of our finds end up as UNAU: unidentified auklet.

Scouring three different beaches for any dead bird bit and then deciding if said bit is measurable or has already rotted too much, is far from entertaining. There’s no need to even mention the fantastic odors that emanate from some birds, or the questionable watery, slippery wetness with which some birds are covered. The positive in our situation is that we have a fairly efficient system after having spent all of last summer tackling these beached birds together. McKenzie records data, Kevin measures and tags the birds, and I prep the tagging gear, write our label, and take the pictures.

Over roughly 5 ½ hours we encountered 57 beached bird bits that we could measure and work up along our 3 beach segments today. 33 of those birds were new finds from our last survey. That’s 57 “got ones!” during our span of navigating our way over Buldir’s lovely boulder beaches. No wonder our announcements end up ranging from a sigh of resignation, to false enthusiasm, to expressionless fatigue. Our brains are always pretty mushy by the end of these surveys.

We know the data is important in that it becomes part of a long-term monitoring database that’s essential in following the health of marine ecosystems. By having baseline data on what’s normal for beached birds, the significance of changes and catastrophic events like oil spills or massive die-offs can be better understood.

Despite the role of the data, COASST is still our least favorite activity. Good thing McKenzie made us some chocolate chocolate chip cookies tonight. There’s more than “got one!” on those cookies for all of us.

Saturday 24 June 2017, week 6: Buldir Island

I take such joy in naming crevices that I’ve decided to revisit this topic from last year. Once again I’ve chosen to follow the creative route, this time choosing themes for each of my work areas.

Like I said last year, finding new nests is one of my favorite activities. Up until this point in the season – because eggs are hatching and finding nests is unnecessary – my rounds usually took longer than Kevin or McKenzie’s because I just couldn’t help but poke my nose everywhere. With the lack of predators on Buldir, crevice nest sites are a whole lot easier to find than on say, St. George, where foxes are always on the prowl for an egg. Birds don’t need hard-to-access nests here. In much the same way that Conservation Canines are so dedicated to finding scat and then getting to play fetch, I’m fully addicted to the satisfaction of finding a quality nest site and then getting to name it.

Main Talus is the home of crested, least, and whiskered auklets, as well as horned and tufted puffins. For my work on this active boulder field I chose to name crevices after my hobbies and various outdoor activities.
– RUN, BIKE, READ, COOK, WRITE, HIKE, CAMP, SKI, SAIL, SLEEP, BAKE, TRAVEL, DREAM, CLIMB, MUSH, PHOTO, HUNT, DRIVE, EAT, THINK, WANDER – KAYAK, CAVE, SWIM, SURF, SKATE, RAFT, CANOE, FISH, TRAP, YOGA

Since I actually ran out of ideas for that theme, I had to turn to my sports teams for the last few.
– SPARTANS (Michigan State, of course), TIGERS (Detroit baseball), REDWINGS, (Detroit hockey), ABLACKS (short for NZ rugby All Blacks), NANOOKS (U of Alaska Fairbanks), LIONS (Detroit football)

I forgot to give former employer Trailbreaker Kennel a crevice last year, so today a whiskered auklet became TBK.

Northwest Ridge has a lot less activity than Main Talus, but it hosts whiskered and parakeet auklets, plus some horned and tufted puffins. I’ve also found a few ancient murrelet nests, but they’re a species we don’t monitor. This steep, grassy slope now has new sites named for…
– Countries from which I’ve hosted exchange students: GER (Germany), POL (Poland), BEL (Belgium) – Countries that adopted Teri MEX (Mexico) or me NZEA (New Zealand) for awhile – Other countries I’ve been to in Europe: FRA (France), SWI (Switzerland)

Bottle Hill is on the Spike Camp side of the island, and we head over there every 4-5 days for the horned puffins and parakeet auklets. My best naming scheme of the year can be found here, for this is the land of Lord of the Rings (hobbits) and Star Wars. – SHIRE, FRODO, SAM, MERRY, PIPPIN, BILBO, ROSIE
– LUKE, LEIA, HAN, VADER, CHEWIE (JEDI and SITH or REBEL and EMPIRE will be joining this crew)

Earlier this week I was pretty proud to find that SAM was one of the season’s first parakeet auklet parents. These days we’re having an eruption of eggs hatching on Main Talus. It’s a busy time with lots of cute new life around here!