Wednesday, August 17, 2011

A Short History of Nearly Everything...Middleton Island May5-Aug15

Around this time last year, I began a transient lifestyle in the southern hemisphere, working for various projects in an effort to gain field experience in marine science. I started this online journal to keep family, friends, and anyone else interested informed, educated, and entertained during my travels. Since returning from Australia, I’ve spent that last three and a half months on Middleton Island, a small remote outcropping of seabed in the Gulf of Alaska as a volunteer (slave laborer) for a seabird project with the US Geological Survey. Given the protracted distance from civilization, and the limited range of cell phone reception and internet access, I have been unable to update this blog on my experiences. Now that I’m back in the land of the living, I’ve attempted to sum up that past 15 weeks with enough brevity to keep you the reader from slamming your head on the desk in front of you in sheer boredom.

Middleton Island, otherwise referred to as MDO, was once another subsurface bump in the ever shifting contours of the continental shelf. Luckily for me, and for thousands of seabirds that use this now above surface bump as nesting habitat, the continental shelf in the Gulf of Alaska is indeed actively and in times quite violently shifting. This region where MDO now stands is part of a subduction zone, where the Pacific Plate is grinding and sliding beneath the North American plate; forming the stunning uplifted crests of mountains that lure swarms of tourists to Alaska, and allowing me to place my feet on a piece of land that was once flooded by the Pacific 4000 years ago. Middleton Island is young in geologic time, the most recent uplifted terrace to be added emerged less than 50 years ago; when in 1964 a massive earthquake centered in Prince William Sound elevated the island by 30 feet in one thrusting event. Fox farmers living on MDO during the quake feared the entire island would crumble into the sea, rather than rapidly grow in elevation. There’s some serious tectonic activity happening here.

For nesting seabirds, the geological activity is both a blessing and a curse. Historical uplift of the region created steep cliff faces that jutted from the sea, prefect nesting habitat for black-legged kittiwakes, common murres, and pelagic cormorants. The 1964 quake, however, changed the landscape in ways which now threaten the success of these cliff nesters. The newly added land has extended the beach by several hundred yards, creating an impenetrable barrier of vegetation for murre chicks that fledge to the sea just weeks after hatching. They could once jump straight from their cliffs to the sea, but now must walk through walls of tall grasses and willow shrubs, all while avoiding the glaucous-winged gulls and bald eagles that are always eager to make of snack of them. The new land has also changed the erosion characteristics of the island, replacing the steep cliff faces with slumped moraines of eroded material from older terraces, forcing the kittiwakes and cormorants to find other structures for nesting.

What makes MDO unique for seabirds and in turn seabird research is the availability of artificial structures suitable enough to be used as nesting habitat. During the Cold War, MDO was part of a string of 50 radar stations that spanned the Gulf of Alaska, collectively known as the Distant Early Warning Line or DEW-Line. These remote outposts were used to monitor soviet activity in Alaskan waters to protect the ‘homeland’ from foreign invasion. The derelict towers, barracks, and various other buildings from the old radar facility still stand, although there structural integrity has been severely compromised after the quake, and are now used by the birds as ledges to nest upon. The main tower, standing approximately 100 meters, has been specially outfitted with nest sized ledges, complete with partitions from neighboring nests and one way mirrors between the inside of the tower and each nest. The one-way mirrors offer a front stage view for those inside the tower into the lives of nesting kittiwakes. The mirrors can also be lifted, providing access to the birds for measuring eggs, chick growth, adult morphometrics, and access for experimental studies involving manipulation of broods, blood work, and banding. It truly is a unique set up for both seabird and seabird researcher.

Cliff faces and aging radar structures are not the only features suitable for raising a chick; birds have adopted many strategies for incubating an egg. Rhinoceros auklets and tufted puffins utilize the uppermost sedimentary layer of cliffs as substrate for digging burrows. Burrow nesting is popular among seabirds; they provide protection from the constant aerial assault of predators, giving parents the freedom to leave their chick alone for an extended period of time to forage at sea. Birds that have exposed nests must always have a parent on guard to protect the chick, until that chick is old enough to fledge. The limiting factor with burrow nesting is the ground must be consolidated enough to maintain the structure of the burrow. It seems MDO has such a geological structure, as the rhinoceros auklet and tufted puffin breeding populations on MDO are growing; possibly translating to an increase in the glaucous-winged gull population. Glaucous-winged gulls build rudimentary nests on the ground, and aside from the bald eagle, are the main predator of chicks on the island.

Those that devote a quarter of their year to studying seabirds on MDO also utilize the old dilapidated buildings. The main living space for volunteers like myself, researchers, staff, and visitors alike is the chateau, a modest warehouse-like dwelling adjacent to the main tower; outfitted with a kitchen, an office for entering data, and a woodstove to warm wet moldy socks. After hours, when the sun would finally sink below the horizon, we would retreat to our own personal tents called bomb shelters in a gully behind the chateau (although some decided to share midway through the project). There’s a warehouse for various flavors of gear, a murre building with windows for watching murres, a small cabin for our VIP guests and the ‘mayor’ of MDO when he was around, a port-o-potty (or port-o-lue for the proper English readers) for writing poetry, and three ATV’s for getting around the island. We collected drinking water from a spring near the runway on the north side of the island, and wash water from a stream to the south. The chateau had a washing machine for our clothes when the bird shit and BO became too strong to tolerate, with which we had to manually load with water. Planes touched down randomly as various people came and went, on occasion bringing us mail and news from the outside world. I also found one AM radio station with enough reception to listen to NPR news during my morning coffee.

The core group of volunteers that remained on the island for the complete 15 week field season consisted of a 4 person American team (Lena originally from Turkey who now resides in the US, Sharon from the Netherlands, Lucy from England...or is it Britain?, and myself from the land of the free) and the French team (Thomas, Romain, and Elise, all from France). We welcomed many visitors, including Scott, the USGS scientist who heads the work on MDO; Perriek, the PhD adviser of Thomas from France; Jorg and Chris from the University of Alaska Fairbanks working with kittiwakes; Emily and Veronica from the University of Alaska Anchorage working with stickleback (a type of fish); 5 people from US Fish and Wildlife Service working with Canada geese; Angus, Trey, and Harry, three well off kids exploring the world and working on their philanthropy; 3 marine geologist from Woods Hole and other places working on whatever geologists work on; a surfer pilot and his lady friend; and various FAA employees who used their own facilities and who avoided us ‘bird people’. At times the dinner table felt overcrowded, but the new stories, personalities, and relationships our visitors contributed to the group were a welcomed relief from the routine we inevitably developed.

Our daily schedule varied, expect for one chore we could always count on…feeding. Each day at 9AM, Noon, and 6PM we would walk the 6 flights of stairs to the tower, grab a bucket of partially frozen to uncomfortably thawed capelin (a type of schooling fish and popular food source for marine life in the Gulf of Alaska), and fed our panel of kittiwakes. Sharon, Lucy, and I each had our own panel of 27 nesting pairs of kittiwakes, and everyday…3 times a day… their diet was supplemented with as much capelin as they could eat. This was part of a long term study on how diet affects the breeding success of kittiwakes (the more fish they consume, the more reproductively successful they become), compared to panels of nesting kittiwakes that were not fed. A surplus of food may also influence the sex ratio of the chicks, energetics and longevity of adults, and the timing of chick fledging, among other biological and physiological factors.

Between feeding, both of the birds and ourselves, the days were filled with various tasks, down time, movies, and drama. We banded adult kittiwakes and tufted puffin chicks, bled known aged birds with needles for their telomerase (the redundant ends of DNA that fray over time), walked for hours along the low and high tide lines in search of dead marine bird and mammal beach casts, measured glaucous-winged gull eggs and got vomited on by the chicks that hatched from them, and nearly lost a few eyes, lips, and fingers to vicious and extremely pissed off pelagic cormorants. We made many pies, cakes, and cookies, perfected of art of bread making, drank voluminous amounts of coffee, and constantly snacked on Snickers and Gold Fishes. I spent a lot of time staring at the sea, mostly wishing I had packed a board and wetsuit (the waves at times would have been a nice escape from island life), and in the process spotted a male killer whale, Steller sea lions, harbor seals, whale blows, a long-tailed and parasitic jeager, a horned puffin, ancient murrelets, harlequin ducks, a forked-tailed storm petrel, flocks of shearwaters and northern fulmars, and a possible albatross, among a lengthy list of other sightings. Needless to say we kept busy during our 15 weeks on MDO.

Many noteworthy events have happened since the season began, too many to mention here, but several stand out in my mind. Like the nights we went rhino catching. Rhinoceros auklets spend the evenings at sea foraging for their chicks, using their short stiff wings to propel through the water in pursuit of various small fish. At the stroke of midnight, when darkness eventually settles at this latitude, rhino parents fly back from the sea to their burrows, bills loaded with fish. The burrow colonies are densely vegetated, making landing somewhat of a challenge. They use long narrow strips of un-vegetated soil, basically a runway, to bring themselves down from flight. Once on the solid ground, they then scurry around the colony, likely using smell to locate the appropriate burrow that contains their chick. Rhinoceros auklets have a varied diet, including commercially important prey species like salmon and sablefish yearlings; so knowing how much of which type of fish they are bringing back to the colony is a valid question. Every 5th night towards the end of the season, about 15 days after the chicks had hatched, we would take a team of 3 to several landing strips late at night and scare the shit out of incoming birds until they dropped their fish. Well perhaps it wasn’t that dramatic; we used nets to capture them as they passed by and landed. Once netted, the birds would drop their bill loads for us to collect, before being released. Our target was 30 bill loads in 2 hours, and it was loads of fun. Laying flat on the cold white shit covered ground (actually its mostly uric acid and not shit, but who’s checking) under thorny salmon berry bushes, with only the dim light of the sun somewhere just over the horizon to the north. The birds sounded like mini helicopters crash landing all around with a hard hollow thump, their bluish webbed feet pattering as they waddled just in range of our nets…then SLAM! Some were caught in midflight, some while wandering around, others bounced off the aluminum frame of our nets and rolled back down the runway. However the method, they would inevitably drop their fish for our collection. Of the different types of fish we identified, including the salmon and sablefish I already mentioned, their bills contained capelin, sandlance, greenling, Pacific cod, lingcod, squid, and a few unknown juvenile fish; some with up to 12 fish is one bill load!

One night, after a long drawn out dramatic event with one of the team members; the most amazing atmospheric event unfolded before me. It was the last night before Scott the project organizer would arrive to help us pack up camp, so naturally we decided to break out the rum and orange juice and spend the night chatting around the camp fire. To make a long story short, and to keep from offending anyone, one of the team members had a blow out and went a little crazy. After the dust settled, and the fire began to lose its heat sometime around one in the morning, I started the muddy dark walk back to my tent. Just as I was about to unzip the rain fly and crash into my sleeping bag, I noticed a light green diffuse arc across the northern portion of the sky; like a muted and blurred Milky Way. This puzzled me, the Milky Way is supposed to arc from the north to south, not east to west. After watching it for a few minutes, it started to build in intensity, as waves of green began to work through the arc. Within seconds it hit me….aurora…whispering it to myself as if I just had solved a complicated puzzle. Instantly I ran back to the Chateau, stumbling over ditches and splashing through hidden puddles from the series of rain storms we had had a few weeks prior, mind you I had yet to piss out the rum I had been drinking. Romain was still listening to Bob Dylan when I reached the Chateau, and I urged him outside as a grabbed my camera and tripod. Sharon emerged from the bushes; she had also noticed the phenomenon to the north before retiring to her tent. So the 3 of us stood there and stared in awe at the spectacle before us, a bright curtain of green waving and dancing thousands of miles above us, as solar particles reacted with the magnetic field of earth. I stayed up and watched it for an hour; the lights coming in pulses, sometimes disappearing for several minutes. The color reminded me of the green light emitted from the thick soup of bioluminescent algae I’ve seen in the Sea of Cortez and Monterey Bay on dark moonless nights. It was the single night in the entire season that the Aurora Borealis was seen, and I was pretty stoked to have been awake for the event…and sober enough to understand what was happening ta boot.

The progression of summer has come to a close out on MDO. The island is slowly turning brown again as the vegetation begins to dry out; the wildflowers, aside from the purple fire weed, have all died back in preparation for the coming fall. The kittiwakes have spent the season building nests, incubating eggs, and rearing chicks. Now the new fledglings are learning the art of flight; leaping from the ledge, abandoning the comfort of the nest into a new world at sea. For me, it’s bittersweet. I’ve learned more than I intended about seabirds, came up with a few ideas of what to eventually do with my life, battled with persistent fleas that found some very creative places to hide, and as customary with these projects I’ve met some very interesting and genuinely good natured people along the way. Sure we all had our share of ups and downs, ups during the beginning and downs towards the end, but it was all worth it. Now that I’m back in my comfort zone it’s nice to be surrounded by the people I know best, taking Reef for walks on the beach, surfing and all the rest; but much like the fledging kittiwakes it won’t be long before I’ll be ready to head out over the open ocean once again, in search of more experiences and projects that allow me to postpone reality for just a little longer. Maybe I’ll head to South America, still high on my priority list, likely back to Australia, or maybe something completely unexpected. So stay tuned people, hopefully there will be more to report shortly.


  1. Great post Mike - your writing seems to be getting better every time I read it. I'm also thrilled that for once I beat your Mom in responding. Yes!

    Looking forward to seeing you and hearing more stories. I have to admit that reading this post was more interesting than our phone dialogues in which we're both scare with our information delivery:

    R:"'s Alaska? Whatcha' been doing?"
    M:"Oh, you know, checking out birds and stuff..." ---"You?"
    R: "Oh, you know, social justice stuff...same old same old"

    See you soon!

  2. Awesome recap of your trip, Mike. Thanks for sharing your journey and experiences with us along with the stunning pictures! Hi Ro, one tally mark for you! Hope to see you soon as well.

  3. Mike it's portaloo!!! Check your English!!! Great blog by the way, lots of history and you fail to mention just how very cute the puffin chicks are. Hope you are enjoying the surf.

  4. Nice to know that some things never change... I was held captive on MDO for the summer of 2003. You just brought it all back for me! I just stumbled upon your blog by chance. Thanks for adding to the nostalgia!