Editor’s note: The MV Tiglax’s work as a research ship enables U.S. Fish and Wildlife scientists and other agencies to get to remote parts of Alaska that would otherwise be inaccessible. First-time discoveries emerge from the Alaska National Maritime Refuge based in Homer, making it world class for research in a time of tabulating the toll of climate change. This is the second in a series of articles to describe that work en route from Homer to St. Paul.
By Naomi Klouda
When the MV Tiglax comes into view of Chowiet Island, Erik Andersen and Joann Wang are already gathered on the rocky beach waiting. Their one-room cabin rests on a grassy slope behind them. After a rainy day, the sun peers out.
Aboard the Tiglax, John Faris and other crew hook the Zodiak and its outboard to a crane arm and lower it into the water. From an opened exit in the aft deck, passengers aboard the ship climb into the Zodiak, eager for a chance to stretch their sea legs and spend a few hours hiking on the island. It’s a chance to visit colonies inhabited by the island’s rare birds.
Andersen, a seasonal biologist with the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, and his wife, a technician, help lug the Zodiak to shore. The bird monitors usually get one resupply a summer from the refuge, a detail not too worrisome for this seasoned pair.
But it’s sure a treat to get a second visit from the ship during their four months of isolation. Boxes of food, their mail and other supplies are lifted off the Zodiak on the first run.
“It’s really peaceful. We keep coming back to it, untouched wilderness,” Andersen said, once aboard the ship. “We can go a week without hearing an airplane or seeing a ship. We can easily go a week without seeing anyone.”
The summer’s work means surveying for chick productivity, population, food habits and survival rates. At Chowiet, one of seven islands in the Semidi Island group, they are looking at tufted and horned puffins, which nest in rocky crevices.
Rhino auklets, named for the odd white plate at the base of its bill, nest in earthen burrows and arrives as a shaggy chick whose feathers look like messy white hair. Chowiet is the only Semidi island inhabited by these birds, Andersen said.
They survey parakeet auklets, a black white-breasted bird sprouting a curiously stubby orange beak, and the black-legged kittiwakes, species of gulls and the Pigeon Guillemots that prefer rocky ledges, as well as the thick-billed murres.
“We monitor the birds throughout their reproductive cycle, from the time the egg is laid until the chick fledges and the birds return to sea,” Andersen said. “We wear rain gear even if it’s not raining, because we’re going to be crawling through rocks and around us are thousands of birds.”
This island has arctic ground squirrels, which are predatory on chicks. “We’re not sure if they’re invasive. They might be native to the islands because there are more of them in the Semidis – all but two have squirrels.”
The data they collect should give an idea of how much damage of a dent the squirrels make on the population.
The four-by-three mile Chowiet Island holds tough terrain. The trail to one of the colonies is straight up, then across a narrow ledge and a steep downward climb to the cliffs where Andersen and Wang spend days monitoring the birds’ breeding success and conducting population counts.
They make grids and track the presence of chicks and parents at their nesting sites over the summer’s course. For the burrowers, they paint rocks in a dab of red to mark known nests, and check them every four or five days.
For this kind of work, you have to love being outside. The weather won’t often be mild.
“When we arrive in May, it’s brown and dead, and then we get to watch it progress to green and the flowers bloom,” Wang said. By the time they leave, the flowers have faded and many of the birds have departed.
Aboard the ship for a four-hour visit, Andersen and Wang luxuriated in a long, hot shower, did some laundry and visited with the crew.
“We have hot water, the ability to shower and do our laundry – it’s all just more difficult,” Andersen said. “We stop doing laundry when we know the ship is coming.”
A clothes line outside their cabin proves too tempting to the little wrens and sparrows on Chowiet. “There’s no trees so they take advantage of being able to be high up by sitting on the clothesline,” Wang said. Before they know it the clothing is spotted with bird deposits and they’ll need rewashing.
Jeff Williams is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist overseeing the Tiglax’s research schedule and the hiring of seasonal bird monitors.
“They are usually energetic, smart, the cream of the crop in their master’s programs or working on PhD’s. They’re highly independent because they’re going to be 1,000 miles away from their bosses,” Williams said. “They are going to come back and tell us what is the status of this island. They are Steve (Delehanty’s) information gatherers.” Delehanty is the Refuge manager.
But it’s something of an intuitive gamble when hiring the technicians, usually from universities around the country living in densely populated areas. What happens when they get thrown into the Alaska wilderness with one other person on a remote island?
“When I’m interviewing people, at first I try to dis-convince them. I’ll tell them all the bad things, that it will be cold. It be windy and rainy most days. They won’t get mail. They can’t talk to their friends. Birds are going to hit them in the head and they’ll have to use an outhouse at night,” Williams said.
At times, candidates will get the picture and say, well, that’s not really what I’m looking for. “They’ll eliminate themselves.”
Yet, if the candidate has all the right qualifications, plus a sense of excitement when Williams recounts the rough, lonely environment, he knows he’s got the right person. “These are people who like to climb to the top of the cliffs. They’re naturalists, good at observing the world around them. They like to be away from civilization.”
The nine monitoring sites in the refuge means supervising about 18 technicians. They have satellite phones to use in emergencies, and are allotted two minutes a day to download email and send out mail.
Every night at 10 p.m., the station in Adak checks on each camp. Capt. Billy Pepper aboard the Tiglax listens on the radio contact, another way to support the monitoring stations.
Amanda Gladics and Allison Anholt work the bird monitoring station on Aiktak Island, one of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge’s original sites, established in 1995. It’s a day’s distance by ship from Chowiet.
Williams paired Gladics and Anholt for the monitoring station, sight unseen. The two young women had never met before their assignment, though each has other field work experiences. Now, aboard the Tiglax where they were able to shower and do laundry, the two sit in the galley eating lunch with passengers and crew.
“We have a lot in common, which might be why they paired us,” Anholt said. “We’re not eager to get back to civilization. This summer was all about having a fun summer.”
Anholt is an entering graduate student at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Gladics just completed her master’s degree in marine resource management from Oregon State University. The demands of rigorous science programs made each of them embrace the “Puffin Palace” all the more, the nickname for their station’s cabin.
Perched on a hill, it has a clear view to the waters beyond. It’s stocked with books, they can watch movies on their lap tops and if they want to know what’s going on in the world, a radio can be turned on.
“We don’t always want to know,” one of them quips.
Aiktak is located in the eastern Aleutians on the west side of Unimak Pass. Unimak Pass is the main shipping route between the North Pacific Ocean and the Bering Sea. It’s not quite as isolated as Chowiet.
“We see huge container ships go by, a lot of other commercial fishing and other boats go by. A lot of sea lions,” Gladics said. A sea lion monitoring station is on a nearby island, but they’ve yet to meet the technicians. Each monitoring station does not have a boat, for various safety reasons, Capt. Billy Pepper explained. Most technicians don’t come with boat experience. “The boat becomes more of a danger to them if they don’t know anything about operating it, especially in these waters.”
On Aiktak, an island without predators, the task of counting and recording data means plenty to do. The island is home to perhaps 100,000 tufted puffins.
Thousands of Glaucous-winged gulls nest over the hillsides. Common and thick-billed murres are found on the steep cliffs along the south shore. The field biologists study these species as well as well as black oystercatchers, fork-tailed and Leach’s storm-petrels.
Gladics and Anhold gather their information on bird populations according to the birds activity habits. Not all birds are early risers, which means waiting until afternoon to survey for horned puffins, when more birds are out on the water and visible. On the other hand, Pigeon Guillemot are early risers, so the day’s schedule starts with them on days when they monitor those birds.
Many birds on Aiktak nest in burrows, so determining productivity for these species isn’t as simple as just looking through a scope.
For puffins, they peer into the dark and twisting burrows with a bright flashlight to see if the adult has an egg or a chick. Storm-petrels nest in much smaller burrows, and so they use a technique called grubbing.
“We wear a special glove, called a grubbing gauntlet, and reach in as far as arm’s length to feel the chicks. We’re weighing and measuring chicks right now, so we’re waiting until the petrel parent is not there – when she’s out hunting for food,” Anholt explains.
Like the Chowiet monitors, they depend on rain gear for the often muddy work that included checking on 108 tufted puffin nests every 4-5 days throughout July and August.
“In order to get an accurate sense of the status of each nest, we have to go out and check on them rain or shine. And here on Aiktak there’s no way to avoid getting totally covered in mud and guano – our rain gear really takes a beating,” Gladics said.
Now, with laundry complete, it’s time for the Aiktak field biologists to return to their cabin. They’re leaving showered, with clean laundry. They have boxes of mail and fresh produce, thanks to refuge biologist Ingrid Harrald and her two Youth Conservation Corp crew, Katherine Dolma and Axel Gillam, who did the shopping for five camps.
“That’s the only thing I miss – we just want fresh broccoli, for God’s sake,” an appreciative Anholt said.
As they climb aboard the Zodiak for the ride back to the island, they might or might not be realizing it will be six or seven weeks before they’ll see anyone else. In September it will be time to return to the Maritime Refuge in Homer, and make a final report with the summer’s collection of data. Then, a return to family, friends, cities and universities.
The note from the Puffin Palace that night, sent out in a refuge communication, said: “Clean, laundered, happy. Spent the afternoon reveling in cleanliness and mail. Looking forward to the gale arriving tomorrow evening.”
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