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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.

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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

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