Seattle science teacher returns from Cooper Island

Katie Morrison with nest box

Katie with nest box.

By Katie Morrison

Heading back to Barrow, we glide across the glassy Elson Lagoon and it is hard to imagine the wind-driven angry whitecaps that filled the lagoon just a few days before. But tonight it is calm and still and we travel with ease in our open skiff. I am glad to be wearing the precautionary orange survival suit, for though it is a lovely evening, it feels quite cold to me. It’s after ten o’clock at night, the sky is filled with shades of orange and pinks and purples, and the midnight sun seems not quite as high in the sky as it was a few weeks ago. Flocks of eider ducks race past our boat in long lines, framed by the colorful sky. As my boat pulls away from Cooper Island, I wave goodbye to George with Max and Penelope, who’ve just arrived to help finish the field season. As Cooper Island gets smaller and smaller in the distance, it is still largely present in my mind.

George banding Black Guillemots for identification

George banding Black Guillemots for identification

I’m excited to arrive in Barrow, have a hot shower, and fly home to see my friends and family and tell them my stories. But at the same time, I am already missing the peeps of the newly hatched chicks, the golden rocks on the island, the always-surprising site of the giant spool on the horizon of the West Beach, and the routines of field work.

During my stay, 133 chicks hatched in 114 nest sites. Since I have gone, 37 more chicks have hatched, bringing the current total to 170 chicks. It has been a good year so far for the Black Guillemots breeding on Cooper Island.  The retreat of sea ice has not been as extreme as in recent years and this means the guillemots’ preferred prey of Arctic Cod, which prefer cold waters, are still abundant for the growing chicks.  In past years, the early disappearance of ice resulted in a decrease in the Arctic Cod population, which led to large numbers of nestling deaths and low weights for those chicks that did fledge. This year parent birds have been bringing primarily Arctic Cod to feed their young and George, with field assistants Max and Penelope, has been busy collecting data about the prey sources. They have been deploying TDRs (temperature depth recorders) on parent birds that collect dive time data and where in the water column the birds are fishing. They are also using real-time photography and motion-sensitive time-lapse cameras to monitor and correlate the fish species being caught and brought back to the nests. Coupling the fish species identification with the TDR data, George will learn a lot about the condition of prey abundance in the Arctic Ocean around Cooper Island.

A Black Guillemot in possession of its favorite food -- Arctic Cod

A Black Guillemot in possession of its favorite food — Arctic Cod

I am anxious to hear if the Arctic Cod supply remains steady this year or if it begins to decline and the Black Guillemots are forced to switch to less nutritious prey for their young. I worry for the 170 chicks that need about a fish an hour to maintain their rapid growth rate so that they can fledge before the first snows come. In the back of my mind, I also worry about what this means for the overall conditions in the Arctic and how climate change is affecting the rest of the world.

A 2013 season Black Guillemot chick

A 2013 season Black Guillemot chick

I am back in Seattle and getting ready for the new school year, but in my mind I can still walk through the colony with George. I don’t own the story and details of each nest site (each with its own letter-number code) the uncanny way George does. But some sites still stand out in my mind:

C-13, the First Chick found in 2013! We were delighted to open the nest box and see this fluffy chick. How is that little one doing? As one of the oldest in the colony, has it fledged?

L-5, Katie’s Site. On one of my first days on the island, I discovered late-nesting birds in this nest box. Early on, the parents seemed unsure of how to take care of the nest and we would sometimes find the two parents together, flirting right outside the nest box, while eggs inside were unattended! They eventually settled down and the eggs should hatch soon. If the snows come late, there is a chance these late chicks could fledge.

O-2, the Mini-Mansion. In this site, the nest box sits at one end of a long, skinny upside down wooden floorboard, left behind by the Navy in the 1960s. The parent birds chose to nest under the floorboard and right next to (but not in) the nest box. During my stay we had three days of sustained high winds and one evening we discovered the entry sanded in and the two chicks trapped inside. We worked frantically to dig them out and were relieved to see that the chicks were fine.

I’m looking forward to George’s return to Seattle and hearing about the conclusions of the 2013 field season that I was so lucky to be a part of.

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