COOPER ISLAND, ALASKA — While the start of every field season is always an exciting (and frequently stressful) time, this year the start of the Cooper Island field season had more excitement than most. Preparations began earlier than normal as March and April involved acquiring, modifying and transporting 150 Nanuk plastic cases to replace the wooden nest boxes that allowed guillemots to breed successfully for almost four decades, but which in recent years have been destroyed by polar bears as they prey on guillemot nestlings.
The cabin acts as a windbreak so snow in this area melts slower than on other parts of the island.
While last year I arrived on the island in mid-June, this year a helicopter brought me out on June 5th. The early arrival was necessitated by the need to have the Nanuk cases in place before the guillemots are ready to lay their eggs in mid to late June. Setting up camp is always a busy time as one has to remove the items stored in the cabin over the winter and then set up the infrastructure that allows for a safe and moderately comfortable existence on the island. The order in which systems are assembled reflects their relative importance — testing satellite phone and antenna, connecting propane stove, charging batteries with solar charger, gathering snow to melt for drinking water, preparing cots for sleeping, etc. Establishing the camp is much more enjoyable than the rapid dismantling of camp at the end of the season and this year much more so because I was assisted by Penelope Chilton, who will remain out here with me until the last part of June.
Penelope poses beside a “palm tree” made of baleen whale teeth in Barrow before leaving for the island.
Penelope has worked on the Cooper Island project since 2007, entering the data obtained on guillemot adults, eggs and chicks in past years. This past winter she spent five months on an Antarctic island studying breeding penguins, skuas and petrels and before that worked on a Seattle-based beached bird study that quantified the species and number of seabirds washing up on beaches from northern California to Alaska.
Penelope’s presence has made a major difference this year since the normal early season activities of determining annual adult survival and mate and site fidelity has to be done with the additional work of deploying and modifying the Nanuk cases. The deployment has had its ups and downs. Older guillemots — some that have bred in the same wooden box for over two decades — are returning to find a small black plastic “suitcase” where their nest site used to be. Last year’s testing of the nest sites indicate that pairs will readily take to them once they realize what a secure, dark nest cavity the cases provide, but clearly some pairs are wondering what happened to their traditional site.
Black guillemots at the nest sites originally built by George out of World War II Navy debris.
Deploying the nest cases has let me understand that I have a “nest-site fidelity” that rivals that of the guillemots. In the past few days I have had to flip over or move nest boxes and structures I first saw in 1972 and have seen every year since. The 150 active nest sites that are being dismantled are ones that I have lifted innumerable times during my checks of eggs and chicks each summer. I know well all the ones I could hold up with one hand while grabbing an egg or chick, those that needed to be propped up due to their weight, the best place to lift each site, etc. Especially with those boxes that held the first ten nests I found here in 1972, it has been hard to move them to the edge of the colony and suddenly have them now be viewed as beach debris when for decades they were a vital part of the colony and I saw them provide shelter to over 70 nestlings over the years. In addition to the emotional impacts of removing the old nest sites the loss of 150 landmarks has truly been disorienting. A flat sand and gravel bar provides few visual cues as to one’s position and the boxes left out here by the Navy in the 1950s, that became guillemot nest sites over the years, were what I have used to know just where I was in the colony. Now with those landmarks gone, in recent days I have a number of confusing moments as I walked through what had been familiar territory. As a result I am going through the same sort of orientation period that the guillemots are experiencing.
In April, George traveled to Cooper Island to bring out the Nanuk cases, the new homes for the black guillemots. George gets some help from Billy and Quuniq.
While placing the plastic nest cases has been both emotional and disorienting, there is a good amount of satisfaction in knowing that this August the sites will provide protection to guillemot nestlings when polar bears are on the island. The Cooper Island colony used to produce over 150 guillemot fledglings annually, but due to polar bear predation productivity has drastically decreased. In 2009 only one chick fledged and in 2010 there were less than ten — all but one was raised in the plastic cases being tested last summer. The Cooper Island black guillemot colony is the only seabird colony for over 600 miles of arctic coastline that in the coming decades will see increasing impacts as climate change, oil and gas development, commercial fishing and increased ship traffic impact the region. Maintaining the colony so that guillemots can continue to be monitors of environmental change in the region will be possible if parent birds have the secure nest cavities that the new Nanuk plastic cases will provide.