Friday, December 21, 2012

The Storm That Ended Tern

Just when things were getting interesting out here and we were finally settling into life on Tern, a storm comes through and ruins it all. We were inundated by a massive low pressure system from the north that produced a violent event which destroyed half our field camp, crippled our life support systems, and killed hundreds of birds. Although it matched the descriptions of a tornado, given the pattern of destruction and the way the debris was distributed, we were most likely struck by a sudden localized downdraft of heavy air known in the meteorological world as a microburst. Such downdrafts can produce winds equal in strength to a tornado, possibly over 100 mph in our case, but lack the vortex. Our field season is effectively over, and the future of this remote field camp is uncertain, but we’re lucky no one got hurt. The following is my account of the event.

Sunday December 9th, 4:30 AM:

I awoke as I always do around 4:30 in the morning to start the day. It was muggy and warm when I went to bed so I left my windows open to get some breeze. It had apparently rained throughout the night, slightly flooding my room. I normally get up this early to use the unlimited download time we’re given for the internet (from midnight to 6am), but it had been down the night before, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to bother getting out of bed to test it. But the lightning outside was pretty cool, and a cup of coffee sounded really good, so I got up anyway. The lightning was indeed amazing; it was like storms I had seen visiting my brother in Alabama, the sky lit up like a dying light bulb blinking every few seconds. It kept going, never really producing any bolts, it just lit the clouds a brilliant purple hue. Although it was raining steadily, the direction the rain was falling kept the water off the porch, so I sat outside with my coffee in the warm morning air and photographed the lightning show. The wind was coming from the south, so I stayed relatively dry sitting in the lee of the building.

5:45 AM:

After watching the weather for a while, trying to catch the occasional lightning bolt, the wind abruptly swung from the south to the north, driving the rain straight onto the porch. At first it was tolerable, but then the rain grew heavier, getting me and my camera gear wet. I immediately took my tripod down and went back inside, and as I shut the front door to keep the rain out I noticed that the temperature had rapidly dropped at least ten degrees, like I was standing in front of an open freezer door. It got so cold I almost felt I could see my breath. I didn’t think much of it. I figured the cold front had just passed over us, explaining the shift in the wind and the sudden increase in rain.  Although this had never happened before, so I thought it noteworthy. In the meantime the lighting intensified, it was now producing proper bolts and very loud thunder, the storm was right on top of us. With nothing else to do I sat down at my computer in the radio room and gave the internet a shot. Amazingly it worked enough for me to send an email out to Casey, bragging about how cool the lightning was and how monstrous the surf sounded.

Sometime around 6:00 AM:

I had just sent the email out, and was sitting at my computer thinking what I was going to write about the storm (I usually write up or edit a journal entry in the morning), when out of the blue the VHF radio on a shelf behind me started producing static, like the sound an analog TV makes when it’s not receiving a signal. I had never heard it do this before, I didn’t even know the radio was on, so it startled me. With this and the extremely cold air minutes earlier, I began to worry that something was off. Then the sky just opened up and dumped the heaviest rain I’ve ever heard, as if the building was sitting beneath a massive waterfall. The radio kept chattering and the rest happened so fast it’s hard to describe. Like a shockwave the pressure in room grew so strong my ears started popping just before hearing a faint rumbling sound that swiftly grew louder, and then getting blasted in the face with a cold wind. Books from the shelf behind me and pieces of debris started flying about the room, and I instinctively dove under the computer desk and covered my face. At this point the rumbling was all around me. It sounded like metal and wood were being run through a blender, lots of banging, cracking and screeching. It was the most violent sound I have ever heard. I had visions of the movie Twister playing in my head, dairy cows levitating and all, but I had no idea was going on and I thought for sure the whole building was falling down. I wondered if the Mayans had been right all along, the world was coming to an end. I figured I was going to be buried in a pile of rubble when it was all over. The chaos lasted for about 5 seconds and then stopped. The rain, the wind, everything was calm again. I stayed under the desk, not knowing what was going on. Then I heard Morgan say from the hall, “where’s Mike?”, and at this point I got my first glimpse of the extent of the damage. Initially I was shocked to see one of the interior walls and the door to the radio room had been knocked down, and the place was littered with soggy books and sheets of data.

Then I saw the common room. It was just after six now, still too early for the sun, and the whole building was dark. The lightning flashed and revealed all the walls were gone. It was such an eerie sight. Every time the lighting went off, where the entertainment center stood, the bookshelves, the chalkboard with our daily schedule, it was all just an open view of a tumultuous sea and a nasty sky. The wind was blowing salt spray and rain right through our dining area, chairs were strewn about the room, and the kitchen was covered with knives, pots and pans – it was a mess. The wind had been so strong it moved stoves in the kitchen, and blew a heavy freezer full of old video tapes clear through a wall and out the building. We had just rearranged the movie area, and set up the Christmas tree for the holidays, and it was now a massive pile of junk. Broken glass, bad novels, random debris had been blown out with the east walls, landing in a fan outside on top of albatrosses incubating eggs. The entire scene was a disaster.

Then I saw the hallway. Four rooms, including mine, had been completely blown out. It was a jungle of shattered drywall and mangled aluminum framing that had been ripped from their foundations. Fortunately I wasn’t in my room, and all other occupied rooms only received minor damage. The west end of the hallway was so mangled the last three rooms were inaccessible. One unused bed was buried under three different walls. If anyone had been sleeping there they would have been crushed. We really lucked out.

The damage was extensive. The boathouse looked like a bomb had gone off, the tractor shed had gaping holes in its concrete walls, there were many leaks in the plumbing, the solar panels were torn from the braces, radio antennas were stripped off the roof, six bedrooms, one office, two bathrooms, the laundry room, and all of the common room had their exterior walls blown out, and a few other structures including fuel storage units and a couple fiberglass boat hulls were scattered around the west portion of the island. We took a big hit, and it was all a major shock to witness.

Even more disturbing was searching for injured and buried birds. I can’t imagine what it must have been like for rescue workers on scene at the World Trade Centers or in Japan after the tsunami. It was very difficult seeing albatrosses, birds that I have been admiring for years, with broken wings and bloody necks stuck beneath sheets of wall panels. Some were killed instantly by projectiles, others were flattened on their nests, and many were simply limping around with mangled wings. Since the debris from our buildings had inflected the most damage to the wildlife, it was our responsibility to euthanize the suffering birds. Something I hope to never have to do again. The death count is as follows: 62 Brown Noddies, 97 Black Noddies, 10 White Terns, 17 Red-footed Boobies, 6 Great Frigatebirds, 1 Pacific Plover, 24 Laysan Albatross, and 22 Black-footed Albatross, for a total of 239 birds of which 79 were banded.

It’s amazing how selective these storms can be. You always hear stories about how tornados will completely disintegrate one home, and leave another only feet away untouched. The microburst we experienced only affected the west end of the island where all of our facilities stand, or at least once stood. The east end of the island showed no signs of damage. It appeared every leaf and branch hadn’t even been rustled. The wind apparently stopped at the warehouse to the east, and was most intense near the boathouse to the west. As much as I can gather from Wikipedia, a microburst forms by the rapid evaporation of highly saturated air in a thunder head. As the mass of air evaporates, it cools. The sudden cooling forces the air mass to descend from the cloud, accelerating as it falls through the wet air below. When the air mass eventually collides with the ground it can reach speeds of 150 mph, leveling anything that stands in its way. At least that’s what I think happens. Either way the point is it gets very windy very fast, and causes intense localized destruction.

The storm carried on for three days. It was difficult to sleep the first night after the disaster. No longer did we trust the integrity of the building. We were convinced that the next big gust could blow the whole place down. The rooms in the north wing where we moved all of our valuables and beds were mostly intact, although the roofing had been compromised and new leaks had sprung open.  We were able to recover most of the archived data, although some had been saturated, and luckily all of our expensive computers and camera gear survived. My computer was covered in dirt and had a desk lamp fall on the keyboard, but it still works. Take that MAC. We boarded up the kitchen and the exposed hallway, and somehow managed to recovery the internet, although its functions are limited. The solar panels were damaged, but are intact enough to still charge the battery bank. Chad fixed the broken pipes in the plumbing and shunted all water to the north hall. We limped along for 10 days. In the meantime we piled all the wooden debris on the runway for a bonfire, and did what we could to secure all other lost items that might otherwise blow around and cause more injury to the birds.

It’s a shame the season had to end this way. We’ve spent the last few months mostly doing maintenance on the place, and setting up plots in preparation for the albatross breeding season. I had just put most of the nest markers out in the albatross plots, and were starting to see the Bonin Petrels build nest cups in the artificial burrow boxes. I was really looking forward to following these birds for the next three months, banding them, watching how the mates take turns incubating the eggs, seeing the first chicks hatch, and now we have to abandon it all.. Now we’ve just been cleaning up 30 years of clutter, waiting for the Kahana to pick us up.

Friday, December 7, 2012

More on Whales

The first southbound Gray Whales have been spotted along the California coast, destined for Mexico where they spend the winter months breeding in shallow protected lagoons along Baja. Robustly 23,000 strong, almost all pass by my college town of Monterey twice a year on an epic 12,000 mile journey. Like the amber shades of autumn, the appearance of Gray Whales off the west coast of North America signals a change in the seasons, as reliable a natural rhythm as the Earth’s rotation around the sun. Here in the southern latitudes of the North Pacific a different species of whale, the humpback, marks the arrival of winter. Hawaiian locals and the illusive observant tourist alike are more than familiar with the acrobatic areal displays and haunting melodic songs of Humpback Whales in their waters. From December through March one is certain, if enough effort is given, to see the stunning foamy explosions of humpbacks flinging 40 tons of blubber from the surface, or to spot the tall bushy geyser of a whale’s exhalation on the horizon. Based on rather simple mark-recapture models, it is estimated roughly 20,000 humpback whales occur in the North Pacific Ocean, of which 8,500 to 10,000 breed throughout the main Hawaiian archipelago. There are of course other breeding populations throughout the tropical Pacific, all of which migrate between different feeding areas. For example the humpbacks I made a living off of watching during the summer in California travel to mainland Mexico and Central America, whales off of Siberia travel to southern Japan and the Philippines, and curiously enough based on recent DNA and photographic evidence there is a possible unknown breeding ground somewhere in the middle of the Pacific for whales that feed primarily around the Aleutians in Alaska. This got me thinking…French Frigate Shoals is about as middle of the Pacific as one can get…so I started digging.

Volunteer crews have spotted humpbacks from Tern Island in the past, but these observations were always anecdotal and typically of conspicuous whales breaching near the island. Thus far no dedicated effort has been given to visually sighting and documenting whales that possibly winter in French Frigate Shoals. In the spring of 2007, the 68 meter NOAA vessel RV Oscar Elton Sette departed Honolulu bound for the atolls and islands of the northwestern Hawaiian archipelago.  Carrying a crew of observers equipped with ‘big eye’ binoculars, they made a series of transects throughout the chain looking for signs of whale activity, however given the delayed timing of their departure, little activity was observed. In fact no whales what so ever were seen around French Frigate Shoals, with only a few scatted sightings around reefs further up the chain. Following this study in 2008, a team of researchers from the University of Hawaii deployed passive acoustic data loggers at seven locations along the chain, of which two devices were deployed at French Frigate Shoals. For reasons yet unknown, male humpbacks produce distinct songs unique to their source population that can travel many miles through the water column. The acoustic data were more encouraging than the transects that previous year, showing the rate of humpback song in French Frigate Shoals statistically matched that of a known breeding area near Oahu. Interestingly data yet to be published may reveal that humpbacks singing in French Frigate Shoals do in fact produce a slightly different song than whales in the main Hawaiian Islands, further adding evidence to the theory that the NW Hawaiian Islands are the missing breeding grounds of whales from the Aleutians. Again, this is just a theory.

Combing the ocean for signs of whales is almost an involuntary reflex for me now, and given the opportunity to contribute a bit of knowledge to this under sampled region, I’ve initiated of a dedicated whale watch. Elevation and good weather are crucial for observing whales. The warehouse roof offers a 360 degree view out to 12 kilometers, enough to search a decent portion of the atoll granted the weather cooperates.  Over the next three months I plan to scan the waters around Tern Island for at least one hour each day, in an effort to shed some light onto the number of whales, if any, which occur in this small segment of the world, along with the types of behaviors they may exhibit. Looking at the acoustic data and the opportunistic sightings from previous volunteers, whales begin to arrive around Tern in early December, peak in February, and drop off again in late March. I’ve already had my first confirmed humpback sighting on November 28th, a lone individual that surfaced three times and disappeared. Based on what I’ve seen in Australia, this was likely an early singing male, which often appear cryptic at the surface and tend to stay down for over 20 minutes while singing – difficult to relocate once they dive. I’m hoping to get some significant counts in the coming weeks, possibly enough data for a poster to present at the Marine Mammal Conference in New Zealand in November of next year; giving me a particle excuse to travel down under again. Always have to think of the end game right?

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Reproductive Plots

Black-footed Albatross (BFAL) and Laysan Albatross (LAAL) began laying their eggs weeks ago, and I’ve since been conducting a bi-weekly check of all nesting birds within four defined plots around the island. The aim of this annual study is two-fold, first to quantify the average timing of egg laying, incubation, hatching and fledging, and second to track the long term breeding success of known pairs within the plots. In summary, as of last check there were 167 BFAL and 100 LAAL nests, corresponding to the same numbers of breeding pairs, totaling 534 individual breeding birds. BFAL numbers have peaked and are expected to platue in the following weeks, with LAAL numbers reaching their max by mid December. With the assistance of others, I systematically walk around each plot and look for nests containing an egg. If an egg is present that nest receives a numbered orange marker, and the field readable alpha-numeric auxiliary bands of both parents are read and noted. If either of the parents are missing their band, either because it fell off or it was never put on, we band them. This involves one person grabbing the bill and scooping the bird up into a cradle position, while another uses banding pliers and spreaders to attach a long-term metal band on the left leg and a plastic alpha numeric on the right. For the most part the birds remain relatively calm during this process, although they often kick a bit. I’ve already received battle scars to my arms and legs from the sharp nails of their webbed feet during these kicking bouts. Some of them have perfected their aim and are just the right size to kick directly in the family jewels; I suspect these birds have been conspiring with Stan. Field work in the bird world, however, hasn’t officially begun until you’ve been shit on, which happened to me yesterday.

The female, once the egg has been laid, will leave the nest and hand over the first incubation shift to the male, so it can take weeks to finally read the bands of both parents. Sometimes there are anomalies, for instance in plot two there is a nest with both a LAAL and BFAL parent incubating an egg. Hybrids between these two species have been observed, but are uncommon. We have a local suspected hybrid named Prius that returns to the same spot on the island every year. Prius resembles a BFAL but awkwardly dances and calls like a LAAL, and understandably has thus far been unsuccessful at attracting a mate. I also found a nest in plot four (the first nest in the plots with an egg in fact) with two eggs, possibly indicating much to the disapproval of the Republican base the presence of two female parents, a behavior well documented in bird societies. It is likely that one of these eggs will be kicked out of the nest, or that both eggs are non-fertile and will fail, unless of course either of the females had been raped by the many gangs of bachelor males that cruise throughout the colony looking for trouble.

Approximately 60 days past laying, if all eggs miraculously survive the incubation phase, we’ll have at least 267 fluffy chicks wobbling about the plots, slurping of partially digested squid and toothbrushes collected by their parents from the reservoir of human waste that is the Pacific. Looking at the numbers the bulk of chicks will be hatching around my birthday on January 13th. Chicks, once hatched, take even longer to develop, especially if their parents are loading them with bits of plastic bags, cigarette lighters, and bottle caps.  Many will still retain their downy plumage when we depart the island in March, and most will not fledge until well into June and July, when hopefully I’ll be back surfing along the California Coast, with dog and beer waiting for me in the truck. It is highly probable that a fraction of the albatross I’ll surely observe soaring over swells next summer in Monterey will be birds that have hatched right here on Tern. I still find that to be an incredible thought.