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.

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!

Saturday 17 June 2017, week 5: Buldir Island

Coming up with weekly topics is proving more difficult this year. Of course it doesn’t help that I’m struggling to balance it with my same two hobbies from last year, either; reading and journaling are still the evil culprits. Just to send all the blame away from myself, it’s also Kevin and McKenzie’s fault that I’m not writing. They’re always reading, so I want to always be reading!

Instead of forcing some topic, I’m playing my Get Out of Blogging Free card early this year. In the meantime, anyone reading this should go read a book. Here’s what I’ve read since leaving Fairbanks at the end of April:

1. The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud – Essentially about making the most out of life. I could relate to some characters more than expected.
2. The Sea-Wolf – I like being on ships but not with this captain. Life on the Tiglax is much better.
3. Finding Mars – About a Japanese permafrost researcher (based in Fairbanks) who has adventured and/or worked in Australia, the Sahara, Greenland, Antarctica, the Amazon, and Alaska.
4. Snow Falling on Cedars – From the list of options on my AP English summer reading list… I only got around to reading it over 10 years later.
5. The Pleasure Instinct: Why we Crave Adventure, Chocolate, Pheromones, and Music – Lots of science behind this. Interesting to read about babies’ development in the womb. 6. Me Before You – About life for a quadriplegic and his caregivers.
7. Astoria: Astor and Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire – About sea journeys and land expeditions from New York to establish an American empire at Astoria in the early 1810s. (If you’re looking for a book, choose this one!)

Currently reading:
The Possibility Dogs: What I Learned from Second-Chance Rescues about Service, Hope, and Healing – Not the most well-written, in my opinion, but interesting to read about dog training and various types of service dogs.

Being Clean

Tuesday 6 June 2017, week 4: Buldir Island

When driving to Seattle from Fairbanks on a free ride from Craigslist a couple autumns ago, my driver Jim told me that I’m pretty much the definition of low maintenance. Given my nature of being content sleeping on any surface, living without running water, and eating basics rather than going out, I’d agree that it doesn’t take much to cover my needs. It’s how I’ve been able to live as a semi-homeless seasonal wildlife tech.

With that being said, nothing beats the feeling I get during and after the first shower of a field season in a remote camp. It doesn’t matter that I just showered with 5 gallons – at most – of rainwater collected from our roof. This afternoon those 5 gallons made me the cleanest I’d been since the evening of Wednesday, May 24th.

Our first showers were a little delayed because Mother Nature had her way around camp while we were gone this winter. Upon our arrival on May 25th, we were happy to still see 2 cabins standing. However, our outhouse and shower had been battered and bruised apart and strewn around the area, therefore requiring some imaginative building. Know those “Paris is for lovers” shirts? Well, we should have some made that read “Buldir is for hillbilly builders.”

As Kevin put it, like a phoenix rising from the ashes – except a phoenix of plywood, buoy patches and spray foam… We resurrected our beloved shower stall on June 4th, using almost all of our remaining screws and usable plywood. Our side window was enlarged for more of a view of North Marsh, which is very important for cleanliness. My beach walk of buoy collecting provided us with patching material to cover holes and eliminate draft. Our shower won’t get any marks for architectural beauty, but its character makes it fit for a museum of field camp life.

The testing of the new shower didn’t commence until today (the 6th) because we hadn’t wanted to go to bed with wet hair, and we’d known our trip to Spike Camp, a 4 mile hike with a ~1100 foot climb one-way, from the 5th to the 6th would immediately undo our showers. That meant we all had shower dreams dancing in our heads as we hiked home today.

Everything about shower day is refreshing. Just filling the big pot with water to heat, pulling out the solar shower bag, and stocking the shower shelves with shampoo, conditioner, and soap gets me excited. Once I’ve climbed the ladder and heaved the bag onto the roof of the stall, I’m practically singing. Moments separate me from my departure from the smelly base layer I’ve been wearing for the last unmentionable length of time.

When the first spray of hot water hits, it’s heavenly – so heavenly that even the shampoo I manage to get in my eye hurts so good! Scrubbing 2 weeks’ worth of sweat, rain, dirt, and dead skin away is like starting a new life. Since I have more hair this year, I am a little more careful with my water usage so that I won’t end up with soap to rinse off and no remaining water. Fortunately I am so careful that my glorious shower even ends with a seemingly never-ending cascade to rinse under and savor. It just keeps coming and coming!

Wearing my clean “sauna day” clothes (holdover name from a previous field camp with an awesome plywood and visqueen sauna) makes me feel like I’m a whole different person after the shower. Cotton t-shirt with a hoodie rather than a base layer with my brown fleece vest or wool sweater, softshell pants rather than a base layer, quick dry pants, or sweatpants; and Salomon shoes rather than XtraTufs or Crocs. Most importantly, I’m wearing a real bra rather than a sports bra. It’s the best! Actually, the best part is that none of these clothes smell.

Now I’m completing my illusion of normalcy by drinking a dark and stormy as we enjoy a relatively calm evening in camp. Life is good because tonight, we don’t stink.

Saturday 3 June 2017, week 3: Buldir Island, 22:52

The most geographically isolated island in the Aleutians. The most diverse seabird colony in the northern hemisphere. The westernmost home of bald eagles. The westernmost volcano in the Aleutians. All of these extremes are descriptors of Buldir, making it my most decorated summer home. From learning of its existence in 2010 until last year, working out here had been a dream of mine.

Being so far west, Buldir’s draw for many is the potential to see vagrant birds riding western winds from Asia. In that sense, it really is a shame that I’ve deprived birders of the chance to work on Buldir last summer and this year. If asked, I’d probably consider myself a birder for about a day or two of each year. Contrary to what one would think, many people in my field don’t consider themselves birders. Fellow field technicians have referred to our seasonal cohort as “bird professionals,” meaning we study and enjoy birds but aren’t necessarily going to grab our binoculars and jump in the car if a weather system is predicted to bring an unusual mixture of species to a nearby area.

This week I did change my tune and act like a birder for the sake of our bird list and Kevin and McKenzie, who are birders. On Wednesday I volunteered to wake up early for our third beach transect, which is where we walk along the wrack line and survey down to the water and about 50m inland for songbirds. Gray-crowned rosy finches, song sparrows, pacific wrens, and lapland longspurs are the typical birds whose visual or auditory presence we note as we navigate the boulder field and tall grass inland of North Bight Beach.

As I approached our creek crossing near a small inland marsh, I spotted a shorebird standing in plain view on a log. Since shorebirds are small and rather difficult to identify because of their slight differences in appearance, I wished I had the birders along. (My ornithology lab quizzes on species ID were more than a handful of years ago.) It didn’t look like the dunlin, least sandpipers, western sandpipers, or plover species that I’d come to recognize from counting birds in California, so I was at a loss.

Knowing there was a good chance it was a vagrant, I dedicated myself to trying to note the details of its appearance. Naturally I’d not pocketed my point and shoot camera for my little half hour walk. White breast, red below the eye, black legs, reddish hue, very thin white eye ring, black on the edges of the primaries. I even voiced these observations in the hopes they’d stick with me and enhance my mental picture.

Back in camp I pulled out our Sibley Guide to Birds and Nat Geo’s Birds of North America. As I paged through the shorebirds sections, nothing stood out as being close to my description. When Kevin and McKenzie entered our main cabin, I didn’t say anything for a little while, knowing my attempt to vocalize the description would sound vague and unhelpful. Birds of East Asia didn’t seem to have the right fit, and I was starting to give up hope that I’d find a close match. By this point I’d shared my birding news and given a few details, but nothing came to mind to the birders.

“Check out Rare Birds of North America. It has pretty good pictures,” suggested McKenzie.

Bingo. Upon searching through its shorebird section, I came across the little stint. Out of all the pictures I’d looked at, it seemed like the closest fit. Unfortunately the book also said “On w. and cen. Aleutians and Bering Sea islands, rare or very rare in fall, exceptional in spring.” Had I managed to notice and identify an exceptional sighting? It seemed unlikely to me.

Having piqued the interest of Kevin and McKenzie, I walked them to the area where I’d seen the mystery bird. Somehow I was the first to spot it on logs in that same marshy area, and Kevin took multiple shots of it with his DSLR camera. As we looked at it, McKenzie made comments that seemed to agree with my educated guess of little stint. Knowing that the birders couldn’t ID it at first glance made me feel better.

That evening we opened all the bird guides to compare Kevin’s photos to various sketches. Before the evening was through, we all agreed that a little stint had decided to visit us that day. Little stint are quite the world travelers; they breed on tundra from Scandinavia across Eurasia to northeast Russia and then winter in sub-Saharan Africa, tropical India, and southeast Asia. A visit to Buldir wasn’t out of the question, either, as sightings were reported by FWS techs in 1998, 2006, 2008, and 2009.

Being able to add a little stint to our rare bird list was exciting, but that wasn’t the bird of the week for me. On Tuesday McKenzie had radioed me to let me know there was a long-tailed duck hanging out with some harlequin ducks off Crested Point. Long-tailed ducks are my favorite!! Not only are they adorable, but their call is also cute and the one bird sound I’m happy to mimic. Sadly I did not see my duck when I searched the area that day.

However, I did see it on Thursday, and thoughts of long-tailed duck cuteness distracted me so much that I nearly fell over as I continued my walk down our treacherous boulder beach. Birds are pretty okay!

Night One

Saturday 27 May 2017, week 2: Buldir Island

If there’s one thing I learned from last summer, it’s that I love riding the Tiglax so far west that it becomes east. Unlike everyone else on board, I hope for headwinds and troughs to slow down our progress and rock the boat.

Because my love of boat time is common knowledge, I surprised everyone – the ship’s crew, Kevin and McKenzie, a few biologists from the office, and myself – by electing to sleep in the cabin on shore for our first night on Buldir. The Tiglax had a spare day at Buldir built into the schedule, and since the weather had cooperated for a successful offload on Thursday, Friday would be spent re-roofing the bunk cabin, settling in to camp, and trying to catch some red-legged kittiwakes we’d deployed geolocators on last year. (Geolocators record where the birds have traveled.)

After a delicious dinner of steak, beets and squash, mashed potatoes, and salad – plus amazing boka negra for dessert – Andy drove Kevin, McKenzie, and me to shore for the night. We worked at unpacking our personal gear and a few more boxes before toasting our return with some Hop Slice Summer Ale and calling it a night.

Of course it didn’t look at all like night because (a) we’re in Alaska, and (b) we were still on Alaskan time. Buldir is so far west that Alaskan time is completely illogical in terms of daylight, so we normally run camp on Aleutian time. The confusing part is that the Tiglax will remain on Alaskan time for the summer, meaning the island and ship are in different time zones! (We did change our time only after the ship left to save ourselves from confusion.)

Tucked in a fleece sleeping bag inside a warmer sleeping bag, wearing one plaid shirt and hugging another, I slowly drifted off to sleep. Without the sounds of water sloshing, the ship’s creaking, or the engine running, all seemed very quiet. But then the middle of the night arrived, bringing with it the talkative community of fork-tailed and Leach’s storm petrels. I’d missed their flute-like chorus and screechy cries, and their sounds woke me up before sending me back to sleep.

Come morning, I was rather dead to the world. Knowing McKenzie had set an alarm for 7:00 ship time, I figured it couldn’t be much later than that when I rolled over and saw a gray sky that still looked darker than morning. Then I looked at my watch and saw the time: 7:50. The others had been so quiet about leaving the bunk cabin that I’d had no clue they were up!

I quickly changed from comfy clothes into field clothes, and just a couple minutes later Kevin came in to let me know he’d just talked to the ship. The skiff would be ready to come pick me up to head to Kittiwake Lane for bird catching in about 20 minutes. Sleepily I poured hot water in my HydroFlask for tea and threw a granola bar, raingear, XtraTufs, water, and camera in a drybag.

John, the ship’s captain, called over the radio, “Is Sleeping Beauty awake yet?” Andy would be headed to shore in 5-8 minutes.

Still not fully awake, I squirmed my way into my waders and float coat, then walked down to the beach. As much fun as it is to try catching kittiwakes, I wasn’t excited about leaving camp set-up to the others. Returning to Buldir for the 2nd (Kevin and McKenzie’s 3rd) summer does make it feel like returning to a summer cottage, and helping open it up and settle in is part of the fun.

Andy swapped John for me on our steep cobble beach, and then we returned to the Tiglax to pick up the other biologists. From there we took a bumpy skiff ride into the wind toward Kittiwake Lane and East Cape. Fortunately Buldir had saved me a treat for being the crew member to help Heather and Nora with kittiwake catching.

As we approached the area offshore of Main Talus, home of thousands of crested, least, and whiskered auklets, the aurora of auklets* approached and surrounded us. The scent of tangerines, the smell of crested auklets, filled the air. Streams of small birds rapidly flapped their wings as they flew just above the water; boating amidst so much action almost made it feel like we were flying with them. Lines and clusters of auklets escorted us across the waters of the Bering Sea, the quality of the real life experience surpassing the most spectacular Planet Earth footage. The rising and falling, twisting and turning of the auklet clouds was mesmerizing.

Our escorted passage couldn’t have lasted more than 5 minutes, but it made up for a cold, sleepy day of unsuccessful kittiwake captures on the windy, cloudy side of the island.

*See last June’s entry in the “Aleutians – Buldir 2016” category