Category Archives: Black guillemot

Black Guillemots mingle before getting down to business

COOPER ISLAND, ALASKA — While no year on Cooper Island is like any other,  so far the 2012 field season has been more different than most.  For that reason ( and also because Max Czapankskiy did such a good job with his blogposts in June) I am way behind in my postings.  In late June I took a rare break from my fieldwork to attend the Aspen Environment Forum where I was  interviewed on Talk of the Nation, and early July has kept me busy monitoring guillemot egg laying that was delayed and disrupted by falcons and fox. I will be describing those in detail later but wanted to first relate some experiences and thoughts about our first days on the island in early June.

This year I  wanted to arrive on  Cooper Island earlier than most years for a number of reasons.  Transporting two people, their gear and food the 25 miles from Barrow to Cooper Island is not a minor undertaking and can take numerous charter helicopter or airplane flights. Travel to the island is less expensive using snowmachines and sleds over the nearshore ice, but the warmer springs in northern Alaska have made  traveling over the ice after early June very wet and potentially dangerous.

Max and I were lucky that three Barrow residents, Billy Adams,  Billy Adams, Bobby Sarren and Craig George had the time to provide their snowmachines and extensive skills in traveling on sea ice to deliver us to the sand and gravel bar that has been my summer home since the mid-1970s.

Our early June arrival allowed us to set up camp before the guillemots first return to the island so that we could start censusing them immediately after their first return to land in nine months. Since 1978 the majority (typically >90 percent) of the colony has been banded with metal U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service bands  as well as three plastic color bands that allow identification of individuals with binoculars. Typically, I  will arrive on the island a week or so after the guillemots and by that time the birds have pretty much sorted themselves out showing the over 90 percent mate and nest site fidelity they have displayed over the past four decades.

As Max and I were censusing in the first days of the birds arrival I was glad to see that over-winter survival of last year’s breeders appeared to approximate the expected 85 percent, but was surprised to see that many birds were not at the sites they occupied last summer nor with their previous mates. I had forgotten that the period of arrival and initial visits to the nests is a time when one can see birds that do not even breed in the same subcolony courting like a well-established pair and birds will visit parts of the colony where I have never seen them before. So while our early arrival did allow us to determine what birds survived since last August, the information we obtained on very early season pairings and nest ownership was less valuable. Still for someone well acquainted with the 300 guillemots currently breeding on Cooper Island, it was interesting to see what they do and how they sort out before getting down to the serious business of the 80-day breeding period.

In the last two days the ice disappeared from the north side of the island with only a trace of white on the horizon indicating there is some pack ice about seven miles away. I have heard that arctic sea ice melt is approximating the record melt of 2007 and would not be surprised to see a polar bear arrive in the next week.

Learning to speak bird

Posted by Max Czapansky:
Ex-Microsoft employee wants to be a field biologist. Will he after his first season on Cooper Island?

COOPER ISLAND, ALASKA — The birds arrived on Tuesday, I’m writing this on Friday, and during the interval George and I have been walking the colony, taking a census of the guillemots. Which birds have returned? Where are they nesting? With whom are they pairing? We record these data points in our field notebooks, and then later compile them in the breeding bird books for 2012. Even having done this for three days, I still worry that everything in my notes is incorrect. We identify birds by reading the color bands on their legs, but what if I’ve mistaken light blue for grey? Determining nest site and partner is trickier because it requires reading the bird’s behavior. Has yellow-green-green staked his claim at site T-04 or did he just need a breather and happened to be nearby? Did green-white-orange chase light green-orange-blue to rid himself of a rival or was it a lovers’ quarrel?


Even an amateur can see these two birds aren’t getting along.

Wondering whether I’ve correctly answered these questions is a great source of anxiety. Each time I read an observation aloud I expect George to furrow his brow and tell me, “That doesn’t make any sense.” Fortunately, more often than not he instead says, “I saw the same thing earlier,” or, even better, “That was the pair that bred there last year.” This isn’t a credit to my keen observational skills; rather it’s due to simply how relatable these birds are.

It’s impossible not to fall for the guillemots. Pairs of them sit together in front of their nest sites chattering back and forth, or they take an evening stroll together. They seem so attached to each other it’s unsurprising to discover each year around 85 percent of them find their way back to their partner and home. They have other anthropomorphic qualities as well. Guillemots tend to prefer walking to flying over short distances, so one often sees dozens of what appear to be tuxedo-clad inebriates toddling around the island. And they have their pride. I saw a bird, while walking about, trip in view of potential rivals. He immediately got to his feet and charged them, as if embarrassed to be a klutz.

There are many skills beyond identifying birds for me to learn while I’m here. Soon enough George and I will be capturing birds for banding and later we will be recording egg-laying data. Hopefully the guillemots will continue taking it easy on me.

Special delivery for the birds

During the salad days of the Cooper Island Black Guillemot colony, in the late 1980s, there were 200 wooden nest sites, which I had created in the late 1970s with wood left on the island by the Navy two decades earlier. All 200 nests were occupied by breeding pairs and the colony enjoyed high breeding success — in large part due to the close proximity of sea ice and Arctic Cod, the guillemot’s preferred prey. During that time of “no vacancy” status and high prey availability, the colony regularly had over 150 guillemot young fledge in a single year.

Two decades later, in 2009, only one Black Guillemot fledged from Cooper Island out of the more than 180 that had hatched. The near complete nesting failure that year was the low point in what was a tough decade for Cooper Island guillemots. While the decrease in summer sea ice extent had reduced the availability of Arctic Cod and chicks were having a tough time getting by on sculpin, the larger problem was the nestling mortality indirectly related to loss of sea ice.  Polar bears began to seek refuge and food on the island as they lost their summer sea ice habitat and the subarctic Horned Puffins investigated the melting and warming waters off northern Alaska. The bears ate large numbers of guillemot chicks while puffins, while prospecting nest cavities, killed a similar amount. The wooden nest sites that had protected generations of guillemots in earlier decades now were easily flipped by bears and invaded by puffins, with devastating effects on the colony’s productivity.

There appeared to be no easy solution to the loss of nestlings. Providing 200 nest sites capable of deterring a hungry polar bear seemed like an impossible task. While I had long ago come to accept a rapidly changing Arctic, I had hoped that a seabird colony that had provided evidence of earlier changes could persist to monitor the even more drastic anticipated changes. While packing some field gear in a heavy duty plastic case in early 2010 it occurred to me that with some modifications these plastic cases might provide a secure nest site for guillemots. Friends of Cooper Island bought ten cases that year and modified them by adding an entrance hole and partition to provide parents access and nestlings a protected nest cavity . The results that year were impressive (see accompanying graph) with almost all of the fledging young being raised in the new nest cases and wooden sites suffering the same problems with bears and puffins as in previous years.

Our 2010 small-scale trial led to a major urban renewal project in 2011 with all of the “historic” wooden nest sites being disassembled and replaced with 150 Nanuk Cases generously donated at cost by the manufacturer, Plasticase, a Canadian firm that happened to use the Inuit word for polar bear to name their brand of heavy duty plastic cases. The response of the guillemots to their new homes was overwhelmingly positive with over one hundred nestlings fledging in 2011. Parent birds clearly felt more secure incubating eggs in the new sites, rarely flushing during nest checks, and loss of nestlings to either bears or puffins was minimal.

The success in 2011 led to Friends of Cooper Island obtaining fifty more Nanuk cases in March of this year to bring the island back to the 200 nest cavities it had in the past. The cases arrived in Seattle in March where they were retrofitted by Jim Gamache and Max Czapanskiy and taken to Alaska Air Cargo for shipment to Barrow. I was surprised when the forklift operator at Alaska Airlines, remembering last year’s shipment, asked me how successful the cases had been at protecting the birds from polar bears.

A few days later Jim Gamache and I traveled to Barrow where with major assistance from theNorth Slope Borough’s Department of Wildlife Management we made the 25-mile trip out to Cooper Island in early April, over the ice in Elson Lagoon. While wind chills earlier in the week had been as cold as –25 degrees Fahrenheit, we lucked out by picking a day with little wind and temperatures up to almost 10 degrees Fahrenheit.

The island was snow-covered when we arrived and will be until until early June . Thankfully, bears had not broken into the cabin as they have in the past. Snow drifts on the island were 2-4 feet high hiding the colony completely with the cabin the only point of reference on the island. We left the 50 new Nanuk cases next to the cabin and in early June, Max Czapanskiy and I will put them in the colony as the birds are arriving.

It is not clear that the colony will increase to its historical levels, as issues with prey availability still have the potential of reducing productivity irrespective of those related to nest site integrity. Readers of this blog can check in during the summer to see how the additional nest cases are doing — and if you would like to have a personal connection with the project considersponsoring a Nanuk nest case and receiving reports on the individual birds that occupy the site and their success in raising their young.