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It’s been a while since I’ve posted! I started my summer job on St. George Island, in the Pribilofs just south of St. Paul Island where I worked last summer. I haven’t posted lately since we still don’t have internet at our house (we are living above the old fur seal “wash house” ) and are only occasionally using the internet from the cottage up the hill – our dish blew down during the winter and hasn’t been fixed yet.

A view of town with High Bluffs in the background.

St. George has proven to be a pretty magnificent place. Yes, I used the word magnificent because it IS. The quantity of birds is mesmerizing. Literally. Sometimes I can’t stop staring at the sky and fall into a trance with all the birds buzzing past my head. Looking along the horizon at certain times of the day you can see streams upon streams of murres pouring home from foraging trips at sea. At the tallest cliffs, known as High Bluffs, which are 1,000 feet above the sea, the sky almost looks like it’s snowing because of all the red-legged kittiwakes. Inland at Ulakaia Ridge, the least auklet colony is almost deafening and the birds looks like schools of fish in the sky, moving in unison almost as if they are some sort of ameoboid life form. I have decided for now that the least auklets are my favorite on the island. Although the red-legged kittiwakes are close contenders for cutest bird, both looks and personalitywise, they just can’t quite compete with the least auklet’s charm. Any little bird that will land on a rock 12 inches from my face, look straight into my eyes, and then promptly ignore me and go about it’s birdy business will instantly win my heart. I love when birds make me feel like I’m one of them and nothing to be worried about.

Least auklets sitting on top of the "blind" (pile of rocks), the one on the left is yawning and the one on the right is looking incredibly tired of seeing my face.

Kittiwake demonstrating it's cuteness.

We’ve been having some extraordinary winds on Santa Barbara Island lately. The kind of wind that suffocates humans by vacuuming the air out straight of our mouths when hiking perpendicular to its gusts; the kind that makes the house shudder and shift; that turns the straps on backpacks into dangerous eye-blinding weapons; that sends people hurdling uncontrollably toward large patches of prickly-pear cactus; that turns tall grass not into graceful dancing stalks, but lashing whips; that makes gulls struggle and somersault in the air and spiral toward their landings like helicopters out of control; that embeds dirt so deeply into your skin, freckles you never had suddenly appear… the kind of wind that makes you feel as though you could lift up and fly… until it knocks you face first into the ground.

Although this wind has made our work much more frustrating and difficult to carry out, it has been good for a few fun “leans” – something Sarah and I picked up from the folks on Southeast Farallon Island:

attempting the "45 degree jacket lean" ... puffy windbreakers are better for this and unfortunately mine was too form-fitting to be much good.

Sarah bravely pulls off the "no jacket lean" ... pretty impressive!

In other news, we have successfully attached radio tags to two more Barn Owls and we believe we’ve found the nest sites of two of our earlier tagged birds (judged after seeing handfuls of adorable owls accompanied by our birds leave from the sites – cracks in the cliffs – just after dusk). In one case, we watched as each owl tried to leave the nest and got flipped literally upside-down against the cliff and had to perform awkward gymnastic maneuvers to right themselves just enough to fly away. Owls must love the wind as much as we do.

squinty eyes! flash makes me squint too.

 

I took a whiff of the back of this bird’s head to answer a question long ago asked – what do barn owls smell like? – and the answer is: dead things.

Another update on murrelet “shared housing”: hatched egg shells found in the site over the weekend!

More and more Xantus’s murrelets are leaving with their chicks, and although I have been lucky enough to see a few heads poking out of mom or dad’s wings and watch them bounce all around through our spy cameras (it’s like watching a security video screen, but way more entertaining), I have not gotten any full-body-cuteness shots. So I will share a photo Sarah took last year so you may all enjoy maximum cuteness!

two chickens! (one is unsuccessfully attempting to hide)

One more fun photo! This one has a story. First I feel like I need to explain that when I took this photo I was crammed between two narrow slabs of rock, laying on my belly with my head and hand crammed as far as possible into the opening of a nest-site crevice. I had to use my camera to see exactly what was going on at the nest-site since the angle was in such a manner that I couldn’t really get a full view. The LED on my camera lit up the site and provided a nice video screen for me to view from. I quickly noticed something that looked like a possible hatched egg with a dead chick in it… so I wedged myself further to get a better picture and watched with horror as the presumed dead chick sprouted multiple spider-esque legs and began to move. Being immobilized made this especially horrifying. I snapped a photo and wriggled my way out as fast as one can backwardly wriggle. Viewing the photos with one suspicious eye on the crevice, I eventually realized it was just a crab. Another shared housing situation.

murrelet body guard

Update on the “shared housing” situation! The Xantus’s murrelet seems to have won out against the burrowing owl:

Xantus's murrelet! As seen from the back-side.

We’ve been doing murrelet monitoring lately, so I’ve got a few more pictures of the little dudes sitting on their eggs…and one on a chick! Can’t see the chick though, just the hatched egg. I probably won’t get a chick photo as the chicks follow mom and dad out to sea two days after hatching! How can such a tiny creature handle the open ocean that soon?! Even baby murrelets are bad-ass. (I’m sure one of my co-workers has a chick photo, so I’ll try to provide one later).

nesting under a buckwheat bush

nesting in a crevice - hatched egg shell to the right

Xantus's murrelets lay two eggs 🙂

depredated egg - it is not uncommon for eggs to become mouse food 😦

And more evidence of the murrelet’s hardcoreness:

cholla spine in the face! OUCH!

If you’ve ever been stuck by cholla (which i like to call “the devil’s plant”), you can probably appreciate how much it sucks for that bird. Murrelets are clearly tough birds, evicting owls and withstanding cholla and such… but check out this Cassin’s Auklet!

DON'T TOUCH MY CHICK OR I WILL DESTROY YOU WITH MY LASER EYES!

I dunno… they both seem pretty gangsta to me.

So lately we’ve been doing lots of work involving deer mice. They are a native and endemic sub-species and the only rodent on the island – thankfully there are no rats! Last month we helped out Helen Fitting, a park biologist, with mark-recapture studies of the mice and then more recently we’ve been doing some mouse density studies for Sarah’s research using track tubes. It turns out that I LOVE deer mice. Or maybe I just love Santa Barbara Island deer mice. They are painfully cute and endearingly lacking in proper flight responses. After releasing them it is not uncommon to have one run up your leg looking for shelter or sit in your lap to groom itself before casually scampering off. They will even groom their faces immediately after you’ve punch a tag in their ear while you still have them scruffed by the neck. I imagine them to be a bit vain actually. Also – and this is probably a factor of the incredible density of mice on the island – it’s difficult to walk around without nearly stepping on the little guys. They just don’t seem to know where to run or if they should run at all. It’s not surprising that the owls are well fed these days.

A little juvy mouser hangin' out on my sleeve post tagging. (Photo by Helen Fitting)

Boys can wear earrings too. (Photo by Sarah Thomsen)

Okay, so we totally staged this picture of the mouse escaping the trap, but look how cute it is!!! (Photo by Sarah T.)

A scraggly cross-eyed mouser sitting in a coreopsus plant. (Photo by Helen Fitting)

Sarah setting up a track tube.

Next day results! Little tracks smudged in the graphite lining the tube.

In addition, we helped Helen catch some island night lizards (an endemic and threatened species) in transects with cover boards, which are kinda like lizard condos. It was a pretty exciting task as we were crunched on time and ended up having to catch them in warm weather… which meant the lizards were fast! The only way to catch them in such conditions is to move at the speed of light. Once the boards are lifted they run for the grass faster than you can blink. On one capture attempt I was so full of adrenaline that I didn’t even realize I had grabbed a mouse instead of a lizard (my hands worked faster than my brain). Upon realizing my mistake I screamed like a little girl (which was both ironic and embarrassing considering we had spent the entire morning happily – and bravely!- handling mice). Good thing I was still wearing my mouse gloves. 🙂

lizard of the spotted variety... of course they are practically tame and don't run AFTER you've caught them

lizard of the stripey variety

And while we are not talking about birds, here is a sea lion hanging out by the dock….

And a flower that I thought was really pretty (I got lazy and didn’t edit the photo quality, sorry)…

Annnnnd, since this is a bird blog here are some horned lark eggs….

Song birds are cool too I guess.

And a brown pelican to end on. 🙂

A graceful landing.

Not long ago Sarah and I peaked into a burrow at the top of one of the canyons and found this….

…its a Xantus’s murrelet egg… and a burrowing owl in the background.  The owl appears to be unsuccessfully attempting to hide itself. I wonder what will happen when the murrelet starts incubating this egg… will the owl get evicted? Which is the tougher bird? Or will they co-inhabit the tiny home? Seems like an awfully small space for two! I will have to report more as the story unfolds…

I was going to post lots more pictures and write more about some of the work we’ve been doing… buuuut its 4 am and I’m about ready to sleep! I’ve got the photos uploaded already, so the next post will be coming very soon!

Goodnight!

 

Care Bear Bank Robbers

Since the last post we haven’t been able to do much trapping due to some stormy weather and too much moonlight… but we have been able to keep ourselves busy with other work… and have only gone mildly mad with sleep deprivation in rare moments. One night we even had a greased hair contest. Sarah won at 13 inches of grease length.. mine only 11 inches. That was after 18 days non-washed. I won’t horrify you with photos of that but here is one that I feel encapsulates our typical state of mind.

We had a lovely Valentine’s Day out here with a beautiful sunset over the shade house…

And I even made Sarah a Valentine out of toe nail clippings…

Unfortunately we didn’t catch any more owls our last tour due to bad weather and had to leave on the helicopter again since the seas were too rough for the boat. Michael sent me a pair of aviators and Sarah found some old ones in the house, so of course we had to wear them even though there wasn’t really enough sun to make them necessary.

On my break I took a Wilderness First Aid course and got certified… this was one of my classmates:

Another one of my classmates let us stay on a Tall Ship the Bill of Rights that she works on and here is her cousin, Broer, playing guitar while wearing his kitten sweater. Unfortuntely I don’t have a picture of “First Mate Katz” playing her saw.

Since back on island we have had a bit more bad trapping weather, until last night when the winds were calm and the skies were dark. And we caught two owls! Huzzah! Both ladies again. They are nicely fitted with radio tags. We also got some night vision goggles and will be doing some “night ops” with those soon. Pictures to follow!

This owlette was eating a mouser (note the bloody talons)!

Sarah releasing owl spirits:

We also caught some mousers to test out our new track tubes we made… they are the cutest!

Also, a lot of plants are starting to flower.. so that’s happy.

I had a dream last night that Sarah and I were robbing a bowling alley while dressed up as care bears. The bowling alley had a stash of diamonds for their bowling contest winners. We got caught by secret service men. The man who caught me forced me to shave my legs before going to prison… I was pretty upset about the whole ordeal.

I forgot to smell the owls, so I still don’t know what they smell like.

Okay, so I have a quite a bit to say, hang in there if you can…

Our first tour of the the island was a kind of a let down. We spent several nights huddled in a cave on the side of a cliff with mildewed wool blankets we scavenged from the shop to keep us warm. We’d wait until about 6am hoping to hear our transceiver signal that we’d caught an owl. It signaled once — getting our hopes up after hours in the cold and dark — only to find the wind had set off the transmitter. No owl. Much frustration. Especially when very sleepy. I think one of the few things that kept me awake those nights (other than being horribly uncomfortable) was the need to scare away mice from getting cozy with me. There are some pleasant things about sitting in a cave for 9 hours…. like watching meteors, listening to whales breath, and having close encounters with storm-petrels buzzing the cave entrance. The sunrises aren’t bad either.

Sarah in the Cave

Sunrise over Catalina Island

We got delayed on our second tour due to rough seas and had to take the helicopter again instead of the boat. Here’s some photos of our super rad flight suits and storm-trooper helmets we are required to wear.

Pre-departure shot with Charlie the pilot

Flying to the island

We had some windy nights our first few days back and couldn’t trap. We preoccupied ourselves with other tasks such as helping to build the deck on the new nursery shade house and building some bal-chatri traps. We also decked out our decoy owl with some feathers to give him some flare and a bit of life. We named him Korben Dallas. Here he is eating the fake lure mouse I made:

Korben Dallas

Sasha relaxing after a hard day working on the deck

And here is a male kestrel that likes to hang by the house eviscerating his lunch on the visitor welcome sign. He needs a name. Something intimidating. Any ideas?

"Lay off me, I'm starving!"

And a pterodactyl:

Brown Pelican

So, here’s where it gets FUN! We finally caught an owl!  Here’s the pretty lady (with brood patch!) that we caught near the house:

"Help, please?"

Just before release. I am HAPPY! Owl about to be happy.

Moments after releasing her our transceiver alarmed that the furthest trap — up the steepest trail — had been set off. Sarah and I grabbed our supplies and set off at a valiant full speed race up the hill only to realize within less than a minute that we are not runners. Particularly not up-hill runners. And especially not with gear on our backs. We slowed to a very fast walk (we are at least good at hiking!) and when we finally reached the trap (gasping for air) we saw that there was only a single feather caught. Touché owl, touché.

Oh, and I have no idea what a barn owl smells like. I’ll remember to smell one next time.