Santa Barbara Island

I finally got myself back on another island! Phew! I was going a bit stir crazy on the mainland.

I’m working for the California Institute of Environmental Studies and Channel Islands National Park with a lovely grad student, Sarah Thomsen, who is studying Barn Owl habitat use and predation of Xantus’s Murrelets. Seabirds and raptors in one job! Pretty awesome in my opinion. We’ll also be doing some plant restoration so we’ll be plenty busy both day and night.

We took the helicopter here last Wednesday and have been enjoying a full week of the island all to ourselves. More people will be showing up in 2 days, then a week later we’ll be heading off for a break. Around here people are expected to leave the island after 1 week… Sarah and both think that’s a bit odd and will be trying to stay for 2-3 weeks at a time.

So far we’ve been scoping out owl roosts and Sarah has been familiarizing me with the island and field station maintenance. We set out 5 traps tonight and are waiting by the staticy transceiver hoping to hear that a trap has been set off. Also occasionally going out for midnight stroll and visual check. I’ll post pics if we catch one! Until then here are some pics of the new home:

If you look closely, you can see our house in the back.

The other side of the island... and Sutil Island (which I think should be named Reebok)

Hiking up to Signal Peak


Sarah setting a trap


Long Time No Seabirds :(

I have not had any updates since I’ve been back in CA. I’m preparing myself for graduate school applications…. which means I’ve been studying for GRE tests and writing research proposals (so I can get lots of MONEY) so that I can go to school. That way I’ll get play with birds AND get smarter n’ stuff.

I wish I had something more exciting to write about… when my work load settles down I’ll try to think of something worth sharing.

Until then, happy trails!

That’s a Wrap!

The seabird season is coming to an end on St Paul. Least auklets are no longer hanging out in swarms, murre chicks are following their fathers and taking the leap of faith off the cliffs, kittiwakes are clumsily navigating the winds of the Bering Sea (and occasionally returning home to beg mom and dad for food… hmmm sounds familiar), and we’ve banded the last of the cormorant chicks that could be reached with our ladder.  Fox pups are turning into wiley teenagers. Seal pups are learning how to swim and flopping around in the surf. Even the carpets of every-shape-and-color-in-the-world-wildflowers are slowly fading away.  All in all, it was a great season that went relatively smoothly with all goals accomplished. In the process I only fell down three times: once fell in a cryptic hole, once got blown over by winds gusting over 30 kts, and  once fell over after stepping on a loose wobbly rock. I’d like to point out that John fell over several times per week (usually just walking on the beach), so I consider myself lucky (and more coordinated). Also, luckily, the handful of boulders that spontaneously morphed into large male fur seals did not eat me and their roars were merely empty threats. Oh, and the foxes only peed on one pair of my gloves and none of my other possessions, for which I am very thankful. Seriously thankful. Fox pee is perhaps one of the foulest, most pungent of odors on earth. I’d rather sit on a rotting seal than anywhere near my gloves.

If you’re at all interested in the project I was working on you can visit the following website: http://bsierp.nprb.org/focal/index.html – of course, I was only part of the USFWS seabird team and not involved in the rest of the project, but if you browse the website you can get an idea of what we’re working toward. Most of the work John and I did was setting up survival plots and collecting diet and blood samples. If you want to know why you can ask me, but I wont go into the details here. 🙂

Soooo, here are some photos that more or less summarize this season’s shenanigans:

Least auklet ready for release (and a bit puke splattered).

Red-legged kittiwake ready to fly away with her new winter data logger (photo by John Warzybok).

Red-faced cormorant siblings plucked from Tsamana cliffs and ready to be banded (photo by John Warzybok).

John catching a thick-billed murre off Tolstoi cliffs.

Northern fur seal pups waiting for their moms to come home.

Horned puffin at top of Zapadni cliffs.

Monkshood in bloom.

Further North

I failed to blog my last month on Tern, partly because I became overwhelmed sorting through my thousands of photos (and I couldn’t possibly do a blog entry without pictures!) and partly because I wanted to spend my last moments in paradise actually IN paradise and not in the windowless cave of the computer room. I have also failed to blog during my first month on St. Paul Island – I was hoping to do a retro-blog-post on some snorkeling in the French Frigate Shoals before I started talking about what it’s like here. But since I still haven’t sorted out those photos I’ll just have to move on for a while.

St. Paul is quite a bit different from Tern. It’s in the middle of the ice-cold Bering Sea, it’s 14 miles length-wise instead of half a mile, its got cliffs and peaks and caves, it’s got different birds, and it’s got LOTS of people! There is a population of about 300+ Aleuts here and we are living in a small town on the southern end of the island near the one little store and a decrepit ballfield. On the 4th of July we rode in the parade which involved driving the FWS truck through every dirt road in town and waving to people who were waiting to have pencils (red, white, and blue) and mouthwash and toothbrushes tossed at them. Why not candy? Maybe when the dentist came last month he made some donations for the parade. The best part of the “June-July” celebrations (as they call it) are the festivities in the field. All you can eat free halibut, crab, and hotdogs and all kinds of homemade side dishes full of the tasty imperfections that leave children with lasting memories of mom’s cooking. Kids haphazardly racing on retired bouncy buoys and messy games of egg-toss and the heaving-stumbling-jolted laughter of tug-of-war matches. Stern concentration in the faces of overly competitive men practicing for the 2 by 4 race shouting, “left! right! left! right!” Crowds of haggling towns-folk gathered around the greased wooden pole watching as contestant after contestant desperately throws his body at 4 inch deep Crisco and defeatedly slips back down to the earth. All in all it’s a bizarre little town, but with friendly people that wave as we pass by and bring us fresh reindeer and fish. No one has brought us fresh fur seal meat yet, but I think I’m okay with that. Though I do wish someone would bring us a red-legged kittiwake to try, since I hear they’re supposed to taste pretty good.

The work here is very different from Tern. We don’t live in the middle of the colony and have to commute to the cliffs on our ATVs and then hike a little ways down to the beaches and sometimes about 8 miles round trip if we go to places further off the road. Usually we hang out at the base of cliffs and pluck birds from their nests to collect diet and blood samples, then slap on some bands so that they can be monitored for years to come. They usually return to the nest pretty quickly to sit back down on their chick so we don’t feel too badly about poking and proding them for 15 minutes. Yesterday we tried to set up a snare to get back a geolocator on a black-legged kittiwake whose nest had failed (we usually catch them with a noose pole, but if the bird isn’t sitting on a chick that method is almost impossible without flushing the bird).  To set the snare you have to balance a ladder precariously on some wobbly uneven rocks and climb up about 20 feet. In effort to preserve the life of his assistant (me), John volunteered himself up the ladder. A nice gesture, though I think I was more nervous being responsible for the stability of the ladder at the base while some rather large surf was splashing at my feet! Next time we’ll be sure to check the tides and swells before heading out! I don’t want to swim in the Bering Sea. At least not on a foggy day.

Tern is a very small island, so you’d think it would get a bit claustrophobic at times, but its pretty hard to feel that way when surrounded by the vastness of the ocean. Especially when that ocean is fully explorable if you hop on a boat or slap on a snorkel mask and fins. But the weather does always permit such activities, and neither does our work schedule. So in the free time after work hours we are usually limited to shorter activities such as: reading, taking the trikes for a spin (picture), pretending to be photographers, sunbathing, jumping off the dolphin (see picture), watching movies, shooting pool, playing ping pong or foozball, playing guitar (the Tern version of Wagon Wheel was a favorite for a while), or just blasting tunes and dancing in the kitchen. Every now and then we get into a wild game of Spoons or build a fort in the living room. There is always some way to find entertainment, and we’ve got it pretty good out here.


Semi-synchronized dolphin jumping.

Cookies and tea in the fort.

The “town of tern” consists of a handful of buildings on the southeast end of the island. The warehouse, the barracks, the tractor shed, and the boathouse. I’ll talk a little about the barracks since that’s our home. It’s a termite-cockroach-ant-insectofyourchoice infested building raised on concrete blocks and steadily rotting and falling apart. The front door doesn’t fully shut due to cracks in the concrete around the frame. In fact, the concrete on the deck actually fell through (unfortunately for Paula, as she went down with it) a few months ago because of the rusted internal rebar that eventually disintegrated. The salt eats and rots everything out here. And if its wood, the termites gobble it up  until its there is nothing left but a flimsy exoskeleton that occasionally spits out termite turds – a good reason to always wash dishes directly from the cupboard. That said, the place is actually quite lovely with beautiful paintings all around and loads of dead things to decorate with. Biologists love to have dried baby sea turtles and frigatebird skulls as household accessories. Plus the geckos that race around the walls also provide a nice touch and entertainment value when they fall from the ceiling (though they are yet another reason to always wash dishes before use… gecko turds on the baking sheet or cutting board doesn’t taste so good). It’s nice to not feel completely indoors when in the house. The rain coming through the roof also adds to that effect. Though anytime there is a roof over my head, leaky or not, I feel I’m living like a queen.

Tearing up the rotting/termite eaten deck.

Kitchen art...you can see the pool table and biology area in the background.

My Room

The other side of my room... with Alex's fish paintings.

The food situation on Tern is also worth mentioning. And I must give the disclaimer that the food is actually not as bad as I make it sound. We have TONS of food and spices and gadgets to cook it with, its just that some of the edibles are a little scary. The policy is to eat the oldest foods first, which usually means the freezer burned chicken or the rusted canned good that expired in 2004. If its even marginally edible, we eat it. The sauce is brown when its supposed to be red- that’s OK! The canned mandarins have white freckles – it’ll make your stomach stronger! The sour cream from the freezer looks like sand with consistency of milk – I’ll have another serving please! We had a shipment of food last week! Hadn’t had one since March. I can’t even express how nice it is to have some fruit that isn’t saturated in corn syrup. And some veggies that don’t taste like a tin can. I realize that I shouldn’t be complaining at all, considering that food is food and no one is starving out here. I’m just a ridiculously spoiled girl from California, used to eating my locally grown fresh organic produce. But I have adapted well out here, and I have to say, I haven’t had a meal yet that wasn’t deeeelicious. We take turns cooking every night (expect Sundays…that everyones’ day off from everything), and the plates are always licked clean. And there is almost always dessert. And about 10 cups of tea consumed per person per day. Usually herbal for me, except I stay away from the chamomile tea bags that smell like mildew (because they have probably rotted).

Just a small section of the Food Room.

Any excuse for cake.


Water and electricity are things we like to conserve out here. There are 5 tanks of water, not all full, and some leaky. So we do limit our use. Most people only shower once a week (not too necessary when you jump in the ocean a lot) and laundry is usually done every 2 weeks. We have a high efficiency washer now! The only thing water isn’t spared on is washing food wrappers (anything that has a trace of food must be washed and hung to dry to prevent bugs from taking over the house). When mopping the entire barracks we usually only change the water once. And it usually looks like mud when we’re done (so I’m never really sure how clean the house actually gets on cleaning day – which is every Thursday- though it does look cleaner). We have solar panels on the roof which provide our energy, so we get yelled at frequently for any lights left on and we can’t do things like run the coffee machine and the toaster at the same time. But thank goodness we have those things to begin with! I dont drink much coffee, but I am thankful the coffee drinkers here can get their fixes.

Alright… that’s enough for now! Congratulations if you managed to read all of that!

Jumping off a sand bar on Disappearing Island.

Busy, busy, busy!

I’ve slacked a lot on the blog lately… the end of my time on Tern is coming up really fast (less than a month!), so I’ve been spending more time enjoying the sights outside and less time looking into the computer screen inside.

Albatross chick banding has begun and we’ve been wandering around the colony plucking the featheriest chickens from the ground and furnishing them with our finest, fanciest jewelry- compliments of USFWS.  Yesterday we got a bit of rain mid-banding which cast a lovely double rainbow over the island. The chicks get pretty excited when it rains and simultaneously start flapping their monkey arms, which is quite adorable, and some even try to eat the raindrops, which is even more adorable.

In other news, the sooties have started using my head as a landing pad… and taking a ride through my plots with me.

For those of you who don’t use facebook, here is a link to where I keep all of my Tern Island photos: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2525082&id=3214364&l=ac288cf29c

Hopefully coming soon: snorkeling adventures and what life is like on a remote island (birds aside).

The Gauntlet

While walking through my red-footed booby plots today, I noticed that my normal stumbly-toe-stubbing-ankle-spraining-wobble of a walk has turned into an elaborate ballet of tip-toey-twisty-zig-zagging. Complete with frantic arm waving.

Every other day I have to weave through a maze of bushes to check the reproductive status of my birds. Lately the weave has become much tighter with sooty terns nesting on every square foot of the ground. To make navigational matters more difficult, the eggs are perfectly camouflaged. This wouldn’t be a problem if the adults stayed on their eggs, but they have attitudes similar to that of small yappy dogs and launch themselves into full attack mode when anything comes too close. Though they do jump off the egg, they won’t move too far from the nest and are limited to attacking my feet (toes are preferred targets). The birds that have picked a nest site, but not yet dropped an egg, prefer to target the back of my head (hence the arm waving).  All of this commotion occurs with deafening and disorienting screaming from both the cloud of birds around my head and the gangs at my feet (think Alfred Hitchcock’s horror film, The Birds). So it is not too surprising that I have already accidently stepped on one egg while trying to avoid stepping on the egg of another bird and simultaneously receiving sharp blows to the occipital lobe. Luckily these are very small birds, so the hits aren’t really painful… just unpleasant considering the pointy bill. And thankfully my egg cracking guilt can be assuaged by the fact that sooty terns breed like rabbits, so the occasional casualty can be replaced by its producer in a matter of days.