Posts Tagged ‘birds’

Check out the R/V Pt. Sur Blog!

January 15, 2013

The research vessel Pt. Sur has nearly completed its 8,000 mile journey to Antarctica! While crossing the Drake Passage, the crew was able to capture some great photos of the wildlife they observed.  Check out the Pt. Sur Blog to see these pictures and learn about their adventures along the way to the Palmer Research Station where MLML scientists will be supporting various research groups for two months during Antarctica’s summer months.

Hourglass Dolphin sited by the Pt. Sur during their crossing across the Drake Passage.

Hourglass Dolphin sighted by the Pt. Sur during their voyage across the Drake Passage.  Photo: Scott Hansen

R/V Pt. Sur

R/V Pt. Sur

Did you know?

  • The Pt. Sur crossed the equator for the first time in history on December 18, 2012.
  • The Palmer Research Station is an 180,000 square kilometer study area located to the west of the Antarctic Peninsula. The researchers study the polar marine biome, focusing on the Antarctic pelagic marine ecosystem, including sea ice habitats, regional oceanography and terrestrial nesting sites of seabird predators.

    Adelie penguins at the Palmer Research Station.

    Adelie penguins at the Palmer Research Station.

  •  The Antarctic continent is home to the Adélie penguin, a true polar species that is dependent on the availability of sea ice which acts as a critical platform from which they forage for food. Palmer scientists have documented an 85 percent reduction in Adélie penguin populations along the western Antarctic Peninsula since 1974. These records provide some of the earliest evidence that regional climate warming is negatively impacting the marine ecosystem. Without sea ice, the Adélie penguin access to prey decreases and winter survival becomes more challenging.

Sheer Numbers of Shearwaters

March 23, 2011

Thousands of sooty shearwaters descend on Monterey Bay each summer. (photo: E. Loury)

Monterey Bay is not only a tourist attraction for visitors from all over the world, it is also a destination spot for animals from across the globe.  Some animal visitors swim the distance, like the leatherback sea turtles that journey from the beaches of Indonesia and Papua New Guinea.  Others just wing it for thousands of miles, like these seabirds called sooty shearwaters that hail all the way from New Zealand in flocks of hundreds and thousands.

Researchers think that the rich feeding conditions in the California Current are a major attraction for these long journeys.  MLML student Melinda Nakagawa put satellite tags on some sooty sheaterwaters to track their movements.  For her thesis, she is investigating how the birds move in relation to physical forces, such as winds and currents – such information will help us better understand these birds’ epic migrations.

Birdwatching on the Morning Drive

March 21, 2011

The Egret is as still as a statue.

I have been in traffic while driving toward Moss Landing from Santa Cruz more often then I prefer.  I have noticed Snowy Egrets, (Egretta thula), standing as still at statues around the wetland areas, almost at Moss Landing.  It’s nice to observe some birdlife while still in the comfort of my car.  If you watch closely you may see the statues move quickly and BOOM, they’ve caught a meal!  Be careful and slow down as the speed limit declines through the Moss Landing area – there are many Egrets and Gulls out and about!

Caught a worm.

Fishing for seabirds II

January 6, 2011

How DO marine ornithologists catch the birds they study?  Sometimes, it’s just like catching fish!

Of course, first you’ve got to find the birds.  The oceans are HUGE expanses.  They can be difficult to navigate, and birds can fly literally hundreds of miles in a single day!  Luckily for biologists, the most predictable place to find seabirds is actually on land, on a breeding colony during their reproductive season.  So, how does a biologist catch a seabird while it’s on a colony?  Amazingly, many seabirds exhibit no instinctual fear of humans while on their breeding colonies, and if they nest on flat ground then researchers can simply walk right up and touch them!

Albatross census. Photo: USFWS

In many places where birds nest on cliffs they also exhibit little fear when humans lean over from the top, just a few feet above them.  This allows biologists to employ a modified “fishing” pole, with a slip-knot noose, to grab a bird (loosely!) by the neck, nudge it off its perch, and gently guide it through the air (as it flaps in a startled flurry!), back up to the cliff top where measurements, blood draws, and other work can be done.

M. Murphy, fising for kittiwakes! Photo: N. Jones

Photo: N. Jones

How can it be that these animals, which routinely fly thousands of miles in a year, would just sit there and allow themselves to be captured on their breeding grounds?  Wouldn’t this lack of caution put the breeding birds at great risk of predation?  Yes, but… many seabird colonies are located on relatively small and terribly remote islands, and in prehistoric times, as the birds evolved their breeding habits and reproductive strategies, there were NO land predators whatsoever!  This is because many of these remote islands emerged as the tops of ancient volcanoes, which oozed and spewed and built their way straight from the depths of the oceans, and so were never associated with any parent land mass.


As such they remained for eons in isolation, free of any land predators.  Seabirds find these types of islands particularly suitable for breeding.  Without many foreign disturbances, they are left to partition the breeding habitat amongst themselves to a maximal extent.  Often, this means some VERY dense nesting aggregations!

Fishing for sea birds

December 11, 2010

Everyone knows how you catch a fish:   With a net, or with a pole, right?

NOAA ship Oscar Dyson, Bering Sea, 2010 (photo: N. Jones)

But, how do marine scientists manage to catch sea birds?  Can’t they just “fly away”?

Black-footed Albatross, NE Pacific; (photo: Bert Ashley)

Of course, most species can do just that!  So, how to get your hands on these shy creatures?  Wouldn’t it be nice if the birds just gathered in groups, like so many fishes do?

Fish aggregations recorded by echosounder

Wait …

Seabirds DO gather in groups – to nest at their breeding colonies,

Seabird colony on Buldir Island, Aleutians (photo: N. Jones)

… and sometimes at sea in large, drifting “rafts”!

Auklets (-Least, -Crested, -Parakeet), Buldir Island, Aleutians (photo: N. Jones)

…So, how to catch seabirds … hmmmm?

author Nate Jones, with a feathered friend

Icy Spring Time

June 27, 2010

Author: Nate Jones

It’s early June, and there’s still ice in the Bering Sea!  This year the seasonal ice cover has persisted late into the “spring” time.  Much later than in recent years.  In fact, it hasn’t felt much like springtime here on the water; it’s snowed (or, is it frozen fog?) on many days, and the mercury in the thermometer outside pools listlessly at about the 32F mark, even at high noon.  To be sure, the ice is melting, breaking up into pancakes, jumbled, layered, and amalgamated by spring storm waves and wind… but, sloowwly, slowly…  the water is still cold; as cold as the ice itself.  A reluctant catalyst, at best.

(ice) pancakes, anyone? It's June 2nd...

We are surveying on the R/V Thomas Thompson, a University of Washington UNOLS ship.  This is an ice-reinforced vessel, so we can push (carefully!) through this kind of cold slurry in search of oceanographic data.  The scientists on this cruise are primarily interested in measuring the physics and chemistry of the spring ice retreat, and the rich plankton communities that tend to bloom and grow during this transition time.  Like the first spring buds and shoots of green in a garden, the explosion of microscopic marine algae, diatoms, and copepods forms the base of a food web that will sustain all the fish we eat, and the seabirds, seals, and sea lions that also depend on them.  So, this is a very important time of year in the Bering Sea!

Sea Ice

Bering Sea surveys resume

May 5, 2010

Nate Jones

by Nate Jones, Vertebrate Ecology Lab

The seasonal ice is breaking up, and it’s time once again for oceanographers to motor out into the Bering Sea to check the vital signs of the rich sub-arctic.  This summer Brian Hoover and I (from Dr. Harvey’s Vertebrate Ecology Lab ) will spend many weeks observing seabirds and marine mammals while on scientific research vessels that ply the waters of the Bering, Chukchi, and Arctic.  We are participating in a large, coordinated research effort led by scientists from across the country and funded through the North Pacific Research Board’s BEST-BSIERP science plan.

Humpbacks and shearwaters feeding on the north side of an Aleutian pass (photo: NMML)

This plan applies research to every aspect of the marine environment – from the flow of currents and micro-nutrients, through the growth and transport of plankton, and on across an interconnected food web to include fish, seabirds, seals, walrus, whales, and even humans and our species’ relationship to the oceans.

Brian and I focus on marine birds and mammals for our studies.  While on these ships we will be counting and describing the animals we encounter, entering information as we observe the activity from the wheelhouse, high above the water.  This is a good location from which to appreciate the dynamism of these productive regions.  In the following four months we will be posting more pictures and stories about our studies, brining you along with us as we push through ice, buck storm swells, and glide through the glassy bliss of calm seas between.  Can’t wait!

A view from on high

Searching for missing penguins and avoiding projectile bird vomit

December 9, 2009

Kristen goes for the catch to get a satellite tag from a Gentoo penguin in a successful roundup (photo by P. Angiel)

Kristen Green

by Kristen Green, Ichthyology Lab

Before leaving my Antarctic camp last spring, we still had biological work to do which was a welcome break from the monotony of packing. The first was a last ditch effort to retrieve the last missing transmitter on a Chinstrap penguin. The satellite data indicated the bird was still coming to shore; sometime between 10 pm and 1 am, and somewhere in a three mile stretch of coastline between Demay and Patelnia. Dave planned to search at Patelnia and then walk back to Demay at midnight. My job was to search the colonies at Demay.

By 11 pm, I was starting to feel my headlamp wasn’t quite sufficient in  illuminating the distance I would have liked from fur seals. Surrounded by low guttural warning growls as I picked my way to the penguin colonies, I hailed Dave on the radio and was relieved to hear that he was on his way back. He too, was tired of waiting in the cold, navigating through minefields of territorial fur seals. We returned empty handed, morale sinking further as we tried to decipher Polish cooking instructions on the food stored at the tiny, unheated Polish refugio where we planned to stay the night. Later in the week the next satellite download revealed the transmitter had stopped transmitting signals all together, but at least we tried.

Had Kristen and Dave caught their rogue penguin, they would have proceeded to do something like this... (photo by P. Angiel)

Our final biological task was to count and band giant petrel chicks. Of the birds we work with, giant petrels are the most sensitive to disturbance. The chicks need to be old enough to fend for themselves since the parents will fly off immediately when we approach the colony. These are the largest birds we handle; the adults are about 25 lbs; the chicks are like big fuzzy 15 lb dough balls.

Despite their size, the giant petrels are primarily scavengers, and their defense mechanism is to project an oily vomit onto potential attackers. The best way to avoid this is to approach within 10 ft of a nest, and then sprint the last few feet to the nest, grabbing the chick quickly and holding the beak so it can breathe, but not regurgitate on the lucky person doing the banding. Giant petrels are known for their strong site fidelity, often returning to the same colony and the same nest each year. The bands help us to estimate this site fidelity, as well as measure over winter survival. This year’s chicks will fledge in about a month, and then live on the open ocean for the next 5 years before returning to the island to breed.

A giant (non-vomitting) petrel looks on (photo by P. Angiel)

A giant (non-vomitting) petrel looks on (photo: P. Angiel)

The bird work was done, but the chaos of packing continued. Sitting in the hut the night before we were scheduled to leave, surrounded by plastic bags with a laundry list of things to still accomplish, we found out via radio call that the ship was going to be delayed a full day. They needed better weather to offload researchers at another island field camp about 12 hours away. The gift of this extra day was a blessing, not only in needed time to finish closing camp, but also for me in being able to say goodbye to the island.

A tagged Gentoo penguin shows off its fashionable new satellite backpack (photo: K. Green)

Photo of the Week: Here’s Looking at – Who?

December 3, 2009

(photo by L. Whitman, submitted by and B. Hoover and N. Jones)

Counting birds is harder than its sounds when your place of observation is the ocean, not a bird feeder.  This week’s photo features Brian Hoover of the Vertebrate Ecology Lab up in Alaska looking for a clue – to what drives seabird distribution, that is.  Brian and Nate Jones, a Drop-In regular, spent several weeks on the Bering Sea this summer recording where and when they spotted seabirds, as well as gathering data on bird prey and oceanography patterns.

If you have a good caption for this illustrious researcher hard at work, submit it as a comment. We’ll post our favorite!

Just what kinds of birds might Brian be counting? Check out Nate’s previous posts on the Bering Sea to find out!

Into the storm

October 23, 2009
Photo: K. Benoit-Bird

Photo: K. Benoit-Bird

…Our research cruise on the Gold Rush got off to a bumpy start.  We were delayed in leaving Dutch Harbor after working to attach the acoustic equipment, rig up our nets, and wire our electronic devices into the ship’s circuitry.  All this had to be done before hitting the seas to gather any data, but it was tough to know that the clock was ticking.

So, we were impatient when we heard that the ocean would be rough, and we decided to motor out anyway and get going on our course.  As it turned out, we probably should have stayed in port, gone for beers and a hotel room, and waited for the water to calm down; We did not collect much usable data during that first 72 hours anyway!

A good sign of our impending experience was the ship’s barometer.  Keep in mind that anything under 29.92 is considered, on average, a “low” pressure event, and is likely associated with stormy weather…

Photo: C. Waluk

Photo: C. Waluk

The waves and wind slammed us as soon as we rounded the last point of land and pushed into the open Bering Sea waters.  The ship pitched and plunged, leaving us weightless, even as we braced and grabbed with our hands.  Everything that was not bolted or strapped down began to slip, slide, and slam every which way.  The Gold Rush turned into the storm, facing torrents of spray and heaving mountains of slate gray water.

Photo: N. Jones

Photo: N. Jones

Up and up we would rise, pushing through choppy, liquid cornice crests, only to plunge steeply into dark troughs.

The height of the ship's rail is approx. 15' above waterline...

The height of the ship's rail is approx. 15' above waterline...

Even the captain, Bert Ashely, who has 30 years’ fishing experience in the Bering Sea, marveled at how unseasonably rough these waters were:  seas of perhaps 12-18’, and winds a sustained 40+ knots.

Photo: N. Jones

Photo: N. Jones

Photo: N. Jones

Photo: N. Jones

Blog entry: Nate Jones

Blog entry: Nate Jones

And yet, it was the middle of summer…

This was how I spent my July 17th and 18th.


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