Karl Eliason's Diary

Tuesday, June 14, 2005 Friday June 10, 2005
Night, June 9-10, 2005 Night, June 8-9, 2005
Wednesday, June 8, 2005 Night, June 7-8, 2005
Tuesday, June 7, 2005 Monday, June 6, 2005
Night, June 5-6, 2005 Night, June 4-5, 2005
Night, June 3-4, 2005 Night, June 2-3, 2005
Thursday, June 2, 2005 Wednesday, June 1, 2005
Tuesday, May 31, 2005 Monday, May 30, 2005
Tuesday, May 24, 2005 Monday, May 16, 2005
Thursday, March 17, 2005 Monday, February 7, 2005

Tuesday, June 14, 2005 Now that I’m back home and have had two full nights of sleep, I’ve had a chance to reflect on the last couple of weeks. Actually, it feels like we crammed three or four weeks into the two weeks.
It’s impossible to adequately summarize the experience. I’ve seen a lot, learned a lot, and had the privilege to know and work with some really great people over the course of the project. I like to think that I also was able to contribute to the success of the project.
One thing that this journal doesn’t capture is the value of various discussions with our diverse group about the environment, as well as other social and political issues. Being the only American, this was a good chance for me to hear viewpoints and learn about cultures from other areas of the world.
Thanks to the wonderful staff at A Rocha. We all certainly gained a VERY positive perception of the Portuguese people and of the A Rocha organization. I think several of us also gained some weight thanks to the fantastic food.
Thanks to Alcoa for sponsoring Earthwatch and allowing me the opportunity to participate.
And thanks to Dr. Rob Thomas, the principal investigator of the storm petrel project. His energy and enthusiasm is unbelievable, and his knowledge and talents are impressive. In spite of all that, he is a genuinely good guy and a pleasure to work with. I can only assume that his future accomplishments and contributions will be extraordinary.

Friday June 10, 2005 We had lunch and left for Sagres on our second attempt at a boat trip to view the storm petrels in the open ocean. When we got there, the boat captain had bad news for us once again. This time there was a problem with the boat engine, and he couldn’t take us out. After lots of inquiries, the staff was able to arrange another smaller boat out of Lagos, so we loaded up and headed over there.
The boat in Lagos was designed for tourists to view dolphins, and it was a like a large rubber raft with seats that remind me of an amusement park ride. The captain thought we were a strange group that wanted to see birds instead of dolphins, but he was very accommodating.
Our group devised a portable mist net on a large bamboo frame that we wanted to experiment with as a method to catch storm petrels at sea. The boat captain had no problem with us bringing that and our other equipment on board, but you could tell he thought we were nuts.
After we got out about 16 kilometers (10 miles), set up our portable net, and started playing the petrel sounds over the loudspeaker, the captain knew for sure that we were all nuts. There was nothing but open water in every direction. After about 10 minutes, the first storm petrel showed up followed by a few more. It wasn’t very long before the boat captain was checking out the birds and asking us questions about the birds and the project. Our reputations were saved.
We had some close fly-bys to the portable net, but the birds could easily see the bamboo frame, so it wasn’t too surprising that we didn’t catch any. It was neat to see the birds in daylight and in their element—the open ocean. In addition to the European storm petrels, we saw some Wilson’s storm petrels, which are about twice as big as the European species. We also saw some Corey’s shearwaters, which are relatively large seabirds but not so big as an albatross.
The A Rocha staff prepared an extra special dinner for us this evening, and afterwards there was a wrap-up presentation of the results and some special awards.
The total number of birds caught was 267, which by itself is a pretty good sample size for an entire year. For the temperature/weight study, there needs to be a minimum sample size of 100 birds, with 200 providing a more accurate average. We went well over that with this first Earthwatch group, so the next two groups will be able to concentrate more on the beach videos and perhaps on experimenting at other capture locations. The other highlights are seven British and two Norwegian tagged birds caught. Then there were several vomit samples showing the small sand hoppers that indicate storm petrels feeding at night on beaches. We also captured 1.5 seconds of video from the beach that shows what we all believe is a storm petrel landing and flying off again—but it looks a bit like a UFO.
Awards were given to volunteers for:
  • The most seasick—Marcos
  • The most enthusiastic—Terry
  • The sleepiest field worker—Tie between Said and Manuella
  • The least likely to get home alive—Said

Night, June 9-10, 2005 This was our last night out, and we went to a second capture site at Cape St. Vincent. The area’s landscape was awesome, but apparently it was not as well-suited for catching petrels. We caught only four birds all night. One theory is that there was a large flock of seagulls, which are predators to the much smaller petrels, nearby.
None of the four birds caught had one of our rings, but one of them did have a previous ring from Norway. Since there was not much work to do with so few birds, we did some testing to see how well you can sleep on rocks. The conclusion is that in a pinch, you can actually get some sleep on solid rock.
An interesting fact about the petrels has to do with their weight, which is one of the key measurements we take on each bird caught. It is counterintuitive to me, but when more food is available, the birds will have a lower average weight. The birds’ strategy is a trade-off between keeping body weight low for more efficient flying and maintaining enough body fat reserves to get them by during periods when they don’t find food. So when food is abundant, the birds figure that they will not have too much trouble finding food and don’t need the added burden of carrying around extra fat reserves.

Night, June 8-9, 2005 The wind died down, and it was really quite pleasant out on the cliff this evening, especially compared to the last night. This night, we caught a total of 36 petrels with one that had previously been ringed in Norway.
A few of us went on a different quest for a couple of hours to film with infrared video equipment at a nearby beach. The attempt was to try to catch on film storm petrels feeding on the beach. Storm petrels are thought to only come to shore to breed, but the principal investigator of the project has a theory that they might feed at night on small crustaceans (sand hoppers) that are only found on sand beaches. Last year, he found what looked like a sand hopper in a vomit sample from a caught petrel (petrels sometimes will vomit as a defense mechanism when they are caught in the net). This year, we already have a handful of vomit samples that show the same evidence. If we can get some clear video, it would be positive proof that storm petrels occasionally come to shore to feed as well as to breed. Unfortunately, we didn’t capture any birds in our video attempt, but this will be a stronger objective for the Earthwatch team that follows us.

Wednesday, June 8, 2005 In the afternoon, three of us Earthwatch volunteers went to help with a different project that is sponsored by A Rocha (the bird observatory where we are staying). The project is at the nearby beach in Alvor and involves roping off a nesting area and putting up signs. There are two types of seabirds here—the tern and plover—which make their nests right in the sand on the beach. The nests are camouflaged pretty well, so it is very easy for swimmers to accidentally step on them. In fact, we had to watch carefully when we were putting up the posts, as we ran across a couple of nests that were not easy to see at first glance.

Night, June 7-8, 2005 It was still very windy, and the waves were huge crashing against the rocks at the base of the cliff. We only caught 12 birds all night long, most likely due to the wind. Shining a large flashlight over the water, we could see birds flying around a ways out from shore, but they didn’t seem to want to come in.
I guess this would be a good place to mention why the birds are called storm petrels. It’s not known for sure how they got the name, but “storm” comes from the belief of old time sailors that storm petrels flying around the boat indicated that a storm was coming. The other explanation is that sometimes storm petrels are blown a mile or two inland during strong storms. Since they typically only live out at sea, the only time people on land might see them was after a storm. The explanation for “petrel” is that this is the Portuguese name for Peter. The way that petrels feed looks a bit like walking on water, the way they kind of hop and flutter along the surface. It is thought that the name comes from the story of the apostle Peter walking on water.

Tuesday, June 7, 2005 We left at 9 a.m. for the city of Sagres to take a boat trip out to see storm petrels in daylight and on the open ocean. Unfortunately, when we got to the harbor, the winds had picked up quite a bit and the ocean was too rough to go out. Instead, we explored the area around Cape St. Vincent, which is the most southwesterly corner of Europe.
We found a second site to catch birds on a future night with the idea (hope) that we might catch one of the birds we had ringed on a previous night, since Cape St. Vincent is farther along the migration route. We also found a really nice beach at the base of a couple of cliffs, and the area here was just stunning. We stopped at a restaurant at the harbor in Sagres and had a very typical Portuguese meal of grilled sardines, which were excellent.

Monday, June 6, 2005 This was our scheduled day off, and the timing couldn’t have been better. Some of the group went for a trip up into the Monchique hills nearby, but I opted to stay back and catch a couple more hours of sleep. That evening, we all went to the town of Lagos for some shopping and a celebration of the previous night’s catch.

Night, June 5-6, 2005 What a crazy night! Almost from the time the nets were set up, the birds started coming. The total for the night was 106. Out of these, there were five birds that were previously tagged in Britain and one previously tagged in Norway
Since we were so busy and wanted to minimize the amount of time that the birds were held, we had to quit taking some of the less important data in order to keep up. I started the night taking photos of the wingbar, which is a pattern on the underside of the wing. This was a step we had to quit in order to keep up. The rest of the night I switched between cataloguing feather samples and releasing birds when they were through processing.
The team of volunteers is now a model of efficiency, and the poor overworked staff doesn’t have to answer questions quite so constantly. Still, everyone was exhausted by the end of the night as there were not many chances to take a break. Of course, when we hit number 100, there was a quick break to take a group photo and celebrate a bit. To put the number 106 in context, there were 116 total caught for all of 2004 and 112 for all of 2003.
Interesting petrel fact of the day—there is no easy method to determine the sex of these birds. Later DNA analysis of the feather samples is the only sure way to tell. We are photographing the wingbar to help find if variations in these patterns may be consistent with males and females and perhaps provide a method to determine the sex in the field.

Night, June 4-5, 2005 On the third night of ringing, the wind was less, and it was quite a bit warmer. We tried positioning the nets a bit differently, and we caught a new high of 43 petrels.
Each night, the volunteers trade jobs so that everyone gets a chance to learn each role. This night I was a “net watchman.” We set up 60 meters (197 feet) total length of nets every night. When a bird gets caught, it is best to get it out as quickly as possible since its struggling usually gets it tangled up worse. Basically, the net watchman sits in the dark watching a section of net. Then every so often you turn on your headlamp and walk the length of the net to check for any caught birds that weren't seen getting caught. With all the lights off, your eyes adjust surprisingly well to the dark. Many times, you will see a storm petrel flying around the area for awhile before it runs into the net. Several times, I saw a bird hit the net, bounce out, and fly away. I suppose that is were the term "birdie" comes from in the game of badminton. Every so often, a bird will hit the net and fall to the ground. Since they are not afraid of humans, you can usually walk over and pick them up.
The interesting petrel fact for the day is that about 5% of the birds caught have some kind of leg or foot disability. Often they are missing a foot or a portion of the leg. It is not known how they get these injuries, but it doesn’t seem to seriously affect their ability to survive. One theory is that the injuries are caused by predatory fish. Each night of ringing, we have photographed several examples of these injuries.

Night, June 3-4, 2005 Before dinner, we had an informal strategy session to work on better defining the roles and assignments. This is the first year that Earthwatch has been involved with this storm petrel project, and we are the first of three groups of volunteers. So, we are all learning as we go.
The second night of work was much colder and very windy. It was also a slower night for bird catching, with 24 being caught.
The capture site is kind of a surreal environment. Behind you is a 61-meter (200-foot) cliff, and in front of you and down about nine meters (30 feet) is the rocky shore of the ocean, with waves pounding away. Above is an incredible view of the stars, with an occasional shooting star if you watch for awhile. It is very dark except for the small flashlights each of us has strapped to our heads. Add to that view the very strange sound of petrel breeding calls blaring from the loudspeakers. I hope to post a link to a sound file so you can get an idea of what it sounds like—and it’s nothing like singing.
The birds themselves are kind of surreal. Except for breeding, they live their entire lives out at sea, and they have not developed a fear of humans. When they are released, they often hang around awhile before flying off. They will even sit calmly in your open hand. They have tiny webbed feet and are very wobbly walkers.

Night, June 2-3, 2005 After all the anticipation of the trip and all the instructions and preparations, everyone, including the staff, is anxious to catch some storm petrels. We left A Roche at 7 p.m. and drove about 30 minutes to the capture site. There is a 1.6-kilometer (one-mile) hike to the specific capture location at the base of a cliff by the shore. The birds are caught by setting up mist nets between bamboo poles and playing breeding calls over loudspeakers to lure them in, where they fly into the net and get caught. 
The staff bird ringers do the actual ringing. The volunteers do data/sample collecting and recording, photographing, monitoring the nets, running the birds to the ringing area, and releasing the birds when processing is done. Weather and boat activity is also monitored at intervals throughout the night. Everyone helps to carry all the gear and get the nets set up.
We had the nets up and loudspeakers running by dark, around 9 p.m. About 10:30 p.m., one of the volunteers began shouting “We got one! Guys, we got one!” It was a bit chaotic as the two staff members and eight volunteers all tried to be sure they did their part and didn’t miss anything. It took 20 to 25 minutes to process the bird and get it released.
My role this night was to record the data for each bird in a notebook. By midnight, the count was up to four birds, and then they started coming and coming. At one point, we had two birds in process and seven in bags waiting to be processed. At the end of the night, the count was 42 birds, all European storm petrels. This was the highest count for a single night in a few years, so the staff was very happy. Everyone was exhausted by the time the sun came up. We carried all the gear back to the parking lot about 6 a.m.
There is too much information about storm petrels to include in this journal, so I think I’ll try to add one petrel factoid that I find interesting in each entry. I was surprised to learn that 8% of the storm petrels captured already have a ring from a previous capture. On our first night, there were two birds out of the 42 that had a previous ring, both from British bird ringers.

Thursday, June 2, 2005 Today is training day for the Earthwatch volunteers, and tonight we go out to the capture site for our first night of bird ringing. This morning, we had some practice ringing out on the property of the A Roche bird observatory, where we are staying. We learned about the general process of capturing birds in mist nets, handling birds, and how the measurements are taken and data recorded. We also had instruction on the different instruments and devices that will be used and the equipment for playing the petrel breeding calls over loudspeakers to lure them in.
Each petrel captured will get the following treatment:
  • Apply an ID ring around its leg.
  • Photograph wing pattern and any leg disabilities, which are somewhat common.
  • Measure wing length.
  • Measure weight.
  • Take feather sample for later DNA analysis, which is mainly to determine sex.
  • Gather any vomit or feces samples for DNA analysis to help determine what storm petrels eat.
  • Take temperature of the bird with infrared thermometer at various points during the capture, processing, and release. This is to investigate how the process stresses the bird.
  • Estimate age.
  • Examine for a brood patch, which is a bald area on the belly that would indicate the bird is breeding or preparing to breed.
The excitement this morning is that a bird named the lesser spotted woodpecker was caught. This species had never before been caught at A Roche.

Wednesday, June 1, 2005 After breakfast at the hotel, Terry and I walked around Lagos, which looks like it would be a great vacation destination. There is a big marina with both local fishing boats as well sailboats and pleasure boats. The rendezvous location was the Mexilhoeira Grande train station, which is only a short 10-minute ride from Lagos.
The expedition housing is a bird observatory named A Rocha, and the accommodations look like they will be very comfortable. The afternoon was spent meeting the staff and other volunteers and settling in. There are eight volunteers from eight countries: Australia, Brazil, England, Egypt, Italy, Mexico, Singapore, and the United States. It looks like a really good group of people.
The principal investigator of the expedition is Dr. Rob Thomas from England, and he gave a presentation after dinner that provided much more information about storm petrels. They really are amazing birds, being so small (25 grams/0.9 ounces), living up to 30 years, and migrating all the way from Britain to South Africa each year.

Tuesday, May 31, 2005 The flight arrived in Lisbon. After a long line at customs, I was finally in Portugal. The lady at the airport information desk spoke very good English and was able to tell me where the train station was.
The other Alcoa employee on this expedition (Terry McDonnell from Wagerup, Australia) and I had arranged in advance to meet at the train station at 1:00 p.m.  I had plenty of time, so I went to the gate a bit early. Terry also came early. We rode the train for four hours from Lisbon to Lagos, and by the end of the train ride, I felt like Terry was an old friend.
Lagos is a small tourist town on the southern coast of Portugal and is close to the expedition site. After a short nap, we had a great seafood dinner at a local restaurant.

Monday, May 30, 2005 Saying goodbye to the family was hard, and I feel like certainly there is something important that I’ve forgotten. Too late now. The flights from Indianapolis to Newark and Newark to Lisbon, Portugal, were on time with no problems at all.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005 One week to go, and the good news is that another Alcoa employee will be filling Kenny Wang’s opening. Terry McDonnell from Australia is scrambling to complete his plans and preparations with just two weeks notice. We have plans to meet in Lisbon on May 31 and travel by train from Lisbon to Lagos. We’ll stay one night in a hotel before the expedition begins on June 1, which should help with adjusting to the time change.

The weather report today in southern Portugal is a high of 80° Fahrenheit (27° Celsius), a low of 65° Fahrenheit (18° Celsius) and 39% humidity. I think I can adjust to that! 

Monday, May 16, 2005 As of today, there are just two more weeks until departure.
An email arrived today from Kenny Wang, the other Alcoa employee who was scheduled to participate in the storm petrel project. Unfortunately, Kenny will not be able to make it. This is disappointing, as we had exchanged several emails and were both looking forward to working on the project together. Hopefully, Kenny will get a chance to participate in a future project.
My travel reservations are complete—all the forms have been submitted, and I should be ready to go.

Thursday, March 17, 2005 Today I received a packet in the mail from Earthwatch with the full expedition briefing. I finished skimming through it an hour later, and I'm amazed at how detailed it is. There are 65 pages!  All of the questions I thought about over the last month are addressed, and there is some great information about the location and conditions and some more detailed scientific information about storm petrels. It looks like this adventure is going to be something completely different from anything I've done before. I hope we catch a lot of birds.

Monday, February 7, 2005 I came back from a meeting and checked my email, where there was a message I'd been waiting for. The first two lines were: "Congratulations! I am truly pleased to be able to advise that your application to participate in the 2005 Alcoa Earthwatch program has been successful and you will be heading off to Portugal to work on Storm Petrels over Portugal between June 1, 2005 - June 10, 2005."
I had two instant, simultaneous thoughts:
  1. Wow! That's great. I was chosen for an Earthwatch expedition.
  2. I know where Portugal is, but what the heck is a storm petrel? Some kind of weather pattern or what?
Good thing the email message contained a link to the Earthwatch website, where I quickly learned that a storm petrel is a small seabird as well as other aspects of the project. Sounds great. I can hardly wait.

Photo Gallery

View the images from Karl Eliason's diary.

Earthwatch Institute

Learn more about this international nonprofit, which supports scientific field research worldwide.

Storm Petrels over Portugal

Learn more about the expedition and its scientists.