The nearly impossible 2020 field season

Maintaining a long-term study of an Arctic seabird on a remote island off the northern Alaska coast has never been easy.  Maintaining that study in 2020, when very few things anywhere in the world were easy, meant dealing with a new set of logistical hurdles and personal dilemmas and sacrifices.  Thanks to the extraordinary help of extraordinary friends, however, in this year of such disruption for all of us I am happy to report that, against all odds, we were able to collect data for the 46th straight year on Cooper Island this summer.

During March and April, when I typically would be preparing for my three months on Cooper Island, the emerging pandemic had me and the rest of the world concerned about our health and that of family and loved ones. The existential threat of Covid-19, combined with the isolation of lockdowns and quarantines, forced a reassessment of priorities.  In May, agencies and universities around the world cancelled Arctic research planned for the summer of 2020, for both the safety of researchers and the communities they would transit en route to the field. 

By early June, I had accepted that 2020 might be the first year in 46 years I would not be spending the summer on Cooper Island.  I told myself I would keep busy analyzing the decades of existing data and collaborating with my scientific collaborators in Alaska, Canada, and France, keeping in contact through “new normal” virtual conferencing. I could resume field work in 2021, if a field season this year was not possible.

For that reason, I was surprised – and elated – when two colleagues in Utqiagvik (formerly Barrow) contacted me in mid-June, wondering when I might be coming north and going out to my cabin on Cooper Island.  The close proximity of Cooper Island to the village of Utqiagvik (25 miles distant) has been a major factor in allowing me to study the island’s seabirds since 1975.  Even more important has been the logistical support and encouragement its residents have provided.  The indigenous people of Arctic Alaska have let me visit their land for the last half century and have helped me in innumerable ways. I have been fortunate to become friends with many Utqiagvik residents. That some of these friends wanted to know what they could do to help get me out to Cooper Island in 2020 meant more than I can say.

In mid-July, after a negative virus test in Seattle and one on arrival in Utqiagvik, I flew out to the Cooper Island field camp – arriving later in the season than I ever have, but extremely thankful that there would not be a break in the long-term data set.   Thomas Leicester, a student at McGill University in Montreal who had been on the island in 2018, was able to come out with me for the first week to assist in the major task of converting the 8×12 ft cabin from an overwinter storage shed to summer living quarters.  

Heading north from Seattle in mid July

As with most everything else in 2020, my first few days on the island felt unlike past years.  I typically spend the first week in the field feeling vulnerable and concerned about my safety as I accept the risks involved in living on a remote island with limited communication – and now regular visits by polar bears. This year was different in that, on arriving on the island, my anxiety decreased once I could take off my mask and pick up a shotgun, as I realized I did not have to be preoccupied with the social distancing, mask protocol, and access to hand sanitizer that had become part of my life.  While both Covid-19 and polar bears can be existential threats, the logistics of dealing with the latter seemed relatively straightforward compared to navigating through a global pandemic.

While my spirits were high at the start of a field season I had thought would be “impossible,” they were soon brought down as it became clear 2020 would again find me documenting the long-term decline of a seabird species in response to the ongoing decline of its preferred sea ice habitat. 2020 had the second lowest minimum Arctic sea extent on record, with only 2012 having less ice. Both the size of the Black Guillemot colony and the extent of Arctic sea ice continued their declines in 2020.

Only 36 pairs of Black Guillemots laid eggs on Cooper Island in 2020, compared to 80 pairs in 2019. Most pairs abandoned their nests during incubation with hatching occurring in only 11 nests. Surprisingly, fledging success for those chicks was high, with over 90 percent surviving to fledging.  And it is intriguing (and will be the subject of further analysis) that the successful parents were significantly more experienced (average of 9.2 years of breeding experience) than birds that abandoned or failed to hatch eggs (average 3.8 years of experience).   A long-term study of a colony of color-banded birds can provide insights like that while also allowing a personal connection to individual birds. One of 2020’s successful parents was a bird I banded as a nestling in 2001 and has bred (and shared the island with me) every year since 2003.

I feel so fortunate to have been able to collect this data, even though the news from the colony does not make one optimistic for the long-term.  There is much more to share about this past summer and the ongoing analyses we are conducting with our collaborators.  We look forward to including that in future posts and also during our Annual Update on Thursday, February 11, 2021 at 6 pm, which this year will be an online presentation from Town Hall Seattle.  While we miss seeing our Seattle friends and followers in person, this virtual event will allow us to reach a larger and more geographically diverse audience.   Town Hall’s virtual platform even allows for “audience” questions. We hope to “see” and interact with many of you then.

While 2020 frequently had our attention focused on more immediate concerns, there is increasing evidence of the reality of global warming and the need to address its causes.  Our long-term study of Black Guillemots continues to demonstrate the biological and multi-decadal effects of the loss of Arctic sea ice.   We remain hopeful that the new year will give all of us an opportunity to focus more on the major challenges ahead in confronting the causes of climate change.  And we want to thank all those who have made our research possible by providing financial, moral and logistical support over the years – with special thanks this year to the North Slope Borough, their Department of Wildlife Management and Search and Rescue pilots and crew, who made the “impossible field season” of 2020 a reality.

Red-legged guillemots and a problematic shearwater

Ardenna carneipes Photo credit: Ryan Merrill

On first sight, what most people notice about Black Guillemots in their summer plumage are their bright red legs.   The species could easily be called “Red-legged Guillemot” – were there not two other species in the guillemot genus Cepphus with red legs.

There are many good reasons to incorporate a field mark (a visible characteristic that can be used to identify a bird or other animal) in the common name of a species.  When first hearing of the Red-tailed Hawk, one can visualize the species in a way not possible when first hearing about the Marsh Hawk.  A field mark in the common name is especially helpful when two species have, as their primary difference, an obvious field mark.  On hearing their names, we instantly know a major difference between the Black-legged Kittiwake and Red-legged Kittiwake, in a way we would not if they were called Common Kittiwake and Beringian Kittiwake.

The colorful characteristics of birds, as a group, play a major role in their ability to capture the attention and appreciation of humans.  Descriptions of the variations in the color of plumage and soft parts allow birders and researchers to not just identify species but also determine gender, age and life-history stage while viewing birds at a distance with binoculars.

I had an interesting experience with ornithological color terminology in early 1969, when I had the opportunity to lead inner-city elementary school children on nature walks. In assessing the bird species we were likely to see and determining the field marks I should point out to the students, I realized that pinkish-beige legs or bills were described in the field guide as being “flesh-colored” – the reference clearly being to Caucasian skin color. It was clear to me that using this terminology would be inappropriate and insulting to a mixed-race group of students, and unproductive in my attempt to instill in them an appreciation of nature.

Many societal changes were occurring in the United States in the 1960s; and recognizing and addressing systemic racism was probably the most important.  My realization that some of the color descriptions used by the major field guide of the time were both offensive and exclusionary, caused me to write its author, Roger Tory Peterson, to express my concerns.  I was glad he took the time to reply, but disappointed in his response indicating he found nothing wrong with the terminology, in part because so few of the bird-watching community were people of color.

The activities and discussion inspired by this spring’s Black Lives Matter movement caused me to think back to my experience half a century ago. I wondered if the use of “flesh” as an avian color descriptor had been addressed or reduced.   It turns out it has not.  A Google search showed the term “flesh” is pervasive in describing pinkish-beige coloring in birds.  I also realized that, as a seabird biologist, I had commonly read about the southern hemisphere seabird, the Flesh-footed Shearwater (Ardenna carneipes), without thinking about the implications of the common name for that bird.

In a post this June to the listserv of the Pacific Seabird Group, an organization I helped found in 1972, I mentioned my 1969 experience, and suggested the time had come for the name of Flesh-footed Shearwater to be changed.   The post and the ensuing discussion had a number of results.  A proposal has been submitted by Alvaro Jaramillo, a biologist with the San Francisco Bird Observatory and educator/guide, to the American Ornithological Society’s North American Classification Committee to have the name of Ardenna carneipes changed, likely to Pale-footed Shearwater.   And eBird is apparently in the process of replacing the term “flesh” in its species descriptions as well.

The discussion of this matter made me curious about the origins and duration of our culture’s misuse of the term “flesh-colored.”  I realized that one of my favorite radio shows to listen to on Cooper Island, A Way with Words, might provide some insight.   I emailed them, the hosts of the show found it interesting that ornithologists were addressing the issue of racist terminology and nomenclature, and they invited me to call in to discuss the issue.  Their research revealed the well-established and overtly inappropriate nature of the term.  For instance, The Century Dictionary, first published in 1889, defined “flesh-colored” as being “the normal color of the skin of a white person; pale carnation or pinkish; the color of the cheek of a healthy white child”.  You can listen to the discussion, which was recorded shortly before I left for the field, at this link.

The misuse the word “flesh” as a color descriptor in ornithology is a good example of the culture signaling that white lives matter more than Black lives and I want to thank those who responded to my concerns about this issue, especially to Alvaro Jaramillo, who took the initiative to write a proposal for a name change for Ardenna carneipes.

A decreased breeding effort, but the colony persists.

This improbable 2020 field season is finishing its second week. As I anticipated, being back in Utqiagvik and heading out to Cooper Island helped make this bizarre year feel a little more normal.  But once on the island, my initial census of the colony quickly reminded me that, while the entire world is focused on the disruptions and dangers of the pandemic, the repercussions of a melting Arctic continue – as they have for the majority of the 47-year Cooper Island study.

In the late 1980s the Mandt’s Black Guillemot colony on Cooper Island had over 200 breeding pairs, thanks to nest sites we provided in the 1970s and 1980s.  The number of breeding pairs began to decline  in the 1990s with gradual decreases in the sea ice on which the species depends. In this century, major declines in sea ice – and in the availability of the guillemots’ ice-associated prey – further reduced numbers and has continued to decrease the colony’s breeding success.   

We did not see large scale nonbreeding and egg neglect at the colony until 2018 when, after record low sea ice in the winter of 2017-18, two-thirds of the 75 pairs in the colony did not lay or did not incubate eggs – essentially reducing the colony to 25 breeding pairs.  This colony-wide lack of breeding effort for seabirds is rare, symptomatic of a major reduction in an ecosystem’s ability to sustain a previously supported population, such as occurs at colonies periodically affected by El Nino.

In 2020 the Cooper Island colony has again experienced widespread nonbreeding and egg neglect and a reduction in number of pairs.  The 65 pairs present in the colony this year is the lowest number since the early 1980s.  Of those pairs, only 33 laid eggs, with only 18 pairs incubating.   This essentially reduces the colony to less than 20 functional breeding pairs – similar to the size of the colony when I began the study in 1975.

While this year’s findings are depressing, they are not unexpected. Mandt’s Black Guillemot is one of the few Arctic seabirds dependent on sea ice throughout the year and the reduction of Arctic sea ice has been pronounced and one of the most obvious indicators of global warming.  Arctic sea ice is currently at a record low for this time of year and the increasing atmospheric CO2 levels causing the earth’s warming are higher than they have been in 3 to 5 million years.

The signs that the Arctic is in trouble have been evident for at least three decades. The annual monitoring of the Cooper Island colony has gone from being something enjoyable, as when the colony grew and prospered early on, to now being something that is necessary, to document the continuing decline of a seabird and the marine ecosystem on which that seabird depends.

Given the state of the colony – and the state of the world right now – the discovery of the first guillemot nestlings last week buoyed my spirits more than usual.  Luckily for the current 20+ nestlings, sea ice has remained relatively close to the island this summer, even through a major Arctic cyclone earlier this week, and parent birds are able to find the ice-associated Arctic Cod that is their preferred prey.   The weight gains of the chicks over the past week provide hope that the 2020 season could end with high breeding success for the few pairs that were able to breed this year.  Focusing on the success of individual nestlings helps to maintain one’s spirits during a period when the state of the colony can be disheartening.

Sea ice close to Cooper on July 15. Photo: NASA World View

Friends of Cooper Island