Category Archives: Black guillemot

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.

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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.

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Shedding some daylight on the winter range of black guillemots

SEATTLE, WASHINGTON — Declining daylight is a concern to many at this time of year as we turn our clocks back one hour and experience a stepwise decrease in late afternoon daylight while preparing for seven more weeks of increasing darkness. Day length in Seattle is now down to less than ten hours but is about twice what is being experienced by the guillemots that bred on (and, thanks to the new Nanuk nest cases, fledged from) Cooper Island this summer. The length of the guillemots’ days are on my mind this fall, and will be until next field season, because of an unexpected addition to the 2011 fieldwork that could be a major complement to what we know about Cooper Island guillemots.

Dr. Iain Stenhouse of the Biodiversity Research Institute, who has worked on arctic seabirds and now conducts research in Maine, contacted me in early August asking if I might be able to deploy six geolocators on the Cooper Island Black Guillemots. (BTW, for those only familiar with guillemots breeding in the nest boxes and cases on Cooper Island, this picture below of Iain’s study site in Maine, where guillemots breed in coastal rock rubble, demonstrates why the nest access on Cooper Island is so unique.)


Iain, Jennifer Goyette, and Lisa Eggert, of the Biodiversity Research (BRI) Institute looking for Maine guillemot nests on the coast of Maine. Credit: Jennifer Goyette

Geolocators are light-sensitive data loggers that measure and store data on the time of sunrise and sunset by day. The geolocators arrived on Cooper Island just as the nestling period was ending and we put them on six breeding adults using the same technique as Iain by attaching them to a plastic band of the sort used to color band individuals. Next spring after the birds are recaptured and the data downloaded, the daily latitude and longitude can be calculated using a process known as light-based geolocation. While not as accurate as systems that obtain a GPS position (accuracy for geolocators is in the region of +/-150 km) nor as handy as having a satellite transmitter, the geolocators can provide important information about migration routes, stopover areas and wintering locations — and for a rather reasonable cost per bird.


Close up of a geolocated on the leg of a black guillemot.

The data from the geolocators on our study birds should provide some interesting information on individuals that until now we only could monitor during their three months at the Cooper Island colony. We assume we know the general area where Cooper Island black guillemots winter — the pack ice of the Western Arctic.


Map showing the extent of the Western Arctic winter pack ice where black guillemots spend the winter months, but where exactly we don’t know. Red represents 80-100 percent ice cover and yellow represents marginal ice zone. Yellow pin shows the location of Cooper Island.

Having survived the Last Glacial Maximum (approximately 25 thousand years ago) in an unglaciated part of the Arctic Basin, they became year-round residents of the Arctic, living in recurring cracks and other open areas in the pack ice during the winter months. In winter guillemots have been seen and collected as far north as Point Barrow, where wind and currents maintain some persistent open water, while some go into the Bering Sea as far south as the Pribilof Islands. But we have no idea exactly where any of the individual guillemots from Cooper Island might winter.

One of the problems of using geolocators on species that winter near the latitude of Cooper Island is that the sun is below the horizon for about 65 days, so wintering areas might have to be inferred from late fall and early spring locations. While anything the geolocators can tell us will be interesting, the most intriguing data might come from the periods immediately prior to and after the breeding season. Black guillemots are found next to the sea ice in the Chukchi Sea in fall and the data currently being obtained by the data loggers will, when compared with satellite imagery of ice cover, allow us to see just how much ice formation affects late fall movements. Similarly, what guillemots do from March to May before their June arrival at the colony is a complete mystery. In April, guillemots are in the lead off Barrow in numbers, but when they arrive there and how they get there (i.e. in rapid or gradual movements) is unknown.


Cooper Island guillemots off Barrow having arrived from unknown wintering areas. Credit: Kate Stafford

We had an exciting time deploying the geolocators in early September as we captured six breeding guillemots still provisioning their young. Waiting for the parent birds to return with fish was made all the more exciting by the presence of a sleeping polar bear. Next spring will be even more exciting as we capture the tagged birds when they return to their nest sites. Assuming normal overwinter mortality at least five of the birds should return next June. After downloading the data, we will send it to Iain Stenhouse for analysis and determination of locations.

It is likely that geolocators will be used again on Cooper Island. Assuming the 2011-2012 results show the utility of the technology, there are a number of specific topics that can be investigated. Since the formation and decomposition of the pack ice shows a good amount of annual variation, it would be worthwhile examining fall and spring movements in relation to variation in ice conditions. Additionally, outfitting some individuals for more than one year could provide insights into fidelity to wintering areas. And as often happens once the technology starts to inform us about previously little known aspects of natural history, there is always the chance of a major surprise that could prove previous assumptions incorrect. Some birds could undertake major migratory movements after breeding — or some could winter much further north in the pack ice than had been thought.

We are grateful to Iain Stenhouse for thinking of our study when he found he had a few extra geolocators as his field season was ending and it is likely that the 2011-2012 data from our black guillemots will be just the start of their use on Cooper Island.


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