Keeping Watch Over Seabirds at the World’s Edge

Author : iceedragon76
Publish Date : 2021-01-11


Keeping Watch Over Seabirds at the World’s Edge

The half-sunk ship looks like something torn off a steampunk dirigible. The masts and stack jag crazily. Doorways gape. Part of the hull, torn off, points skyward a short distance away, leaving a corroded warren of chambers exposed below midship decks. Sea flows through the gaps. This wreck is the Milos Reefer, a Greek cargo vessel that dragged onto the rocks in 1989 and has been marooned here, disintegrating at the edge of St. Matthew Island, a rugged, 50-kilometer strip of land in the Bering Sea far off Alaska’s west coast, ever since.

“Is that a kittiwake nest?” exclaims Marc Romano, squinting deep-set eyes to his binoculars, as we bob nearby in a skiff. Indeed, a messy puck of mud and grass crowns a mast, lorded over by a black-legged kittiwake, a small, gull-like seabird with black wing tips and a squeeze-toy cry. Streaks of guano roll down the deck from another nest, tucked into a corner. Guillemots careen out of broken windows toward us, forcing us to yelp and duck before they bank at the last second, as startled by the encounter as we are.

“Brand new ledge-nester habitat,” says Robb Kaler, joking that the crew should add the shipwreck as a stop on their survey route. The three men aboard the skiff, dressed in flame-orange and yellow flotation gear, are scientists for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, here to circumnavigate St. Matthew and its two neighbors, Hall Island and Pinnacle Island, over the next nine days to census some of the birds that nest on their towering cliffs. Some 1.6 million seabirds of 12 species arrive in the uninhabited archipelago each summer to breed and rear young. Kaler, a seabird biologist at the agency’s migratory bird office in Anchorage, and Aaron Christ, the biometrician for the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, scan St. Matthew’s precipitous coastline, divided into short sections for easier counting, and tally every kittiwake and pelagic cormorant they see roosting there. Romano, the refuge’s biologist for the Bering and Chukchi Seas, including these islands, keeps the skiff from following the Milos Reefer onto the rocks.

Romano slows the outboard and sneaks us between the wreck and a five-story archway of glossy columnar basalt, then motors an arm’s length away around another sea stack, its lichen-spattered rays of stone fanned like the feathers of a splayed wing. In shade, clouds of backlit birds above glow like fireflies. In sun, flocks of their shadows wheel and loop across the high rock faces.

wreck of the the Milos Reefer
The Milos Reefer, a Greek cargo vessel, wrecked off the northeast coast of St. Matthew Island, Alaska, in 1989.

“We get to see stuff like this a lot,” Romano says quietly as we make our way slowly along the cliffs. The refuge’s 37-meter research vessel, the Tiĝlax̂, delivers staff to some of the state’s farthest and wildest corners: the long arc of the Aleutians, slung across the Pacific from North America to Asia; the bird-spackled heights of the Pribilof Islands, some of the nearest land masses at more than 350 kilometers to the south of us. The scientists have watched humpbacks breach and killer whales devour seals. They’ve been pounded and tossed by storms. “But this,” Romano says, “this is really special.” Because St. Matthew is so far from anything and so expensive to reach, the Tiĝlax̂ has rarely sailed here more than once every five years, until recently. When it does come, the weather often makes skiff surveys difficult, with fog down to the decks or the sea hurling itself against the islands in 10-meter explosions of spray. On this July day in 2019, though, the water is glassy, the sky clear. We can get close enough to feel small.

“We are but a crumb on God’s table,” Kaler says solemnly.

“You’re reaching now,” I say.

“We are but a crumb in God’s beard,” he tries. “But actually, that infers that God’s male, and I’m not sure how she would feel about that.”

Brie Drummond (left), biologist for Gulf of Alaska and Alaska Peninsula units of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge; Jen Smola (center), deckhand for the refuge’s research vessel, Tiĝlax̂; and author Sarah Gilman (right) motor away from the Tiĝlax̂. 
Brie Drummond (left), biologist for the Gulf of Alaska and Alaska Peninsula units of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge; Jen Smola (center), deckhand for the refuge’s research vessel, the Tiĝlax̂; and author Sarah Gilman (right) motor away from the Tiĝlax̂.

When we return that afternoon to the Tiĝlax̂, Romano stays on deck for a long time, looking back. It’s only our first day; changing conditions could easily thwart the dozens of kilometers of coastline bird counts that remain. But he marvels again at the calm. It feels like permission, an invitation to witness another world.

That’s why we’re here: to witness. I’m tagging along as Romano and other scientists aboard the Tiĝlax̂ gather key local information to add to the reams of seabird data that refuge scientists and allies have amassed from Alaska’s islands and coasts over the last few decades—one of the longest, largest, and most comprehensive seabird monitoring efforts in the world. The aim is to track change, particularly in numbers and breeding success. Perhaps paramount, scientists hope to catch losses in time to determine what they mean and whether they’re possible to stem. And to know what’s lost, you must first know what’s there.

Watching animals is, of course, nothing new in Alaska. Indigenous people like the Yup’ik, Iñupiat, and Unangan, or Aleut, have long histories of relying on seabirds for eggs, meat, and skins, and have marked the birds’ arrival and progress at their breeding cliffs each season for generations. Western science’s broad involvement here is much shorter, and in many ways, it begins with oil.

In 1973, the US government set out to understand what was in the ocean off the nation’s shores, not for any grand scientific purpose, but because a new environmental law required it to conduct thorough reviews before it could sell leases to offshore areas for drilling, to weigh risks and measure impacts should a disaster occur. Up to that point, the Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska didn’t do much research on marine life, says Vernon Byrd, a biologist with the agency at the time. Then, a manager from one of the federal agencies responsible for overseeing the reviews told local officials that a tsunami of money was coming, so “‘you’re going to need to step up to plate, because this is going to be the biggest deal you ever saw,’” Byrd recalls. “Any [biologist] that could say seabird was hired.”

Among the generation of scientists launched in Alaska and elsewhere by the cumbersomely titled Outer Continental Shelf Environmental Assessment Program (OCSEAP) was Art Sowls. Sowls had just finished a seasonal job driving a garbage truck and doing other miscellaneous tasks in southern Alaska’s Kenai National Wildlife Refuge when the Fish and Wildlife Service tapped him to survey marine birds and mammals from a coast guard icebreaker. Though he had a degree in biology, he had never seen a whale, and he knew little about seabirds. But he became adept enough at the work that, in 1977, a government research vessel left him and a biologist named Tony DeGange on St. Matthew for a month with an inflatable motorboat, to conduct the first scientific census of the island’s birds. Still other teams traveled to the Pribilofs, to the Gulf of Alaska, to every island and cliff within reach. In 1978, Sowls led the compilation of a catalog the size of a coffee-table book with their findings: Alaska’s known seabird colonies, mapped by location and species, complete with population estimates. The catalog would be updated for decades to come.

Preparations for potential drilling moved rapidly alongside this basic descriptive work, and in the early 1980s, Sowls traveled again to St. Matthew. The archipelago had recently been consolidated with other wildlife refuges to form the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, some 2,500 scattered islands, outcrops, and headlands, nearly spanning the state and sheltering most of the colonies listed in the catalog. This time, Sowls—working his way through temporary appointments before ultimately joining refuge staff as Bering Sea unit biologist—was there to gather data for assessing the impacts of a land swap that would allow construction of an oil support base. Development scenarios for the facility, located on St. Matthew’s southeastern tip, envisioned runways, roads, warehouses, a harbor for tankers, an oil processing and storage terminal, pipelines, and more to support drilling in the Navarin Basin to the west. By 1984, the federal government had sold oil leases there and in five other Alaska offshore planning areas.

But it was becoming clear to many of OCSEAP’s participating scientists that simply knowing where seabirds concentrated wasn’t enough to understand how all this development might affect them. You also had to understand their behaviors and natural variations in their numbers over time. In the dry parlance of science, you had to monitor them in a systematic way, preferably for decades. For his master’s, Byrd set off for the Pribilofs to sort out how to do so there, building protocols as helicopters ferried oil crews and equipment overhead. When the Exxon Valdez tanker slicked Prince William Sound, on the other side of the state, with oil in 1989, things kicked into overdrive. “All those data that were collected by every kind of person in every kind of way, scattered around Alaska, and jammed together in the Colony Catalog, all of a sudden needed to stand up in court,” says Byrd. “And man, that got everybody’s attention. It wasn’t the purpose of the surveys to be used for precise evaluation of change, but they got forced into service because there wasn’t anything else.”

The monitoring program that finished developing in the years after the spill, largely under Byrd’s leadership as the refuge’s supervisory wildlife biologist, was designed to do a better job. Initially, it sprawled over 10 sites spread through the state’s major marine ecosystems where crews would monitor birds through most of their breeding season each year. There are eight active today. The refuge picked these places, among them the Pribilofs in the Bering, Aiktak and Buldir Islands in the Aleutians, and Chowiet Island near the Gulf of Alaska, for logistical reasons, too—whether they had a beach to land, a community or a spot flat enough to host a cabin where field techs could live each summer, and an accessible seabird colony with a good mix of species that techs could watch. Many sites were attractive because they could build on plots established during OCSEAP and pull in their data.

Crews count different birds at the same reference plots year after year to track visitation to each breeding colony as a proxy for trends in the local population of each species. Since many seabirds are long-lived, techs also record the minute intimacies of their lives, which are affected much more immediately by environmental shifts: when they nest, when they lay eggs, when their chicks poke their way into the world, how well they grow, whether they survive. To extrapolate over a broader region, scientists also try to briefly visit several other islands, among them St. Matthew and neighboring Hall, every few years to see how birds there sync with the consistently monitored colonies.

With some 40 million seabirds nesting in the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, the program still offers just “a little tiny snapshot,” says Heather Renner, who took over as supervisory wildlife biologist in 2011 after Byrd retired. But that snapshot captures something vast. Because different species of seabirds eat different creatures and feed from different parts of the ocean—some favoring plankton, others favoring fish, some favoring surface waters, others favoring deeper ones—their welfare offers clues about the health of different parts of their difficult-to-study ecosystems. If planktivorous birds don’t breed one year, for example, it may mean there’s trouble with the tiny creatures that many marine creatures depend on for food, with implications for everything from food web structure to commercial fisheries. “We have long touted seabirds as sentinels of the ocean,” Renner says. “Often you see a change first in them.”

Drone shot of St. Matthew Island.
Biologists in a skiff from the Tiĝlax̂ survey for birds inside a circle of towering cliffs on the northwest coast of St. Matthew Island.

But the changes the program began to detect after the Exxon Valdez had little to do with the Alaska oil development that they were set up to track. Environmental and fishermen’s groups defeated the St. Matthew land swap in court, and the oil base was never built. Eight wells drilled in the Navarin Basin were abandoned after yielding “disappointing” results. As of April 2020, the only active leases that remain off Alaska’s coast are in the Beaufort Sea in the Arctic, and Cook Inlet, southwest of Anchorage.

In the meantime, though, another type of hydrocarbon spill has become plainly evident, this one fluming through the atmosphere from automobile tailpipes and power plant smokestacks, leaving little on Earth untouched—including the already wildly changeable Bering Sea.

Surf gnaws at the bottom of a dark cliff on Hall Island’s south end. Every ledge on its 100-meter face vibrates with birds. Most are thick-billed murres, barrel-chested divers with narrow bills and sleek tuxedo plumage. They seem dignified enough until they open their mouths, unleashing a raspy, drunken guffaw: GAAH GAAaah Gaaah gaah gah.

Tony DeGange and Brie Drummond peer at the melee from an adjacent promontory a short distance away, where we hunker amid spongy lichen. The main breeding cliffs on St. Matthew, which looms a few kilometers to the south of us across Sarichef Strait, lack walkable beaches below and are too tall and too widely spaced for a crew to survey effectively from the land above in a short time. So the Tiĝlax̂ has deposited the pair of scientists here on Hall, where long-term monitoring plots were established on the cliffs decades ago, to count the island’s birds and check reproductive activity over the next week. I’ve come along for a day to see them in action.

Drummond (left) and biologist Tony DeGange (right), count breeding seabirds from a long-term monitoring plot on Hall Island. 
Drummond (left) and biologist Tony DeGange (right) count breeding seabirds from a long-term monitoring plot on Hall Island, Alaska.

“Well …” DeGange says reluctantly, as Drummond flashes a knowing smile.

“Should we just count and see how far apart we are?” she asks.

They lift their binoculars and fall silent, clicking furiously on metal tally counters. DeGange, who accompanied Sowls on that first census of St. Matthew back in 1977, has returned as a volunteer. Drummond, the refuge biologist for the Gulf of Alaska and Alaska Peninsula, got her start as a field tech for the monitoring program on a volcanic island called Kasatochi, where she spent a few seasons before a catastrophic eruption put an end to the seabird colonies there. This loyalty is common among techs, drawn into the work by wildness, completing seasonal migrations to and from their islands that mirror the birds’. As Renner recalled of her own early field seasons in a recent newspaper column: “I remember being told, ‘The first year you come for the experience. The second year you come for the paycheck. The third year you come because you don’t fit anywhere else.’”

“Shit,” DeGange curses, winding his tally counter back.

“I know, I just had to start over, too,” Drummond says, running a hand through her spiky dark hair as the murres’ cackling grows more mocking.

It takes several tries and nearly an hour to finish counting the plot and settle on numbers—about 540 thick-billed murres at this cliff today. The work requires enormous patience—counting nests, distinguishing individuals from jostling masses of black backs; sorting thick-billed murres from common murres; searching out the puffins and fulmars tucked into alcoves, tidy as bread loaves; counting every bird of every focal species within a set boundary, marked on a photo of the cliff face for reference. It can be uncomfortable, too, elbows braced into chest or knees to steady binoculars, shoulders hunched to neck, crouched in stillness until you get what you need. Then, you start over at the next plot down the line, and again and again across dozens of plots, and repeat the whole enterprise each day that weather allows over a set time frame—all to get a single average total count for each species across all the plots to represent the season.

But close attention also brings closeness; you notice things, Drummond says. “I’ve definitely seen murres incubating rocks. They kind of check ’em, and then nestle back in, and then they check ’em. And so you think, Oh! It’s an egg! And it’s a rock.” Or sometimes a murre will catch a fish and bring it back to the cliffs to feed its chick, only to find the chick gone, perhaps eaten by a passing gull. “And so they just have this fish in their mouths, and they just stand there looking really forlorn and confused,” says Drummond.

This time around, what Drummond notices is how few birds are here—there seems to be less than half of what’s visible in the old photos the biologists brought along to identify the plots. When murres incubate, they snuggle down on their eggs with their chests tucked into the cliff face to minimize the chance that the egg will tumble into space. Now, she says, the murres stand, casually eggless, and face the sea. Romano sees the same on St. Matthew: “They were reacting to the boat in ways I’ve never seen murres react to the boat before,” he says later. With no eggs to guard, whole cliffsides flush when the skiff is still 100 meters away—avian rivers fanning across the sky.

The archipelago’s murres have largely failed to reproduce.

Not all that long ago, a colony full of eggless murres would have been unusual. Among seabirds, murres are champions at breeding consistently, perhaps because they’re so versatile. They can fly far and fast, dive hundreds of meters underwater, and eat everything from krill to squid to small fish, insulating themselves against local environmental fluctuations. But they also must consume more than half their body weight each day, and the system seems to be changing in ways that flummox even murres’ flexibility.

In 2013, for example, an alarmingly warm patch of ocean water developed off Alaska and then expanded down the west coast all the way to Mexico—earning the nickname the Blob and the dubious distinction of being the most powerful marine heatwave on record. Common murres—similar to thick-billed, minus a white stripe along the bill—began to wash up on beaches in droves in 2015 and continued to do so into 2016, from Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula to Southern California. Bewildered birds showed up in driveways in Talkeetna, Alaska, more than 100 kilometers from the ocean; they turned up foraging in freshwater rivers. Mostly they died. Nearly all those collected for necropsy told the same story: they had starved to death.

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Volunteers, researchers, and wildlife rehabilitators ultimately reported some 62,000 beached common murres along the west coast, according to an analysis published in 2020, led by veteran US Geological Survey seabird researcher John Piatt. Since most never wash ashore, that translates to about 500,000 to one million dead—most in the Gulf of Alaska.



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