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Archive for the ‘Pribilofs’ Category

Now that my TB test came back negative and I’m at the end of a whirlwind 3 day stay in Fairbanks, it’s time to share.

I’m going on a boat!! I know, I know. Here we go again. However, this time I’ve earned my spot as more than labor.

To recap: birds across all of the field sites in Alaska Maritime NWR had a pretty disappointing year. Either they didn’t lay eggs, or those eggs didn’t hatch, or the chicks died. Right now we’re not quite sure why the year was such a failure, but the hypotheses seem to involve ocean temperature and how that affected food sources.

While the thick-billed and common murres of St. George had a less-than-ideal year, they also chose to breed later than usual. In our monitoring we hope to record the final nest status (egg, chick, or fledgling gone from nest site) of as many monitored nests as possible, and our scheduled departure date left more young murre chicks on the cliffs than is ideal. Because of this, I stayed on St. George a week later than the other 2/3 of my crew because (a) my schedule allowed the most flexibility and (b) I didn’t want to leave in the first place.

murre family

Fledging age chick + parents

On the first weekday of having the entire bunkhouse to myself, I got a message from my crew leader back in Homer that just said, “Call Marc (the boss) right now, asap.” Wondering what I’d managed to screw up, I hesitantly called. My nerves were immediately proven frivolous, as I was being called about an opportunity.

The NOAA vessel Oscar Dyson would be heading out for a cruise from Dutch Harbor to Kodiak from roughly 20 September through 6 October. USFWS would have a trained seabird observer aboard, and they were hoping to send out a paid trainee. If I was interested, Marc would pass on my name.

Of course I jumped at the opportunity. Getting back on a ship in the Bering/North Pacific has been on my mind since I had to leave the last time, and this time I had the chance to go on a research vessel! Being a fantastic boss, Marc got my name in for first dibs, which left us to play the waiting game since NOAA didn’t know for sure if they had a spare berth.

After a week of not knowing on St. George and a week in Homer, I finally got word on Monday when I was in Anchorage. All of the sudden it became ‘go time’ to take care of the proper TB test, required medical form, travel plans, etc. A couple weeks in Fairbanks became just a couple days full of unpacking and repacking, convincing myself to buy a camera, a tiny bit of visiting, plenty of walks and bus rides, and emailing.

Now I’m at that very important final stop: Pubdrinking a raspberry wheat at the Pub. Just a couple of days is nowhere near enough time to feel at home again in Fairbanks, but I guess I’ll take what I can get.

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Some people who have worked with me in the field or heard stories about fieldwork or my travel adventures know that I have a strange complex that’s become known as “Classic Steph.” It boils down to this notion that I’m not being tough or strong enough or that there’s more I can do. Its other form is that I’ve let the adventure of travel take control of the situation rather than following the “plan” I’d made.

A few examples:

(1) On year 2 at the Tutakoke brant camp, I worked on the north side of the river, so I boated across the river with Thomas (PhD student in charge) pretty much every day. Unless he wanted to leave me over there and have me shout across the river to camp for a pick-up, we needed to walk back to the boat together after we finished our nest checks. Thomas was nearly always ready to be done before me, which is why he’d have to come tell me to stop searching for more nests. And as I understand it, that’s part of why I got the nickname “Mad Dog.”

(2) The story of how I ended up at Mavora Lakes and my midnight hike along the lakeshore

(3) Earlier this season I spent 45 minutes trying to resight least auklet bands in mist, wind, and rain before finally convincing myself it was okay to abandon my post since I couldn’t effectively use my binoculars anyway.


Today I smiled to myself when I heard a fellow field tech use the phrase as we were briefly chatting on top of High Bluffs. Those cliffs are about 1000 feet high, and they are essentially the home of fog on St. George. By the way, St. George is the home of wet fog, dry fog, windy fog, sunny fog, and sometimes no fog. What’s not to love?

fog map

The most common fog zone, and definitely not the limits. It goes everywhere!

Working in the fog isn’t very practical or easy, since our work entails looking through binoculars and spotting scopes at ledgenesting kittiwakes and murres to see if they’re sitting on eggs, chicks, or nothing. However, we want to catch hatch dates if possible, so sometimes we just have to test how thick the fog is and hope it will thin or clear. Since my murres seemed to be starting their peak hatch period a few days ago, I was itching to get back up to see how many new chicks would be present in my plots. Yet at the same time I wasn’t dying to struggle to see through the fog and rain.

Today Jason headed out the door on 3 different occasions thinking High Bluffs looked clear enough, but he returned before hitting the trail each time. I even backed my ATV out of the garage and into a rain cloud that hadn’t been there 5 minutes earlier, so I changed gears and drove back inside. Seriously, this island cracks me up.

When I stuck my head outside at 1500 and saw a clear First Bluffs and maybe 75% clear High Bluffs, I said to Jason, “I’m going for it.” I zipped down the road on my ATV, parked, picked a podcast to listen to for the ~ 45 minute hike, and hit the trail. Before I’d traveled 200 feet, I saw the fog line descending and felt the familiar misty rain. Of course.

But I didn’t care. I wanted to see those birds, and one of my plots generally doesn’t have bad fog. So I carried on down the trail toward High Bluffs as I watched the fog take the bluffs from view. I knew Jason was planning on following me up, but I had a feeling he’d wait for the rain to stop since he has fewer birds to check up there and therefore needs less time.

By 1600 I was settled at my cliff edge observation point in my full Helly Hanson raingear, binoculars hidden inside for protection from raindrops. After a little while I was slightly surprised to notice Jason at his plot. Eventually he came over and said with a smile, “Classic Steph, dragging me up here in the rain.”

In my defense, it did kind of clear up in patches, and the mist wasn’t constant. Plus, we were both able to get our work done without too much of a hassle. I had a great evening!

Although having a grand view down to the water and across the island is fantastic (and very rare), I love the eerie atmosphere fog creates up there. Poppies in the grass glow like fluorescent markers, and foxes in their dens make the ground “woof.” Aside from the millions of birds on the hidden cliffs, I often feel like I’m the only one in my cloudy little world.

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Even in relatively remote places, life can sometimes feel hectic. A couple evenings ago I felt the need to get out of the house and just be elsewhere. Our household number has grown past capacity, and though everyone is plenty friendly, the house felt crowded that afternoon.

Since the murres are busy laying eggs, I’d wanted to visit my common murres and thick-billed murres on High Bluffs. However, as often happens, the fog denied me the hike I’d been happily anticipating. Probably as a combination of circumstances, something that generally doesn’t happen – my feeling irritable – made me recognize I needed to go for a hike.

Heading out of town, I strolled down the road with my 2 trekking poles propelling me along, “The road goes ever on and on, down from the door where it began…” running through my head and giving me a grin. In my head I was headed to the end of the road and then beyond to Tolstoi, the easternmost point of St. George.

As I walked along my usual running route, I noticed the various flowering plants we’ve been identifying for the last month. A few rock sandpipers kept flushing from the road just ahead of me, flying 10 feet forward to land, and then flushing again as they led me down the road. The wind brought wisps of fog in that built up behind me to hide High Bluffs from view, but I was walking under light clouds, blue skies, and sunshine.

After fewer than 45 minutes, I reached the Northern fur seal rookery that marks the end of the road. While watching the seals, the closest of which were less than 75 meters from me, I realized I haven’t paid much attention to them yet this year. I alternated between eying the cliffs stretching down to Tolstoi and studying the seals through my binoculars.

Northern fur seals, the primary reason the state of Alaska was purchased in the first place, were lazily waving their flippers as they relaxed in the sun. Soon I decided it looked like they were having a grand time, so I should join them. Obviously I didn’t proceed past the warning sign to be amongst the seals, but I did take my pack off and drop down on the comfortable green grass.seals

Lately I’ve spent enough time watching the same cliff faces as I survey kittiwake and murre nests for the presence of eggs that my pre- true slumber dreams have featured my scanning for eggs and recording data. In other words, I work my way to sleep. While I’m by no means overworked this summer, apparently my brain thinks I need to work when I’m sleeping.

I slipped my Tigers hat over my face cowboy-style, lay back with my hands behind my head, and closed my eyes. In what felt like a short time, I was off in that pre-slumber dreamland of God knows what; I just know I wasn’t dreaming about work. Comfortable and worry-free, I napped in the sunshine of St. George.

When I awoke with a smile, I held my supine position as I listened to the roars and grunts of fur seals, the chirps of gray-crowned rosy finches, the melodious trills of pacific wrens, the calls of lapland longspurs, the raucous cries of kittiwakes, the pound of the surf against the beach, and the wind running through the grass.

As I lay there I thought about how refreshing it was to just be in the present and let my mind wander. Everything seemed so peaceful. In society we seem to always be running to this store or that event, and of course we’re always behind schedule and rushing to make up time. One reason fieldwork is so great is that we work on the animals’ schedule and by the weather’s dictation. We don’t have to make it to some appointment to meet with anyone or rush home to have dinner on the table at a reasonable hour. This is an Alaskan summer; dinner can fall anywhere between 18:00 and 22:00, and bedtime is almost always after midnight.

Isn’t it sometimes said that the best things in life take time? Particularly in America, people need to slow down and enjoy the little things in life. We book our schedules full of activities and forget to relax or appreciate the world around us.

Money and personal gain have taken too much precedence in mainstream – probably primarily corporate – America. Workplaces don’t want people to take time off, and escapes to nature have to be scheduled rather than naturally included in life. Somehow our world has lost its balance, but those of us who work in the field have found our own.

When I woke up from my nap, I was a smidgeon disappointed to not have a fur seal looking down at me, wondering what I was and why I was lounging in the grass. Maybe it’s because they all knew exactly what I was doing.

The world’s just spinning / a little too fast. / If things don’t slow down soon, we might not last. / So just for a moment, let’s be still.    — “Let’s Be Still” by The Head and the Heart

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“Based on your availability with the UAF school schedule, we’re thinking of sending you to the Pribilofs,” Heather said to me near the start of my interview to work for Alaska Maritime NWR in 2010.

“Oh awesome!” I responded, as I balanced my cell phone between my ear and shoulder while typing ‘Pribilofs’ into Google Maps. I had no clue which islands she was talking about; I just figured enthusiasm would be a good front until I could find the islands on a map.

Little did I know how prevalent the Pribilofs would become in my wildlife career. I was offered the position on St. George for summer 2010, so after a whirlwind month of friends, cabin life, running, and Outdoor Adventures work (outdoor guiding program for trips of UAF students and staff), I flew to this little island in the Bering Sea for 2+ months of adventure.

When I left St. George at the end of summer, having fallen in love with the island, a friend sent me off with a normal “goodbye” and less than normal “You’ll be back.” He knew I wasn’t done with this place.

Being in the Honors Program at UAF, I needed to complete a Capstone project. Being “smart,” I still didn’t know what to do for my project as I entered my senior year. Fortunately St. George was fresh in my mind, and I realized that there was very little information about the beautiful island I’d called home. With the knowledge I’d gained during summer, I decided I should make a travel guide. Unfortunately, I hadn’t asked all the appropriate questions about lodging, transportation, access, etc. while I’d been out here the first time, so I knew I needed to return to take more pictures and learn more information.

Fortunately, I was able to secure funding from the College of Liberal Arts and help from other sources to get an all-expense paid trip back to St. George that winter, thereby enabling me to share its wonders. And it was from St. George that I interviewed for and was offered the position with kiwi in New Zealand. Yep, it’s a special place.

Five years later – to the day – I find myself back out here, feeling a little bit like I’m in a time warp. Some locals recognize my face but think I was here just last year. At a gathering at the rec hall a few nights ago, one woman asked, “What took you so long to come back?”

Oh, just life. I’ve had many an experience since I last lived on this hunk of rock.

I simultaneously laughed and cried as I unpacked back into my cabin while my best friend was packing to leave for a year abroad. I biked to graduation, ate cookies and trail mix with friends during the ceremony, and earned my really expensive piece of paper that claims I know things. I traveled so far west that it was east and so far south that north meant warmth in order to work with kiwi and explore my soul’s home country. I wandered through Tiananmen Square during an 8 hour layover in Beijing and laughed to myself as I felt the stares of all the foreigners eying the lone ginger.

My summer in Fairbanks I learned how to find a cabinmate on craigslist and how to use a capstan, realized the extent of tourists’ cluelessness, rolled an ankle that has maybe been not quite right ever since, and made some new 2- and 4-legged friends.

Then I threw away my favorite cabin and left on what would become a somewhat annual tradition of fall forays away from Alaska. Yet Alaska always draws me back for the long-term.

Although I’m all about new experiences, sometimes it’s necessary to revisit the old to experience the new. I don’t know how Ryan knew, but he was spot on with his comment that I’d be back. Some places just have a power that make them worth returning to.

This came to mind a few days ago when I had a unique life experience for the second time in my life: butchering a reindeer that was shot from the herd here on St. George. Talk about déjà vu.

2015

Summer 2015

Reindeer

Reindeer butchering party in summer 2010












If I’d been asked five years ago where I would see myself today, I never would have guessed that I would be walking home to the Wash House after a day-long least auklet population count.

Then again, after everything St. George gave me on round 1, I probably owe this little island a few more hours of work.

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church

reflection of the newly painted Church of the Holy Great Martyr Saint George the Victorious

On that note, here’s a list of items relating 2010 to the present…

Remembered
0. The fog and wind are in charge of work schedules out here.
1. My shins don’t like St. George, especially the hike to the least auklet colony and up First Bluffs.
2. A hand warmer at the nape of the neck provides the glorious feeling of a hot shower.
3. The key to happiness is bringing a dry base layer top to change into (after a sweaty hike) before sitting in the chilly wind for a few hours.
4. You never know what you’ll find at the St. George Canteen. (store)
5. Northern fur seals are verrry similar to rocks, but they talk and move.
6. The Wash House where we live is a windowless cave once you leave the 2 bedrooms, and the fluorescent lights of the rest of the house are evilly bright on the eyes.
7. Whether you’re walking, driving a truck, driving an ATV, or running; wave ‘hello’ to people.
8. The boulders of the auklet colony and the tidal area of Rosy Finch beach are slippery as snot when wet.
9. Mmmm reindeer.

Forgotten but now remembered through experience
1. Windy fog and sunny fog are normal.
2. If you value your gear, you don’t leave a backpack or any gear away from your person when working. Foxes will find it and pee on it, leaving you very unhappy. (Poor Laney!)
3. When a PenAir flight is scheduled to arrive at 1630, you may call ahead to learn it’s new ETA is 1700, which is actually the same as 1800.
4. If I don’t tie my hair back out of my face, my depth perception will be completely skewed and I’ll trip on every one of the thousands of giant rocks on the trail to High Bluffs.
5. Checking least auklet nest boxes is like opening Christmas presents. Early on in the season you never know what’s inside!
6. For hunting: the reindeer tend to walk into the wind as opposed to with the wind.

Lastly, because June 15th was Nature Photography Day, here are photos from the cliffs above Zapadni Beach.

murres Zap

Mini murre army above Zapadni

murre

Thick-billed murre

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crew

Looking toward High Bluffs from First Bluffs, 16 May 2015

Now that I’ve been back on my original island home for a month, I figured I should recap that with which we’ve been busy.

Although my writing frequency doesn’t indicate it, this has honestly been the most relaxed month I’ve ever spent working in the field. I learned before coming back out to St. George that the red- and black-legged kittiwakes generally follow a 2 year productivity cycle of a good year of many nests, many eggs, and many fledglings and then a bad year with less successful reproduction. This year happens to fall in the low of the cycle, which is a bummer and yet also interesting for me to compare to my stint out here during the highly productive 2010.

We arrived – without a glitch in our travel – back on May 15th. We’ve spent the first few weeks getting settled, hiking to various parts of the island, resighting both least auklet and kittiwake bands, and mapping out the birds in our study plots.

For least auklets we spend a few hours sitting behind a little rock wall in the 100,000+ bird colony as we use binoculars to spot colored bands in various combinations on the birds’ legs. Resighting kittiwake bands involves walking along a number of beaches at the base of short cliffs or looking across/down from the top of high cliffs. We use both binoculars and spotting scopes to read their red/blue alphanumeric or numeric bands. Seeing specific birds over the years gives biologists in the office the chance to gauge the general survival and health of the populations. The oldest banded kittiwakes we’ve seen this year were banded in 1992, making for some pretty old seabirds.

Relatively early on we noticed we weren’t seeing as many unique least auklet bands as usual, which indicated another year of earlier-than-average nesting in the crevices the auklets inhabit. That put Laney to work searching for crevice nests, locating previous years’ crevices to check, and orienting herself to the colony.

In the meantime Jason and I have been puttering away with kittiwake resights and waiting for signs of nests. We witnessed a few days of kittiwake highways between ponds and cliffs as they flew around with nest material in their mouths, but nothing much has come of that early June action. When we look at the cliffs, we see a variety of things happening:

  • pairs “doing the nasty,” as one friend of mine puts it
  • one kittiwake just standing on top of its mate
  • birds sleeping
  • birds excitedly stomping down their nest material in the shape of a bowl
  • birds staring at their own feet
  • birds preening

What we hadn’t seen until the last week or so were any kittiwakes on eggs. Now there are well more than a handful up on High Bluffs and some on the cliffs just below town, but few of the birds seem that invested in incubating. Oftentimes we see a sleeping bird standing over an egg in its nest. The cliffs at Rosy Finch beach turned from a little city of kittiwakes to a ghost town in recent days.

2014 was supposedly the most highly productive season in recent years, so it seems that reproduction just may not be all that important to the kittiwakes this year. If that is indeed the case, determining whether our birds are sitting on eggs/chicks or not will be very easy.

The murres may be a different story, since their highs and lows aren’t nearly as extreme. We’ve been resighting their bands, as well, which involves praying they’ll reposition their stance in their packed places on the cliffs. (Murres have no concept of personal space whatsoever.) In local news I was told a thick-billed murre egg was seen today. They should start laying toward the end of the week, so we’ll see what they decide to do!

In our downtime we’ve stayed busy cooking and baking tasty things, trading field camp and travel stories, reading, birding, and wondering if planes bearing mail and food have landed or not.

I’ve also been slowly trying out my running form and running shoe transition. So far, so good with regards to shin pain. I don’t think I’ve ever fallen in love with a pair of running shoes, yet that seems to be happening now. When I’m in my lightweight Montrails, running on the balls of my feet rather than heel striking, I feel springy like a kangaroo! ‘roo shoes for the win.

The real driving force behind our work plans is the foggy weather. Our honeymoon weather ended with the month of May, and now we spend a lot of our foggy days entering data. I fully admit that the sunny weather was nice, but St. George didn’t feel like the home I recalled until the winds and fog arrived with June.

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Birding. For anyone familiar with the concept, it probably brings to mind stereotypical images of bespectacled young and old gripping their binoculars, scopes, and cameras for dear life as they search for the elusive bird in the tree, river, or marsh. Birders travel far and wide trying to catch that 5 second glimpse of a bird that enables them to put a check next to a name in their bird book.

That’s definitely not me. Yet ever since my second field job – for which I worked with black- and red-legged kittiwakes, thick-billed murres, and least auklets here on St. George – various friends and family members have teased or referred to me as a ‘birder.’

At first I rather resolutely refuted the label. First off, I don’t have the eyes, ears, or memory for details to differentiate amongst some species. Secondly, I don’t keep a life list: a list of all the birds I’ve seen over the years. Nor do I get excited when I see a certain bird for the first time, or what birders would call ‘lifers.’ I don’t check eBird to find out what species have been sighted at my upcoming travel destinations or where I should go to see specific birds. Until I graduated from college and asked for a pair as a graduation gift, I didn’t even have my own pair of binoculars!

If I am a birder, I’m definitely at the beginning stages. Over the years I’ve worked with field technicians who cover the range from wildlife enthusiasts to moderate/intense birders. I consider myself part of the group some co-workers have named ‘bird professionals.’ While we think birds are pretty awesome to study, we don’t necessarily choose jobs based on the study species. For me, birds are part of the bigger picture of the grand experience. Sightings and photos are all great, but a scar from a bird is worth more than a check mark in a book.

Lately, though, I’ve noticed a few things that make me acknowledge that perhaps after all these years, I’ve moved a little closer to the birding end of the scale.

  1. Just thinking about long-tailed ducks makes me smile! Their markings are adorable, and because it’s just so melodiously cute, their call is the only one I will randomly imitate. I got the Tutakoke crew to use it as a rallying cry in 2014, and a friend even woke me up with the call as a wonderful alarm clock on my final morning there last summer.
  2. The northern pintail who slept under my tent fly at Tutakoke in 2013 counts as my favorite neighbor of all time, which is why I may have slept in a 60+ year-old man’s tent a number of times in 2014. (Since the pintail didn’t pick my tent as a base, I had to go visit her new location while that tent’s occupant was out-of-state!) It’s not as weird as it sounds. Err – maybe it is.
  3. Ever since we’ve been on St. George this summer, I’ve had my eyes open for black brant. I spent 2 summers with them at Tutakoke, so they’re practically my summer family. When Laney called, “Brant!” from our room overlooking the waters of the Bering Sea, I ran to see a bird for the first time in my life. I ran for a bird of which I’ve held hundreds and seen thousands.
  4. I can sit in the least auklet colony of 100,000+ birds for hours without getting bored. Whether I’m looking for color bands on their legs or being entranced by all of the fly-bys, the antics of least auklets keep me entertained. Perhaps the best part is when a bird makes an abrupt landing on the rock “blind” and then either proceeds to chatter or jump up and fly when it realizes it has landed 2 feet from a human.

While normal life has its perks, the memories of living with birds for months make it balance out. Now pardon me while I go continue my summer-long hopeful lookout for long-tailed ducks.

*Sorry about the lack of pictures for the duration of summer. We have data-limited internet use.*

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