Friday, September 30, 2011

Introduction to Barren Island Updates

During the last two months, from mid-July to September 2011, I have been working as a USFWS volunteer monitoring seabirds. Our location was East Amatuli Island of the Barren Island Cluster, located 60 miles SW of Homer, AK between the Kenai Peninsula and Kodiak Island.

Star indicates East Amatuli Island.

The Barren Islands.

The following five entries detail my accounts of my experience working with common murres, tufted puffin, and fork-tailed storm petrels in addition to thoughts and musings on living on East Amatuli.

Barren Islands Update #5 (19 SEP 11)

First some of the breathtaking scenery of East Amatuli...
Freshwater lake on the east slope up from camp.

East Amatuli beach with the skiff tied out on the mooring.

Sugarloaf Island across the water.

Looking towards West Amatuli Island from East Amatuli.

View from puffin plot AC.

Work has fallen into a fairly steady pace out here. We had another 5-day rainy-windy spell come through a week ago. The last two days finally cleared up (we saw the sun!) so that we were able to take the boat out to the murre colony at the point to finish up our observations for the season. We expect this stormy spell to last for 2 days and then die out so that we can leave by the end of the week. Our expected pick up date is Friday, the 23rd. We’ll have a charter boat come out to pick the 4 of us up with all our gear (and there’s quite a lot of it!).

Looking downslope on East Amatuli Island with West Amatuli Island across the water.
The white tents below are camp.

Besides finishing up our field work, we’ve begun to pack and take care of things around camp that have been needing to be done—paint the cabin, demolish an old wooden tent frame that will be rebuilt for next season, sort through wood and take out old rusty nails and screws, and generally prepare the camp for 40-60 knot gusts to roll through. It seems fitting that our last week here we’d get another storm. This season has been very stormy, with just enough good weather to placate us and keep us from going insane indoors. Arthur, the field station supervisor, said that this last 5-day spell of SE wind is the longest sustained spell he’s seen out here and he’s been out here for 20 some years.

The finished tent frame and a view of camp.

Despite the weather, we’ve been keeping our spirits high by playing Yahtzee, watching episodes of the IT Crowd (a great British comedy), making pizza and calzones with iron skillets and our “hot box” oven. The hot box is literally an aluminum box with a door hinge that you place directly on the propane burner. The oven can usually get up to ~300 degrees, which is enough to bake cookies, bread, and other yummy things.

As for the update on the field front…. All of our TUPU (tufted puffin) chicks that we have been measuring are gone—the last two fledged or perished a week ago. Sadly, this was a bad season for TUPU chicks (on the plots we measured anyways). It seems as though many of them perished by otters or starved—many weighted less than expected based on past fledge weights. Hopefully TUPU’s on other portions of the island have done better. This otter problem is quite the dilemma still. There are at least 6 river otters here on the island (that we’ve seen) and maybe more. We’re seen 3 you

ng that seem to be from two sets of parents. There are otter trails all over the island and we often see tracks on the beach coming down the streams. I’m curious to know what effect the otter population has on the TUPU nesting success next year. If the otter population continues to grow, they very well might continue to decimate the TUPU population.

The COMUs (common murres) are nearing the very end of their nesting season. The last few times we’ve visited our plots, there has been a steep decline in number of birds. Once the chicks fledge, one adult--the father-- will accompany the chick to the open water where it will learn to fish for itself. The mother will stay on the nest site to protect their claim for the next season. Eventually, though all the adults without chicks will clear off the cliffs to take to the sea again. The unfortunate adults who still have chicks are left exposed without the safety-in-numbers that their fellow COMUs p

rovide. When this happens, the ravens and gulls, those notorious aerial predators, flock in. Yesterday we visited out plots for ~1.5 hours. During this time I witnessed a slew of amazing stand-offs between the one adult left on my plot (bird 32) who was still guarding its tiny chick. What I saw is that every 10-15 minutes one of the 20 or so ravens that was soaring around overhead would come down to harass and try to steal the COMU’s chick. Now this COMU had a very good nest location. It was tucked back in a deep rock crevice that formed a natural shallow cave. This one COMU was able to stand in front of and defend its chick, who was tucked deep into the back wall of the cave. I watched, breathless in anticipation, as time and again this lone COMU adult would peck furiously at the approaching raven, making sure never to lunge too far away from its chick so as to leave it unprotected. At times the raven would hop up on the ledge above the rock cave and try to grab the chick from above. The COMU adult was quick to respond to this shift in position and pressed its body up against the rock wall, directing pecking lunges upwards at the raven.

Photo courtesy of Sarah Youngren.

Now ravens are large birds, far larger than the common crow. They outweigh COMUs by nearly a half pound and their wing span is twice as long. Ravens are not interested in attacking the adult COMUs anymore than is necessary to steal the chick. They are cautious in their approach, even though they could muscle their way past a COMU if they really tried. I figure that those ravens were being cautious of the sharp peck of the COMU bill so close to their precious eyes.

During the time I was watching the COMU on my plot, I witness four ravens succeed in stealing chicks from other COMU adults. It was the fourth and final attempt that I witnessed of bird 32 that was the grim finale. This time there was not just one, but two ravens preying on bird 32. (I’m convinced that bird 32 would have continued to successfully defend its chick ad infinium if there was only one raven present). What happened, however, called into play the old divide-and-conquer trick. One raven, perched atop the ledge, under which the chick was hiding, drew bird 32 deep into the cave, while the other, down below, tried to find an opening to sneak in and grab the chick. Bird 32 would frantically peck first at one raven, then the next, again making sure not to lunge too far from its chick. Those ravens are awfully smart creatures and only by working together could they have succeeded in snatching the chick. I noticed that the raven below the COMU was not trying to grab the chick. It was trying to grab the wing of the adult COMU! After a few failed attempts, the raven grabbed the wing and pulled the COMU down far enough, that in the half second the chick was ungarded, the second raven was able to hop down and grab it in its bill. The COMU and the raven continued to scrap and fall down the cliff face as the other raven flew off, meal in tow. Needless to say, I personally was distraught, having become much too entangled in the fate of this last surviving chick. I swore at the ravens and slumped down pathetically, as if my favored sports team had just lost the playoffs after a long 7 game series. My one consolation was that the raven who grabbed that chick flew off to a location unknown to me to devour its winnings; at least I didn’t have to watch until the very end. Looking back, it’s amazing that I was able to witness the final chick on my two plots meet its end. It’s better than not knowing, I suppose.

After witnessing the ravens’ predation for the first time, I wrote this:

17 SEP 11--Ravens

Death glides swiftly on black wings. He soars up invisible columns of air against perilously steep cliffs. He lingers just out of sight above parents who protectively cradle soft bundles of life. He hops closer now so that they may recognize the face of the grim reaper who is to take their long awaited chick away. This chick, who has survived a steady downpour of soaking rain and winds reaching 70 knots for nearly a week, will now meet its end in the gleaming, glossy-eyed face of a raven cloaked in black. These murre chicks, who are one week, a few days, some mere hours away from fledging will never feel the swell of the ocean beneath their boyant bodies—the ocean they were born above and nourished by, the ocean that sang them lullabies on calm, moonlit nights. These chicks have seen the journey their fellow fledgers have taken. They have watched with anticipation the long fluttering drop down to the sea and they have heard the relieved chicks’ cries that were answered by anxious and proud parents.

This chick’s parents, however, are quiet now. They twitch their heads up and down in nervous motions, continuously looking down to see their chick, who was so recently tucked beneath their wings, now gone. In the mouth of a soaring raven is the dangling body. The raven lands and as the chick, still clinging to life, struggles against the assailant, the raven casually pulls out mouthful after mouthful of feathers until he is down to the thin neck skin. Peck, pull, peck, pull. A massive bill penetrates skin, severs fate’s cord and feasts on bright red entrails pulled from the severed body of its meal. A second raven begs of the first—a pitiful display of groveling that disgusts, not just me, but the feeding raven too, for off he flies with his partly eaten prey to find another place for death to perch. The sky is darkening in the fading sunlight, but that is not the darkness I see. All around me more ravens soar. Their shadowy figures continuously, constantly circling, evermore.


I love that out here the only drama is the stuff of real life--of living and dying, of attempting to raise young against the perils of storm and raven stomach. Despite having a radio and peripherally knowing what is going on in the world, our world is so small out here, so intimate, that it begs one to examine, “Just what is worth paying attention to?” I am quite content in knowing that I find the natural world, more than deserving of our attention. We’ve had a few good evening dinner conversations out here that have turned into thought provoking debates. One evening, we were discussing whether watching movies is a worthwhile behavior for our human species. Movies, it was argued are masterfully created to manipulate our human emotions, tug at our heartstrings, pull us in and warp, alter, or just generally dislodge our world view. This is arguably a good thing, but what happens when the drama created in movies becomes more interesting than the true drama, the stuff of real life? Well then, real life takes a backseat. If movies can more concisely, effectively, and cleanly inform us about all there is to know, then why would we seek out our own learning experiences, which are by definition uncomfortable (for growth is uncomfortable)? Why would someone willingly choose to live in an environment for 2 months, for a year, for their entire lifetime, which is, by all sane standards, uncomfortable, while he or she might just as easily learn about the experience via blogposts, articles, books, etc. . My answer? The way I see it is that living vicariously through someone else's experience has never, and will never, pass as really living. When we are faced head-on with the uncomfortable, the extreme, the stuff that brings one nearest to their breaking point, then, and truly only then, is when we fully begin to live.

Tide goes out at moon rise in Lonesome Cove.

As I have been writing this, I have twice needed to run outside to see the damage done by the 60+ knot winds. The tent that we use to shelter our boat gear (survival suits, gas cans, etc.) is threatening to blow off its frame. With every gust it inflates like a hot air balloon ready for flight. The stitches that I put in so carefully at the beginning of the season have ripped out in this final battle. The outhouse, which has already blown over once this season, has shifted nearly off its foundation, and would probably blow all the way off if we hadn’t caught it in time. Needless to say, using an outhouse made of plywood boards in a storm like this is unsettling.

Dan surveys our outhouse.

Lastly, the hut, which we pieced back together upon arriving to find it blown apart by the winter storms, has just had part of the wall blown off. We re-nailed in the plywood wall and have propped up wooden braces on the side. Now all we can do is wait inside, in anticipation of the next project which will draw us out into the storm…

Now this all sounds a bit dramatic, and it is, I suppose, but my reality is that I am safe and sound, drinking my tea and anticipating with much excitement the end of this final storm and the final days here. I am ready to return to the mainland and continue to share my experiences with people. I am ready for a nice warm shower and the delight of eating fresh, non-canned food! I won’t trade my time here for anything. I still know that I’m one of the lucky few who get to witness this island in all its varied temperaments.

This will be the last email I write before we leave. If everything goes according to plan, I will be back in Homer by this weekend. I plan to send out photos and upload some online once I get the time. I will be in Homer for a week before I fly off to Vermont to see sorely missed friends and loved ones. I can’t wait to see you all!

Thanks for taking the time to read all my rambling thoughts and be a witness to my experience. I am encouraged by knowing that I have an audience to write for.

Love to you all,

Margaret Alice

Barren Islands Update #4 (2 SEP 11)

It's been a little bit since I've written an update. We've been working long hours here (read 9 am- midnight some nights...) trying to get done all the field work before the weather turns bad (we have to be out of here by the end of Sept. because that's when the really big tides come in). It's been a tough adjustment to working these long hours after a 2-week break when our crew leader was on vacation. We worked as a crew of three while he was gone and worked more sane 9-5 hours. I'm beginning to accept that when you sign up to work a field season job, you have to be prepared to work long hours when the weather holds out and then catch up on computer work, etc. during the string of rainy indoor days.

Today is the begi
nning of a possible 2-3 day stormy spell. Yesterday we did some storm petrel burrow searching and took the boat out to the point (where the kittiwake and murre colony is) and did field observations. We made it back in from boating around 9:40 pm, just in time to grab some food and head back out to do nighttime storm petrel mist netting. The calm, windless nights that are suitable for mist netting are few and far between, so when the weather is good, we've gotta get out. We were out until midnight last night, but thankfully the storm and rain means we get to sleep in the next day!

The length of our season out here depends on when the murres stop fledging. We're making observations of murres to get information on things like chick hatching date, egg laying length, fledging date, site productivity (measured in how many nest sites produce eggs and then how many eggs actually hatch and fledge). Right now the murres have chicks and their nestling period is ~21 days, so that means we should be here another 3 weeks or so. When the chicks hatch, they stay with their parent up on the rock. The parents take turns leaving to hunt fish to fattening up their chick. Since murres are seabirds, they grow very thick watertight feathers that insulate them against the cold sea water. Once they are ready to fledge, the chicks jump off the cliff water into the water where they stay with their father learning how to catch fish in the deep blue sea. The fledging happens at night here, where the cover of darkness protects the chicks from predation by gulls. For this bird species, "fledging" doesn't correlate with "flying." Murres are seabirds, so they learn to swim before they learn to fly.

Common murre congregation.

The colony will dissipate by the beginning of October when the birds will head for open water or bays to spend the winter feeding in deeper waters. The young will continue to stay with their father until they are completely independent. About a week after leaving the nest site, the young should be able to start feeding themselves. The other day we saw a murre fledgling out in the water with it's father from the boat! The fledgling looks just like a miniature version of the adult, very cute. The adult dove down underwater to get away from the boat, followed close behind by the fledgling. It's a sink or swim learning curve out here. The chick not only has to make it out of the egg, they have to have attentive parents to feed them enough to fatten them up and be lucky enough to avoid being nabbed by one of the many gulls and ravens that cruise around the colony.

Here's our skiff at Lonesome Cove, where the murre and kittiwake colonies are.

L to R: Dan, Margaret, Arthur.

It's a very similar story for the tufted puffin and fork-tailed storm petrel chicks. The update on the tufted puffins is much more grim. We've been checking the same burrows for over a month now, returning to remeasure the chicks in order to calculate the growth rate and weight at fledging. What we've been finding though is that these chicks are either fledging early (they weigh less than they should) or the river otters have been digging them out of their burrows and eating them. We've found evidence of river otter predation--otter scat and chick feathers outside of burrows, digging sign, and one day we even saw an adult otter carrying off a tufted puffin adult from one of our growth sites. This otter was soon joined by two little ones who came slinking over the landscape in their amusingly slinky gait. That same day we saw another group of 3 otters, so we know that there are at least 6 otters who call this island home. That is plenty to wipe out these puffin nesting sites. Some of the burrows that chicks were missing from showed no sign of digging and were too small for an adult otter to fit into.

After seeing how small the young otters are, my guess is that the young are going into the burrows and pulling out the puffin chicks. We started out at the beginning of the season with ~28 chicks in our plots and now 3 are still alive. Some of these chicks we have found dead in their burrows (most likely due to starvation). Others have seemingly been eaten by the otters, and a few seem to have gotten fat enough that we can assume they've fledged. The number of starving chicks was surprising to me. There could be a number of factors affecting the chick feeding--the parents aren't finding enough fish, the parents aren't attending the nest vigilantly (possibly because of being scared off the nest by otters and people--us--coming into the area), the parent puffins are being eaten by the otters and thus are unable to feed their chicks. It's a grim story indeed this year, but even so we're getting valuable data by seeing a definite downward trend in the survival of these chicks.

One chick the otters didn't get.

Overall, it seems as though our impact on the terrain is playing a part is the decline of the puffin population in our study areas. The otters are using our trails to get around and evidence of them has been found in each of our study sites. This years' findings are going to have an effect on how future studies are conducted here. Hopefully we'll be able to come up with less intrusive ways to study these sites that don't have as much impact on the landscape, and thus do not invite in the otters.

In other news, I've been experimenting in cooking with seaweed. My favorite finding it that the very common bull kelp fronds make a delicious seaweed salad when you add sauteed carrots, raw peanuts, onions, and a sesame oil/vinegar dressing.

I also made a tomato-based vegetable soup with garbanzo beans the other night from the cut up bull kelp stipe (stem) and pieces of the fronds. I'd like to try pickling bull kelp sometime. I still haven't figured out a good way to dry out the seaweed for storage. We don't get enough sustained sunny weather to dry them outside, and when the rains come in, if the seaweed is hanging outside to dry, the fresh water washes out all the good salt and leaves the seaweed tasting gross. I'm sticking with using the fresh stuff for now. Luckily there isn't a shortage around here!

The end of the season is going to be a push to the finish. I'm working just to maintain my stamina so that I can stick out the long days! By the end of the season I'm going to be in such great shape from all this hiking! It's no light work out here, between the hiking, rock climbing, and hauling gear and the boat up and down the beach. I'll try to write again nearer the end of our time here.

Happy Labor Day everyone! I hope this email finds you well.


Margaret Alice

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Barren Islands Update #3 (18 AUG 11)

It's our first official day off! Wahoo! It's rainy and we're all caught up on work for the moment so we are celebrating with a day off. It's also a celebration because I have officially been in Alaska for one month, to the day. Yesterday we did some work with storm petrel chicks. This work is similar to what we do with puffins, but petrel burrows are much smaller with sharper rocks and a higher chance of getting your arm stuck inside.

The storm petrel chicks are young---about 1-2 weeks old. They are small, gray, unbelievably fluffy and will commence to squeaky chirps when you take them out of their burrow to measure them. Petrels are tube-nosed seabirds, meaning that they have a funny little tubes on the top of their bill. The type we have here are Fork-tailed Storm Petrels, Oceanodroma furcata.

Measuring the tarsus bone with calipers.

Notice the tube nose on this little guy.

(The aww... factor)

Downy stormy petrel chick.

These birds have rather long legs which they use for bouncing off waves as they feed on surface plankton, etc. They aren't that large, about sparrow-sized with rounded gray wings and dark smudged eyes. They feed at sea all day, returning to their nesting burrows to feed their chicks at night. For some reason the birds are phototropic, that is attracted to light, like moths. Apparently in past years stray petrels have cruised through our camp at night because of the lights. Their burrows are tunnels in rocky hilly terrain that are very well hidden. Our work has involved documenting the number of burrows in an area, noting whether they have chicks, eggs, etc., and then measuring the chicks every 5 days in order to get growth progression data. Our camp is in a sandy bowl with slopes on either side arching up to 1,500 ft. peaks. Along these slopes are storm petrel burrows. At night, after 10 and nearer to 11 (when it turns darker) you can hear the petrels returning from sea. Their call is rather squeaky and humorous.

One night we set up a mist net in order to catch a few returning petrels. There is a biologist with the Alaskan USFWS that is studying petrel diet samples. When a petrel is stressed, its reaction is to vomit its meal, therefore, upon hitting the net the petrel will puke up chunks of fish and very concentrated orange fish oil. Our job is to hold a jar up to the tangled petrel, catch the fish sample, untangle the petrel and let it go. We're trying to get 30 samples during the time we're here and so far we've gotten about 8. The puking is a little gross, but I enjoy untangling the birds from the net. It is very delicate work requiring a great deal of concentration and finesse. The trick is to untangle the bird as quickly, but gently as possible so that no damage occurs. It's a skill, like most, that one can only acquire with patience and practice. There is also the added challenge of working solely by headlamp.

Holding a storm petrel upside-down to collect puke sample.

In other news I've been great out here. The work is physically engaging and mindless enough that I have plenty of time to listen to music, think, dream, etc. It's such a wonderful "work" retreat. I still grapple with the question of whether I want to pursue a career as a field biologist. I think what I like more than anything is the lifestyle, living outside, self reliantly with a group of folks you need to depend on and work together with. It feels great to be able to harvest seaweed (something I've fallen in love with out here), haul water, minimize resource use, and live very healthily. I like the challenges that arise, that constantly remind you that you at the mercy of among other things, the weather. I like working with birds and learning more about study techniques. I think I have the head to do the work, but I don't know if my heart is in it. My attraction to this work feels above all selfish. I say that because it allows me to live in an extraordinarily beautiful, remote place and handle birds, both things that few people get to do. I am one of a few humans who invades the nesting territory of these birds to garner data for a brief season. Like all field work, it's a balance between diminishing harm done and maximizing good.

What has been happening here on this island is that in the past year, the river otters have caught onto using the human foot trails that have been worn into the earth by 20+ years of field scientists. These crafty otters are following the trails to the puffin burrows, digging into and stealing chicks from the burrows. This is a predator-prey relationship that is well documented. Puffins nest up high on steep slopes to deter otter predation and the fact that otters now have access to these burrows is not good. Apparently this behavior has just shown up in full force this year. One thought was that what we may be dealing with is one renegade otter who has decided to concentrate its feeding efforts on puffins, or has been pushed onto higher terrain by other otters or scarceness in food resources. It's hard to tell as we never even see the otters. We might set up a trail cam that could capture some images of the otter or otters. In the meantime, I am left to believe that the work we do here is valuable. If nothing else, we have a 20 year pulse of the health of the breeding sea bird population on this island. Yes, the birds would continue to live and breed here without us, unharassed and better off, but we hope that our impact is negligible enough that life will sustain itself.

I am comforted knowing, at least, that those who design these studies are very conscious of diminishing harm to the terrain and bird populations. As an example, in our work, we are shifting to using a camera to take photos of puffins carrying fish in the hopes of using these photos to identify fish species to get information on puffin diet. Currently our protocol to get puffin diet samples involved placing metal fencing screens outside of burrow entrances, leaving them up for 3 hours during which time we hope the parent returns to feed the chick, encounters the screen and drops a fish. After 3 hours we return, remove the screens and collect any samples. This has proved to be a very inefficient way to collect samples and one that does a great deal of harm to the vegetation for very little useful data. By using photographs (assuming they are clear and we can get enough) we can phase out the "screening" practice.

I'm so grateful to have the opportunity to be out here, exploring this work, this place, and myself more. It's a wonderful gift and I'm lucky to be here. I am interested to see how I feel at the end and how this will fit in with my life down the line. Science is immensely interesting to me, but my biggest hangup is this nagging feeling like collecting data, trampling remote, untouched terrain, and handling chicks that have never been touched by human hands is really all worthwhile. I'm sure this is something that many scientists ask themselves their whole career. It's good to continue to question what we are doing. It keeps us sharp and accountable.

Here's a question for you all, "What are the questions you are concerned with in your line of work, be it through your job or another life work you do?"

Warm thoughts to you all,


Sunday, September 25, 2011

Barren Islands Update #2 (13 AUG 11)

It's a misty, moisty morning here at the field camp. Low clouds began sweeping in last night and the mist has not lifted since. It's a slow morning-with-ginger-tea-and-a-book-of-O.Henry-short-stories sort of morning. It's August 13th, and a full moon tonight, from what I hear, although I'm not sure we'll be able to see it with this cloud cover. Two nights ago the moon rose full over the SE horizon. In one direction I could see the yellow-pink haze of the fallen sun while 180 degrees in the opposite direction the moon glowed white and whole. The time was 11 pm and still light enough to stumble to my tent.

View of my tent in the moonlight over East Valley Rise.

I've been saving writing about another piece of my job, partly because we've been so busy, and partly because I wanted to have a good chunk of time to write. What I want to write about is an activity we've all accurately named "puffin grubbing." Puffin Grubbing is by far the most strenuous, dangerous, and downright frightful part of my job. Let me paint a picture for you. Imagine a grassy vegetated slope at a 30-45 degree angle (sometimes it's as steep at 90 degrees in places) that descends down to the sea, becoming a barren rock cliff on its tumble to meet the surf below.

One of the puffin monitoring plots.

Upon this slope are burrows, that is holes with a diameter that would fit both your fists held together so that all your knuckles touch together. These holes are puffin burrows.

The entrance to a puffin burrow with a trail of guano.

They disappear back into the hillside at times taking sharp turns to the left or right, or else ascending rapidly up slope and beyond reach. Somewhere inside this burrow, if you can get to the end, is a chick--a tiny, gray downy chick with a huge black bill in proportion to the rest of it. These chicks are the gold we are seeking.

A Tufted Puffin chick!

So how you ask do we coerce them out into the sunshine world from which they hide? Ah, yes. That is a good question, to which my answer would be, we do not coerce them out, we go in after them. Into the burrow goes my hand, fingers probing forward first, touching the contours of the burrow as an image forms in my head constructing the shape of a darkened space unseen.

Let me give you one piece of advice if you ever reach into a darkened burrow, never, I repeat NEVER draw on childhood stories and fantasies and envision any sort of hidden creature that might bite, poke, sting, or dismember your unprotected arm. No, what you must picture, the prize you must imagine is soft and warm and might peep loudly when you poke it. Encountering a warm, downy fullball is the ultimate prize.

The unfortunate obstacles along the way include root hairs that brush and tickle your hand and large brown spiders that despite flicking all the ones you find far away, always manage to turn up again. You must not thing of spiders as you reach way back in shoulder deep, head pressed into plants, legs poised trying to keep steady, to keep you from sliding off slopes sometimes wet, sometimes not, but always leading ultimately to cliff side sea waves. There might be a time when a downy ball of fluff does not greet you at the end of the burrow. Instead you might be greeted by a sharp bite by a strong bill that grabs the meat on your hand below your thumb and holds on. Meet momma or poppa puffin and their way of saving "Get the hell out." It is unpredictable to guess when you will encounter an adult in a burrow which makes it all the more terrifying. Forget spiders and sharp rocks, I'd gladly take either over an adult. My hand is still healing from that first bite.

These burrows are so long and the puffins so tucked deep inside that I must call upon my tool box of tricks--that is my hoe. My hoe made of wire and duck-tape and has the general shape of a very long "L." She is named "Peaches" and her job is to coerce the chick to come forward, towards me. I also have a trowel for rockier jobs that require something a bit more rigid.

Puffin Grubbing Equipment: field book, trowel, and hoe.

Assuming there is a chick inside and assuming that with all of these tools is it possible to pull the chick out, then the science begins. Over comes Arthur (our supervisor, who has been studying the growth of puffins on this island for 20 some years for USFWS). Arthur meticulously takes measurement on this chick who is then entered into our chick growth and productivity program (a membership that insures a return visits, and measurements). Measurements included (culmen-length of bill, length of wing folded and open, length of primary feather, percent down on body, weight, length of tarsus-the bone connecting foot to leg). All of this takes less than 2 minutes and then the chick is placed back in the safety its burrow, a bit frazzeled, but with no other harm done.

We have found ~25 chicks thus far that we will measure every 5 days. Over the course of these two months we will be able to determine how fast the chicks grow and how large they are when they fledge. Chicks will die along the way. We have already found dead chicks in burrows, chicks eaten by otters, and rotten eggs. We hope not to lose any more chicks. The more chicks we lose, the more we seek out. We try to have at least 15 chick measurements throughout the season.

When I find myself standing on a ledge, arm fully hidden, shoulder deep in dirt reaching blindly into nothing, then I remember that what I'm doing is considered a job. Not only does Where's Waldo prepare a child for a life as a biologist, but apparently those boxes parents love to create around Halloween time, you know the ones with the peeled grapes inside that they tell you are eyeballs as they watch the distortion on your face upon contact, well (*parents take note) those are the perfect way to train yourself some little puffin grubbers.

Love to you all,

Margaret Alice

Barren Islands Update #1 (9 AUG 11)

It's right around week 2 of our 8-week field season and things are now routine. This is both a blessing and a curse. It's nice to generally know now what type of work I've signed up for, but the monotony can become a bit draining. On the bright side I've been finding numerous artistic endeavors to occupy my non-work time. Before leaving for this trip, I was sparked by some women I met on a tour I led at Nisqually NWR. These women were part of the Guild of Natural Scientific Illustrators and were in Olympia for a yearly week-long conference. We got to talking and it turns out they are both professors down at the University of California at Monteray Bay, where they teach a graduate program in Scientific Illustration ( If you search for Scientific Illustrator Program on the U of Cal website you can look through examples of their students' work. Prepare to be blown away! Anyways I was sparked just before I came up here, so I figured the only thing to do would be to bring art supplies with me and start working on creating a portfolio! And that's just what I have been doing. I have a sketch book, graphite pencils, watercolor pencils and watercolor paper (thanks Zeb!) and undistributed free time, a perfect combination!

I bought a copy of Betty Edwards, "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain," which is a phenomenal book for beginning drawers. She is an artist/teacher who believes that drawing is a teachable skill and is more about learning how to see than being skilled or not. I love that idea of learning to see. I'm finding that it fits well with my job right now, specifically monitoring common murre plots. We take photos of our plots and on rainy days use the computers to look at the photos and record bird postures. We are looking for indications that birds are incubating an egg. Murres have a specific way they hold their body while incubating. In order to get their brood patch (that is vascularized patch of skin used for incubating) on the egg, they must hump their back, round out their body, and generally look like a football. So our job is to go through these photos of rocks ledges where 50+ murres are crammed and record a posture for each one. I had the epiphany the other day that I have been training for this work since I was young by doing "Where's Waldo!" It's amazing how direct the correlation is between the skill sets needed for those picture puzzles and this...

Plot M4-F

My main point is that while the work here can be monotonous I have been loving being able to draw, read, and write poetry and songs on cliff tops. I might be realizing that I'm not heading towards becoming a full-fledged scientist, but I sure do like the work environment!

I thought I'd share a poem I wrote the other day while monitoring my plots...

8 AUG 11

Impressions of a Murre Mother

Under a rock overhang you lay, black beady eyes half closed,

bill tipped heavenward and wings folded tightly at your sides.

I can imagine the egg underneath you, the life you are sheltering,

growing, incubating with your bare skin.

Are you dreaming of the life abreast your feathers?

Do you imagine the time when a cracked egg brings forth a downy chick--your downy chick?

Are your instincts like those of a human mother or do you represent a more

distilled, primal sense of motherhood?

I look to you and see an image of responsibility, a clear sense of purpose.

You are feathered incubator,

mother of one,

guardian of the next generation.

Love to you all and more to follow later!

Margaret Alice

Monday, June 28, 2010

Red Sweater

One way to go through life is to pick a thread and follow it along until another thread falls in front of you and you grab onto that one. I find that I have a handful of colorful threads and a whole world of possibilities with what to make out of them. Sometimes I find myself wishing that I had all blue threads or green threads or even pink, just so that whatever I ended up making looked more cohesive.

There are people who walk around wearing bright red sweaters, that I know they knit themselves, out of gathered yarn. I imagine how their lives were planned out with the goal of making a red sweater. All they had to do was keep pulling and tugging on that red yarn until they had it spun into a nice ball of yarn to knit with. That's what I imagine anyways, but I'm sure that in reality, those sweaters are full of differently colored threads. There are surely traces of blue, ocher, gold, brown, maroon, teal, emerald, and periwinkle knit in amongst the brilliant red. The reason that the red shows up so well is that the people wearing those sweaters are the ones adding the hue of brightness.

I've seen one of those red sweaters folded and tucked away in the closet of a good friend. Its color was a shade above a muted brick red--dull and dampened. But let me tell you, once he put that sweater on, the whole room lit up and the circulation in my hands improved.

Today I found a scrap of red yarn lying on the ground. It was half buried in the dirt--frayed and neglected. I wasn't even sure what it was until I picked it up, but once I did, a drop of rain falling onto my palm cleared away the brown shades of earth and let the red shine through. I took that scrap of yarn and washed all the dirt away, then I tied it in a knot onto a safety pin and fastened it to my own gray, wool sweater.

(I found this tucked away in an old journal as I was packing up my belongings. What I like best is the image of every person I know having a red sweater somewhere, tucked away in their closets, or left, half-finished on the knitting needles.)