Posts Tagged ‘birds’

Bumpy Bering Sea Summer

September 29, 2009

Don’t trust that twinkle in Jacques Cousteau’s eye!

Jacques Cousteau

Jacques Cousteau


Photo: Amanda M.

And, don’t be fooled by the idyllic photo that my friend Amanda M. took at her field site on Palmyra Atoll…

I’m here to remind everyone that Marine Science is not always bikinis, cocktails, warm sand, and sunsets.

(hmmm… should I have read the fine print before signing up?  Shelby, do you need a field assistant in Panama?).

There is much to be studied in the cooler latitudes, and the abundance of marine birds and mammals truly defies description.

HUWH and Shearwaters_resized

Photo: NOAA / NMML

Perhaps the greatest challenge in working at high latitudes is the weather.  Specifically, what the weather can do to you while you’re working on the ocean!

Research time at sea is always an adventure, and usually it is a grand and engaging one at that.  But it can also be tiring, physically uncomfortable, and monotonous… or even a little too thrilling!  A friend of mine that sails frequently describes long ocean crossings as “days of boredom interrupted by moments of absolute terror”.

This summer I spent another 28 days out on the Bering Sea, studying the foraging ecology of seabirds and fur seals.  This was the second and final summer of data collection for my thesis work, which is funded as a component of the North Pacific Research Board’s Patch Dynamics Study

I spent my time on the contracted vessel R/V Gold Rush, which is a 99’ trawler that spends most every day of the year working in the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Seas.


Photo: L. Whitman

As you might expect, this ship is sturdy, well-maintained, and operated by a very skilled and competent crew.  Nonetheless we did encounter some ocean conditions that slowed our progress and reminded us just how small we were…

Posted by:

Nate Jones

Nate Jones

Marching with Penguins

October 13, 2008
Kristen Green

Kristen Green

Imagine waking up, stepping outside, and being surrounded by nothing but snow, ice – and lots of penguins.  Such an opportunity is enough for even the most dedicated grad student to put a thesis on hold and hop a flight to Antarctica.  For the next five months, Kristen Green of the Ichthyology Lab is switching gears from studying fish to their feathered counterparts: the penguins.  What will this glamorous field work at the ends of the Earth entail?

Kristen writes:

The box at the end of the Antarctic Penninsual is King George Island

This arrow leads to King George Island (box at the end of the Antarctic Peninsula)

“It’s hard to write an email describing what you are going to be doing for the next five months, but I leave Saturday, October 11th to conduct research on penguins on a small field station in the Antarctic. I will be working with four other scientists on King George Island [at the tip of the Antarctic peninsula], at a field station known as “Copacabana.” Not the tropical resort you might have had in mind…instead, the temperatures might reach a balmy 5 degrees C (40 degrees F) in the height of summer.  Minimum temperatures can reach -5 degrees C (22 degrees F). We will be there from mid-October to mid-March. This photo of the station is taken during the Antarctic summer, and as you can see, much of the snow has melted.  But when we arrive, the island will still be covered in snow and ice.

Copacabana research station - a bit of a cruel joke in naming

Copacabana research station - a bit of a cruel joke in naming

Penguin research began at King George Island in 1976. It’s pretty amazing to be part of a research group that has been studying the ecology and demography (population characteristics) of the region’s penguin and flying bird populations for over 30 years. Briefly, the main two scientific objectives of the study are to: 1) quantify the reproductive success and survival of penguin populations in the area, and 2) to investigate these population dynamics in response to prey-predator relationships and environmental variability. Some of this involves simply stepping out the door to get to work, while other penguin colonies are as far as 12 miles away.

Our closest neighbor is the Polish Research Station, Arctowski, which we visit every week, for showers (yeah!), laundry, & socializing. Copa also receives visitors from other research ships passing through the bay, as well as cruise ships carrying tourists. We also coordinate with these ships to get re-supplied with food and other necessities.”

Wish Kristen luck and stay tuned for more of her chilly escapades!

Birds of the Bering Sea – Rough Times

October 5, 2008
Nate Jones

Nate Jones

by Nate Jones, Vertebrate Ecology Lab

June 7, 2008: A short entry, because I’m seasick! The weather has definitely taken a turn for the worse! So much for the calm Bering Sea in summertime. We have a gale going, with winds to just over 40 knots, and seas of 15-20 feet. I went up on the bridge this morning to look and see the stormy weather. I was excited to experience this, because it’s definitely part of what makes this ocean what it is. I could barely keep my feet as the boat lurched from side to side. The spray from the waves was lashing across the windows, blown by the wind. That’s like 40 feet off the water! OOooppf. I couldn’t stay very long. I didn’t even take a picture, unfortunately. But, the US Coast Guard is nice enough to provide some stock footage on their website that I’ll borrow here to demonstrate what I saw:

J. Minchew, USCG)

Bering Sea storm (photo: J. Minchew, USCG)

Lucky for me, our scientific instructions (protocols) tell us not to survey in this weather because it’s too difficult to see birds anyway. I mean, c’mon – How many birds can you see in this photo?!

Birds of the Bering Sea – Seabird Surveys begin!

October 3, 2008

Nate Jones

Nate Jones

by Nate Jones, Vertebrate Ecology Lab

June 5,  2008:  I am finally out counting seabirds! Fulmars flap, storm petrels flit, and murres paddle along the still ocean waters. Perhaps the Bering Sea is finally settling down for some summer sleep. At times the surface is so smooth I can see the silhouette of my own shape, dancing in reflection on its silky surface. The days are long, though the light is dimmed by the heavy, intermittent fog and constant overcast. It is difficult to judge distances in this lighting. Our world spans a continuum between black and white, but we see little color. Everything is some shade of gray; the sky, the horizon, the water. From our perch, 40 feet high up on the bridge of the boat, the whole experience is quite surreal. Sometimes the view seems unchanging, and it is difficult to tell if we’re even moving at all!

B. Parkinson

Forked-taiil Storm Petrel (photo: B. Parkinson)

Luckily, there are birds to punctuate this monotonous tranquility! So far we’ve seen fulmars, kittiwakes, puffins, murres, storm petrels, and shearwaters. Fulmars and shearwaters are closely related, considered to be in the same taxonomic family. These birds travel great distances at sea – thousands of miles – to follow the seasons and stay near productive ocean hotspots. They race past me on strong steady wings, arcing and diving if it’s windy, brushing within inches of the wavelets and then climbing abruptly above the ship. When it’s calm they speed along with stiff, powerful wingbeats.


Shearwaters (photo: NOAA / NMML)

We see tremendous color variation in fulmars. Some are almost white, others a near uniform dark brown, and many more are some mix in between, splotched and peppered with contrasting feathers. (more…)

Birds of the Bering Sea: A Long Journey to an Arctic “Hotspot”

June 25, 2008
Nathan Jones

Nathan Jones

by Nathan Jones

May 25, 2008. Moss Landing, California – The Bering Sea is a long way from Moss Landing, California. It’s a long way from most anywhere, actually. To begin my summer of field work, I must first fly from San Francisco, California to Seattle, Washington. In Seattle I will change planes and fly to Anchorage, Alaska. From Anchorage I’ll catch a small propeller plane and fly low over the mountains, glaciers, and the vast wilderness of Southwest Alaska to stop briefly in King Salmon, where we will refuel, and then continue on out along the foggy Aleutian Island chain to land in Dutch Harbor, Alaska. I will then board a research vessel that will motor for fifteen hours out into the Bristol Bay portion of the Bering Sea and there, at last, I will begin my work. It will probably take me three long days.

Map courtesy of NOAA

Map of the Bering Sea near Alaska (NOAA)

Humans are not the only animals that eat fish, of course! Seabirds flock by the millions to feed on fish in the Bering Sea, and also on energy-rich krill (tiny crustaceans, similar to a shrimp). These krill grow to become so numerous in summer that they form dense undersea clouds that can stretch for miles. Krill, known to scientists as euphausiids, are eaten by fish; in fact, we feed them to our own pet goldfish, in dried and flaked form! They are also the favorite food of many whales, which use their thick baleen plates to strain these tiny creatures from the water in huge, lunging mouthfuls.

Birds and whales feed together in Alaska

Because they like to eat similar kinds of food, whales and seabirds can oftentimes be seen congregating to feed together in productive areas that contain especially large amounts of fish and euphausiids. Such places are usually characterized by turbulence and the mixing of cold(er) and warm(er) ocean water. What is it about the turbulent combination of cold and warm water that attracts the euphausiids and fish?

During the next two months I will spend most of my time on the ocean. I will be taking special interest in these foraging hotspots, trying to learn more about how seabirds find and exploit them.

If you’re interested in learning more, Nate recommends the following websites:

To learn more about the North Pacific/Bering Sea where Nate will be working, check out the National Pacific Research Board, Bering Climate, North Pacific Ocean Theme Page, and Arctic Change.

To learn more about wildlife, check out these resources for marine mammals, seabirds and fish.

Balloons are no party for marine wildlife

June 8, 2008

Danielle Frechette

by Danielle Frechette, Vertebrate Ecology Lab

Hi, my name is Danielle. I am a graduate student in the Vertebrate Ecology lab, and I need your help with a problem we are having in our ocean right here off the coast of California. I noticed this problem when I was working on a whale watch boat in Monterey Bay.

The winter months (December through April) is gray whale season here in California. Gray whales spend the summer in Alaska, where they feed in cold, nutrient rich waters. At the end of the summer they head down to Mexico, to give birth to their calves and mate in the warm, shallow waters of Baja California. Here in California we are lucky, because they travel right along our coast on their way to and from Mexico. On February 15th and 16th I was out on the whale watch boat, looking for gray whales. We found whales, but we also found balloons. LOTS of balloons.

Each time we saw a balloon, we stopped the boat, and our deckhand used a gaff hook (a long pole with a hook on the end that is normally used for grabbing the lines we use to tie the boat to the dock) to grab the balloon out of the water. During those two days alone, we picked up 14 balloons! Each balloon was either pink, or a heart shaped Mylar balloon, which means they were all probably released on Valentine’s day, either accidentally or on purpose. We only traveled across a small part of Monterey Bay, and if we had traveled across more of the bay, I do not know how many more we would have found!

Fourteen balloons is a lot to find in only two days. It is not unusual, however, to see one or two balloons on an average day of whale watching in Monterey Bay.

Balloons can kill marine wildlife like this Northern fulmar. Note the balloons wrapped tightly around its wing, and hemorrhaged leg (BeachCOMBERS)

One of the problems with balloons is that they can look a lot like jellies. Animals like endangered sea turtles eat jellies, and they can accidentally eat balloons, thinking they are jellies. This seems surprising, that a balloon could be mistaken for food. More than once though, I have looked over the side of my whale watch boat to see a large jelly floating near the surface, but as we got closer, I

realized that it was not a jelly at all, but a big Mylar balloon. If I, with my human brain, can mistake a balloon for a jelly, it is easy to understand how a hungry turtle can make the same mistake!

I don’t only see balloons out in the ocean. Almost every time I go for a walk on the beach, I see balloons all tangles around kelp, driftwood, and even wildlife, like the northern fulmar in this photograph.

I need you to help me figure out how the balloons get out into the ocean. Also, I need you to help me figure out how the balloons affect wildlife like sea turtles, birds, and marine mammals. I would also like you to help me figure out what we can do to help decrease the number of balloons that make it out into the ocean.

You can use these websites to answer the following questions, and help me keep our oceans free of balloons!



1. How do balloons get into the ocean?
2. Give three examples of how marine animals are affected by balloons.
3. What are the laws in California regarding balloons?
4. What can you do to help prevent balloon from harming marine wildlife?


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