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Posts Tagged ‘ambush technique’

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.

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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.

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