Monday, November 4, 2013


Another prolonged gap between updates, but yet again I am gearing up to set out on a few more adventures I hope to archive here on this blog. 

I finished my seabird job on the Columbia River in Oregon at the end of August. We successfully banded over 400 cormorants (if my memory serves me), deployed dozens of satellite transmitters, monitored the breeding success of a robust colony of nearly 10,000 birds (again if my memory serves me), and enjoyed some beautiful views of the mighty Columbia River. I would have liked to have written more about my experiences working with Bird Research Northwest but I found myself sleeping a lot while not out in the field.  I did however manage to take a bounty of photos which paint a decent picture of the project, so instead I’ll share a few of them here.

View from  Aerie Blind looking over the cormorant colony. Notice the flies.  

Brandt's Cormorant with rich blue eyes. 
Double-crested Cormorant in breeding display posture.

Brandt's Cormorant stands over the first of possibly 3-5 eggs in a clutch. 

Caspian Terns brings in a recent catch, appears to be an anchovies. 

Double-crested Cormorant fends off loafing Brown Pelicans. 

Looking west across the cormorant colony from the BRAC Blind. 

Satellite transmitter and harness on the back of a Double-crested Cormorant.  

Double-crested Cormorant with alpha-numeric color band and its brood. 

Night capture and banding of Double-crested Cormorants. 

Our galaxy the Milky Way over cormorant base camp. 

More recently I have spent the last two months boosting my bank account working as a whale watching captain, naturalist, and deckhand at my old stomping grounds on the Monterey Bay. From seabirds, to whales, I move inland a bit; combing through my gear and loading the truck with enough winter supplies to survive a two week long car camping trip through the Owens Valley, with my dog and my boyfriend Casey for company. For those of you who haven’t had the opportunity to take a drive down the scenic highway 395 on the eastern side of the majestic Sierra Nevada range I highly recommend you find time to do it. You will see why in the posts to come, if in fact I get my act together and start writing again. 

Upon our return, after refueling for Thanksgiving with the parents, Casey and I will then head off to New Zealand for a marine mammal conference and some much needed time with Southern Hemisphere albatrosses. Sadly Reef will have to stay home for this one. So stay tuned everyone, if anyone is still out there, I plan to get this site up and running again in the coming weeks. 

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

A Tough Job

Not every day goes as planned. In fact some days seem plagued with failure. Yesterday was one of those days. After a late start to the harbor, we loaded camping equipment onto the boat and headed out in a light rain to the island. The tide was high, so we took the faster approach around the north end. It took two runs to transport all the gear, and by the time I got the boat moored and had the dingy on the beach it was nearly lunch time. We decided to finish up the final section of tunnels before breaking for a sandwich. The pull start generator fired up right away and promptly died. It was out of gas. Where was the spare gas tank? On the boat of course. So Carly and I took the long walk down the beach to the dingy, dragged it to the water’s edge, and prepared for the paddle out. The tide was going out, creating a swift westward current along the shore. It’s not a far paddle to the moored boat, but it can be difficult in a small inflatable boat with crappy oars. We made it out to the boat with no problem, pulled up alongside, and grabbed the spare gas tank. 
Getting back to shore was another story. The current nearly carried us past a line of old pilings and a rock jetty, beyond which is the open mighty Columbia. Luckily we managed to paddle just inside the jetty in the lee of the current, and walked the dingy along the shallow shore back to where we had launched.

Finally brought the gas back to the work site and I started filling up the generator. The funnel was not quite in the hole and I was spilling gas everywhere, and as I tried to adjust the angle failure number two happened; the funnel slipped out of the hole dropping the tank to the ground. Like a geyser gas gushed from the tank right into my face, getting all over my head, eyes, and mouth. It burned more than I thought it would for a good five minutes. Luckily we had water handy and were able to thoroughly flush out my eyes, although I was now soaking wet both outside from the rain and inside…along with smelling of gas.

No time to complain, I got back to work. Finished covering the section of the tunnel, and worked on filling old tired with sand and nest material to help encourage the cormorants to nest near the blinds and capture windows. As we were filling the tires, the wind suddenly began to gust a good 20 knots, instantly creating whitecaps on the water. I joked around by yelling “MICROBURST”, but in all honesty it was a similar feeling just on a smaller scale. I initially thought a squall was passing through and it would lie down again, but the wind just kept increasing. Turns out the low pressure system that was scheduled to rear its ugly head later that evening had arrived early, and the wind swiftly jumped to a sustained 30 knots. We thought we would be stuck on the island until the system passed over – possibly overnight – but we braved the wind and made it to land before the full force of the weather settled in.

After a solid three weeks we have finished up prep on the cormorant side of the island. Tunnels are covered, observation blinds secured and windows cleaned, camp is basically set up, and the outhouse has been installed. Now we just have to wait for the birds to settle in. There have been a couple hundred Double-crested Cormorants and a handful of Brandt’s Cormorants flying over the island all week, still have many thousands more to go. Caspian Terns are filling in as well, some even with a fish in bill, practicing I guess for when the chicks hatch in several months time. They nest on the east side of the island, and have been loafing in healthy numbers on the eastern sandbar at low tide amongst Ring-billed and Mew Gulls. We will be working on the Tern Colony prep next, which should only take a week or so. It’s been many runs back and forth from the harbor to the island hauling gear and trash, and I think it’s safe to say that we’re all ready to get started on the biology aspect of this project.

On a side note we've been seeing many Horned and Eared Grebes in breeding plumage around the island, huge flocks of Surf Scoters, a few Common Loons looking sharp with their white collars, pesky Bald Eagles that roost on dead trees and pilings, and the occasional River Otter hauled out and resting on the docks in the harbor. The weather has been mostly pleasant, with the occasional wind storm. 

Sunday, March 24, 2013


With training now complete, most of the past week has been dominated by the construction of a 600 ft long network of tunnels in the cormorant colony on East Sand Island. Unlike the unassuming albatrosses that allowed us to walk straight up to their nests on Tern Island, Double-crested Cormorants are especially sensitive to human disturbance. We simply can’t just strut about the colony during breeding season. If we did all the birds would flush and abandon their nests regardless of their contents, leaving any eggs or chicks exposed to the ravenous Glaucous-winged/Western Gulls that also breed on East Sand. The tunnels will allow us to navigate the colony and access observation blinds without causing disturbance. Special capture spurs outfitted with trap doors will also permit us to temporarily remove birds from their nests to be outfitted with tracking devices like satellite tags. The Google Earth image of the cormorant colony on East Sand shows the old network of tunnels similar to what we are building this year on a different part of the island. The black dots are Double-crested Cormorants on nest bowls made of sticks and debris. The white coloration is cormorant shit that I will coat everything, including me, by the end of the season.

As you can imagine building over 600 feet of tunnels on a cold sandy island at the mouth the Columbia is not the easiest of tasks, and requires a fare bit of labor. We first had to construct the vertebrae and framework of the tunnels back in Astoria, and move all materials by boat across tidal flats and onto site. An ATV helped with moving some of the heavier gear like generators and air compressors. A-frames roughly four feet high make up the backbone of the tunnels spaced about 15ft apart, held together by 2x4’s running along the apex. Silt fencing draped over the skeleton provides the skin, anchored into the sand by burying the edges. The fencing is pulled tight and tacked into place with slats and staples. Access points in and out the tunnels are caped with wooden blinds and the terminal ends contain capture spurs that branch like arteries into the colony. Double-crested Cormorants apparently like to nest in old tires, which are strategically placed near the capture spurs to encourage birds to nest near the trap doors. We are nearly finished with laying out the framework and fencing, and should have the entire network ready for use by the end of the week. There is also a Caspian Tern colony on the opposing side of the island that will require some set up as well before the birds begin to arrive sometime next month. 

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Welcome to Astoria

Training and construction is still underway for the upcoming nesting season. Rather than bore you the causal blog reader with the details of proper power tool usage or how euthanize a lab rat, instead I’ll run down a brief history of the town I’ll be working out of for the next four to six months.

Astoria Oregon is a modest collection of quaint old Victorian houses perched in rows along a steep terraced hillside. Most residents have a view of the handsome green Astoria-Megler Bridge spanning the mighty Columbia River, connecting Oregon to Washington. My bedroom window overlooks some of downtown and Washington on the northern banks of the Columbia. When fog infiltrates the river I can hear the deep baritone of ships blasting their fog horns, sometimes at two in the morning.

Not only famous for its role in “The Goonies”, Astoria happens to be the oldest settlement on the west coast. John Jacob Astor, a wealthy fur trader from New York, saw great potential in the abundance of pinnipeds in the North Pacific. In 1811 he established a settlement then referred to as Fort Astoria, which served as the hub of the fur trade industry on the west coast and led to the creation of the North American Fur Trade in the following years; responsible for removing over 150,000 Northern Fur Seals from the Farallon Islands and many more from various other rockeries in the region. Astor’s success in the fur trade and in part through real-estate in New York made him the wealthiest man in America when he died in 1848; he was worth at least 20 million. Not sure how much of his estate was left to the town that bears his name, but I’m sure the Goonie tourists who must flock to this place bring enough revenue to keep Astoria afloat.

Like most people I know little about the War of 1812, but apparently during that time a British warship entered the Columbia River and occupied Astoria in an effort to seize control of the lucrative fur trade. Although the war was over in less than three years, the British remained in Astoria, known by them as Fort George, from 1813 through 1818. I’m rather glad the British decided to do this; Fort George is one of, if not the finest Brew Pub in town. They even have a corn-hole court and a foosball table in the tasting room.

As mentioned Astoria sits along the mighty Columbia River, the largest river in the Pacific Northwest and the fourth largest river by volume of discharge in the United States. The fingers and branches of its massive watershed reach well into the northern Cascades of British Columbia. The combination of strong tidal currents, high discharge rates, and powerful North Pacific swells make the Columbia River bar the most hazardous crossing on the west coast. Thousands of vessels and over 700 lives have been lost trying to navigate the entrance to the Columbia. Vessel traffic in and out of Portland just upstream and salmon fisherman in the summer make the Columbia a busy waterway, and add to the rate of maritime accidents. We will be working on an East Sand Island in the river itself, launching from the Washington side, and although the currents and shifting mud flats will make the work challenging, luckily we won’t have to brave the bar. 

Also I made a mistake on the map of East Sand on my previous post, the sliver to the right is the actual island we will be working on. 

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Terning the Page

The purpose of this blog has been to update friends and family (and recently those interested in the storm that destroyed Tern Island) on my travels; a kind of autobiographical resume of the past three years and counting. If you’ve been following, mainly Mom, you’ll recall I’ve covered a range of topics from studying the migration and behavior of Humpback Whales in Australia, working on noisy dredge vessels in the Indian Ocean, viewing spectacular wildlife in New Zealand, monitoring breeding seabirds in Tasmania, Alaska, Southeast Farallon Island, and the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, to interacting with a diverse swatch of interesting and sometimes challenging personalities. After a harrowing experience marooned 2,000 miles from any continent, I’m now taking a more domestic route with a job in Oregon this summer. After applying for many positions, I’ve settled on a seasonal summer job as a seabird technician with Oregon State University on East Sand Island at the mouth the Columbia River (see map below).

East Sand Island has recently become the largest breeding colony of Double-crested Cormorants in Western North America with nearly 28,000 birds, along with a healthy breeding population of Caspian Terns. I’ve yet to receive a detailed description of my role in the project, but I’m assuming the majority of my time will be spent in the colony working with the cormorants. I’ve been fortunate to handle many different kinds of seabirds over the past two years, from small storm-petrels to massive albatrosses, and cormorants have thus far been the most challenging and aggressive birds I’ve worked with. As a side project on Middleton Island in the Gulf of Alaska, we were capturing and banding Pelagic Cormorants. Compared to the relatively calm kittiwakes we mainly worked with, the cormorants were an adrenaline filled experience. They have powerful legs for diving, sharp nails for grasping cliff faces, and hooked beaks at the end of a long squirrelly maneuverable neck for catching fish. All of these attributes, along with an infestation of lice and an immediate defecation and vomit response whenever handled, makes working with them a rather painful and aromatic endeavor. Their parasites would often leap from the plumage and take up temporary residence in my beard and the birds had an incredible knack for finding and re-opening previous wounds on my hands. Yet field work by definition is a hands on dirty proposition, so I welcome the challenge of wrestling these feisty birds and to once again get my hands dirty…and probably gain some more bird scars in the process. More information on the drive to Oregon and the research on Sand Island to come. As always in the interim for now I continue to enjoy my free time surfing Santa Cruz.