Category Archives: history

Work Worth Doing: Reflecting on 44 years in the Field

The Cooper Island Black Guillemot study was recently mentioned in an Associated Press story by Seth Borenstein about researchers who “accidentally” began studying climate change. A number of scientists measuring a biological phenomenon have encountered unanticipated effects from climate change and understood those effects were more important, both biologically and politically, than what originally motivated them to initiate their research. The 44-year Cooper Island study has undergone a number of changes before its current focus on assessing the decadal effects of Arctic warming on seabirds.

When I first landed on Cooper Island in 1975, I had no intention of studying climate change or global warming.

Neither the globe nor the Arctic had warmed in the decades immediately preceding the start of my study. Research at the Cooper Island Black Guillemot colony started as part of a large federal program assessing Alaska’s then largely unknown marine ecosystems in anticipation of leasing offshore waters for oil development. Cooper Island was the furthest north of many seabird colonies in coastal Alaska where biologists documented the extent and basic biology of the state’s seabird resources in the late 1970s. When that program ended in 1981, due to a change of administrations and a less urgent need to move forward with offshore drilling, it had provided sufficient information for the drafting of environmental impact statements.

In 1982, lacking federal funding, and possibly more importantly logistical support, I made the decision to return to Cooper Island to continue the Black Guillemot study. I had developed a real attachment to northern Alaska with its field seasons of 24 hours of daylight and sea ice always visible just offshore. Through annual banding of breeding birds and their nestlings in the late 1970s, I had developed a population of largely known-history and known-age seabirds. I was initially drawn to the study of seabirds having read the works of British ornithologists conducting multi-year studies at a single colony and documenting the life histories of individual birds. Such work is beyond the scope and timeframe of pre-development environmental assessments and of federal agencies, with their frequently shifting agendas.

Only in the third decade of research was there an indication that increasing atmospheric temperatures were affecting the Black Guillemot colony. Earlier snowmelt in the 1990s allowed earlier initiation of breeding. Climate change impacts rapidly increased in the 21st Century as decreasing sea ice and increasing sea surface temperatures reduced the guillemots’ preferred prey and greatly reduced breeding success. The least nuanced sign of Arctic warming, polar bears stranded on the island approaching our field camp, began in 2002 and this will certainly occur again this summer.

While monitoring the effects of climate change will continue to be the focus of the work, the study is now proceeding in ways never anticipated in 1975. Since 2011, we have deployed biologgers on the bands of guillemots to measure diving behavior during breeding and location and activity of birds during the nonbreeding season. That work is being continued and analyzed as part of the Sentinels of Sea Ice (SENSEI) project, which this fall will have our collaborators from France’s National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) hiring a post-doc to examine our demographic database.

Vicki Friesen of Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario has a graduate student, Drew Sauve, examining the genetics of individual guillemots and the heritability of the metrics we have obtained on breeding biology.  Drew recently completed a master’s degree on the heritability of timing of egg laying and is beginning a doctoral program utilizing the Cooper Island colony and database. He will be joining me on the island later this month to gather additional genetic material.

As I walked around the colony this past week in this 44th year of the study, determining nest ownership and dates of egg laying, it is extremely satisfying to know the data is part of a data set spanning six generations of guillemots and can provide unparalleled insights into the biology of an Arctic seabird experiencing a rapidly changing environment.

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.

In the beginning

COOPER ISLAND, ALASKA — While it seems like I have been at the Cooper Island black guillemot colony forever, there was actually a time when I did not spend the summer in Arctic Alaska wearing long underwear and worrying about polar bears for three months. George E. Watson, who was then a curator of birds at the Smithsonian Institution, played a pivotal role in getting me to the Alaskan Arctic in 1970, and to my finding the Cooper Island black guillemot colony in 1972. Last week George turned 80 years old and (while at this point of the summer it feels like I was born on Cooper Island) it is important for me to acknowledge (and thank him) for providing the opportunity to visit here almost four decades ago.

1970 was one of the last summers I spent in the Lower 48. That year I had an internship at the Smithsonian Institution in the Division of Birds. Having gained an interest in seabirds the previous year, when I spent the summer making shipboard observations in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, a Smithsonian summer program for graduate students gave me the opportunity to work with one of the few Americans then working with seabirds, George E.  Watson. I had no idea the first day I walked from my Capitol Hill room to The Mall (in 90 degree temperatures) that the conversations that day would forever change my summers and much of the rest of my next four decades.


Dr. George E. Watson

I found “Dr. Watson” to be both genial and witty as he welcomed me to the Bird Division, found me a spare desk, and then took me to his office, where he told me that earlier in the week he had been contacted by the Coast Guard, which was looking for a bird and mammal observer to participate in  cruises off northern Alaska. Oil had been discovered at Prudhoe Bay in the late 1960s, and the Coast Guard wanted to sponsor a scientific cruise in the Beaufort Sea before development of the oil field. Knowledge of the physical and biological oceanography of the region was minimal, and since construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline was being held up in the courts, there was consideration of transporting the oil by sea. Pre-impact studies were needed for a range of things, including the region’s seabirds.

As George was outlining the research opportunity of the cruises to me it was clear from the look on his face that he knew exactly how his presentation would affect me. As he asked me if I would like to participate in that year’s September cruise, with the potential of going on summer cruises in the two following years, he was grinning broadly, knowing that the chance I would decline the offer or tell him I would have to consider were nil.

That September George and I flew to Point Barrow and boarded the USCG icebreaker GLACIER. We spent the next month on the ship’s flying bridge as it moved through the waters of the eastern Chukchi Sea. Sea ice cover in the Beaufort Sea was so extensive that we were unable to proceed to the intended study area off Prudhoe Bay – demonstrating how ice conditions have changed in the past four decades.

Having George’s company on board ship, and certainly during the long periods observing from the flying bridge, spoiled me for what to expect for conversation and camaraderie in the Arctic. George had a wealth of stories about seabirds, ornithologists and his various travels to the Antarctic (where he had done most of his seabird research) and the Grecian islands (where he traveled due to his interest in classical languages, and became interested in the area’s avifauna). While George and I were cruising through flocks of Ross’ and Ivory gulls, pods of walrus, and even the occasional black guillemot (that even then I found fascinating as they fed in the spaces between ice floes), he would (as the number of sightings increased) frequently say, “And thick and fast they come at last. And more and more and more.”  I learned, only recently, that the lines come from the poem “The Walrus and the Carpenter” in  Lewis Carroll’s “Alice: Through the Looking Glass”.  I have no idea if George was quoting it because of the close proximity of large numbers of walrus. But he said this phrase often enough that now, 40 years later on Cooper Island, on a day when lots of guillemot chicks are hatching or sculpin are being brought in by all the guillemot parents, I will find myself saying “And thick and fast …”.

In the pivotal summer of 1972, when I found the Cooper Island black guillemot colony in early July, George did not join the cruise until later that month. He was with me on Cooper Island in August, when I found that a wooden structure I had turned over earlier in the summer now housed an adult guillemot incubating two eggs. I remember shouting out to let George know of my discovery, and as he approached he took out his camera and told me to point to the nest site. The black and white image he obtained really documents the start of this long-term study and — when I show it in a presentation — is always a reminder to me of the role that “Dr. Watson” played in my getting to Alaska and to Cooper Island.


The start of the long-term study

I wish him well on the occasion of his 80th birthday, and send Dr. George Watson my thanks for the opportunity he provided in the early 1970s, and for his companionship during my first three years in the Arctic.