Gregory Peterson's Diary


Thursday, May 24, 2007 Saturday, May 26, 2007
Tuesday, June 5, 2007 Wednesday, June 13, 2007
Saturday, June 16, 2007 Sunday, June 17, 2007
Monday, June 18, 2007 Tuesday, June 19, 2007
Wednesday, June 20, 2007 Thursday, June 21, 2007
Friday, June 22, 2007 Saturday, June 23, 2007
Sunday, June 24, 2007 Monday, June 25, 2007
Tuesday, June 26, 2007 Wednesday, June 27, 2007
Thursday, June 28, 2007  

Thursday, May 24, 2007 My name is Greg Peterson, and I work as an industrial statistician in the Technology Delivery Group (formerly Research and Development) of Alcoa World Alumina. My office is at the Kwinana Alumina Refinery in Western Australia.

When the email came from the Alcoa Earthwatch sponsor inviting me to be an Alcoa employee Earthwatch fellow, I was a little perplexed. It said that I would be going to Arkansas to study the birds of Prince William Sound! It seems someone at the head office thought the U.S. state abbreviation AK was for Arkansas (AR), not Alaska. That little misstep was quickly sorted out, and the Alaskan location of Prince William Sound was confirmed, with bird-monitoring activity slated for mid-to-late June—thankfully, the Alaskan summer.

The timing has turned out to be excellent, too, because it fits in with an invitation to a family wedding in Victoria, British Columbia. I have decided to extend the trip by going to Brazil to try to improve my command of the Portuguese language. That also gives me a great opportunity to survey planet Earth from many points as I travel from the extreme west of Australia, across Australia to New Zealand, and then to Santiago in Chile, to Rio de Janeiro, north across the USA to British Columbia, then to Alaska, and finally home via England and Singapore. It will be an opportunity to see the very visible changes that have been made to the Earth by mankind.

So without hesitation, I accepted the invitation to join the Earthwatch research team in Prince William Sound (PWS), Alaska. In quick order, information about the PWS activities and a reading list for more information arrived from the Earthwatch people. After doing some of the recommended reading, I realize that the changes being witnessed in Alaska, particularly glacial retreat, are on a grand scale with big consequences for the biosphere—and that is not considering the Exxon Valdez incident.

Saturday, May 26, 2007 Now as I start the journey that will eventually take me to PWS, I cannot help but think about how small the planet on which we live really is and how mankind’s concept of it has changed so rapidly. Most of all, traveling from Perth, Western Australia, to Rio de Janeiro via Santiago makes me think about changes man has made to both in a very brief period of time.

I noticed on the maps of Prince William Sound names that are associated with the early history of European settlement in Australia—Cook and Bligh. Cook was the first British navigator to visit the east coast of Australia, and William Bligh was later to be governor of New South Wales (NSW). It seems poor William Bligh’s name was destined to be associated with problems—governor of NSW at the time of the Rum Rebellion and perhaps most famously, as Captain Bligh of the Bounty as in “Mutiny on the Bounty.”  Now his name crops up attached to an island in Prince William Sound where the Exxon Valdez infamously ran aground in 1989.

Now flying around the globe from Western Australia, I think of how just over 200 years ago, Australia was first settled by Europeans. The evidence of the changes wrought is very evident as we fly across the country on a west to east line. In Western Australia, we see vast tracts of land cleared for grain and grazing, and amongst these, huge areas that have become (currently) infertile and barren through salinization. To the east, we see the Murray-Darling River system currently very severely depleted of water because of drought and human activity in stripping water from it for agricultural and industrial purposes.

Coming into Santiago, Chile, it is very foggy at midday. Last year when I flew into Santiago, the striking feature was the beauty of the mountains just before Santiago and then the pall of dirty trapped air over Santiago itself. When you see that, you cannot doubt the effect of man’s activities on the atmosphere at the level areas of hundreds of square kilometers (and thousands of meters deep).

I wonder if the fog that still hangs over Santiago during the next day, too, is a product of man’s activities or just a natural phenomenon. Sometimes it is hard to separate natural variation from that caused by man’s activities. I wonder what the evidence is one way or the other in regard to changes that I will see in the Alaskan landscape. But for now, the next stop is Rio de Janeiro.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007 Very sad to be leaving Brazil. My Portuguese has improved a little, and the people and land have left a deep impression on me. It is a huge country, and on this occasion I could see only a little of it—the part between Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, and southern Minas Gerais state, where Alcoa has an interest in an alumina refinery and smelter at Poços de Caldas. The scenery in this part is spectacular—more so when I compare it with the flat landscape of Western Australia. 
 
One the road trips we took, there were two dominant crops. One was coffee. No surprise there—yes, they do have an awful lot of coffee in Brazil—and the other was eucalypt trees, apparently being grown for production of paper. The climate in that part of Brazil seems to suit the tree, and they were apparently thriving. I wonder whether in time they will be considered a weed, as so many plants deliberately introduced to Australia, with the best of motives, have become. 
 
The other thing somewhat surprising to me about the landscape was how much of the native vegetation has been cleared for cattle grazing. At least, that is what it is used for now, although in former times it might have been used for other things, such as coffee growing. We hear a lot about the clearing of huge tracts of land in the Amazon Basin, as if tropical rainforest destruction in South America was something relatively new. But the clearing away of forest for grassland in Brazil has clearly happened on an enormous scale a long time ago. My host explained that on the land that he owns, and in the district where he lives in general, people are not allowed to cut down trees or clear the native bush. It is considered to be an environmental crime to do so. 
 
For me, coming from a country of just 20 million people in a land area about the same as Brazil’s, one of the striking things about the part of Brazil I visited is the number of people. I think Brazil’s population is about 190 million, and a good proportion of them are in the area I visited. In terms of use of energy, I do think the Brazilians have a lot to teach Australians. For example, they drive small cars. Apparently, they have figured out that to transport a human body, it is not necessary to surround it by a ton of metal. Just a few hundred kilograms are needed. You can have a friend along, too, to share the impact on the Earth’s resources. 
 
They also use a great deal of sugar-derived alcohol instead of fossil fuels to run their cars. While not quite greenhouse gas neutral, the alcohol-based fuel for cars gets close to it. What I was told was that Brazil expects to soon be self-sufficient in gas and oil. A substantial part of the reason for that is the use of alcohol-powered cars.
 
Brazilians also have a very different attitude to gardens (yards) than Australians do. They seem to like living in tall apartment buildings and sharing their recreational space—not that there seems to be lot of that. We seem to prefer to have our own garden and private recreational areas. I wonder how much of this difference is due to culture and history, and how much is due to wealth.
 
I read somewhere that the per-head generation of greenhouse gases (GHG) by Brazilians is about one-fifth that of Australians. I just hope that their increasing wealth doesn’t raise their GHG generation levels to those of Australia (and the USA and Canada).
 
People in Brazil have been very friendly to me. Perhaps being able to speak a little Portuguese has been a help.
 
Next stop is Miami, en route to Vancouver. I’m getting closer to Alaska and those birds in Prince William Sound.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007 Now I am all kitted out (equipped) for the two weeks in Prince William Sound. I decided to buy the cold and wet weather gear here in British Columbia rather than bring it from Perth. We don’t get a lot of call for long johns in Perth, so I figured that they might have a better range here.
 
The Canadians I have spoken to have been helpful about what to do in case of a bear encounter. And, of course, they are only too happy to recount their own encounters with bears—anything from hiking in the woods to sunbathing by the lake. The advice on what to do seems to depend on the species of bear. How one determines the species in the dark or outside your tent at 2 a.m., they haven’t divulged. I hope that there really is 24-hour daylight at Prince William Sound at this time of the year. I’d much rather deal with a bear in daylight than in the dark. But my understanding is that the camp is very strict about separation of food and other bear-attractive items and where we sleep, and that they have never had a bear come into the camp. I’d like to see that record kept intact.
 
I’ve read the information about what we will be doing. When I was first glancing at the pages, I saw "meal delivery rates" and thought that it was either to do with how much we pay to get pizza delivery or the speed with which our pizzas get delivered. A closer reading revealed that it is the rate at which mom and dad bird (black-legged kittiwake) bring food to their young. Anyway, it looks as though our team (Team IV) won’t be engaged in that anyway. It looks as though we’ll be in boats and clambering over boulders with mirrors on the ends of poles, having a look at what is in the nests. That’s not the only thing, of course, and I do hope that there is a little time to see the Columbia Icefields.
 
I’m sure there are going to be a lot of mountains. Vancouver, from where I write this, is spectacular as a setting: a beautiful harbor surrounded by mountains that are incredibly high, right on the doorstep of the city. I’m told that you can work in the city and downhill ski at lunchtime. It shows what a young landscape this western part of North America is compared to Western Australia. Our highest mountain is a little over 1,000 meters (3,280 feet) above sea level. It hardly rates as a hill here.
 
Next stop is Anchorage and then over to Valdez, where I join Dr. Aly McKnight, her team, and the other volunteers to collect data on the seabirds of Prince William Sound.

Saturday, June 16, 2007 This morning, I took the 7:30 a.m. flight from Anchorage to Valdez—just an hour’s flight over the mountains from Cook Inlet to Prince William Sound. It’s a short jump but a very different world. Although enclosed by mountains on three sides, Anchorage sits on a plain and appears to have all the trappings of any western-American small-sized city, but perhaps with a more friendly face for the tourists. At first, despite the proximity of mountains and ocean, it reminded me of Winnipeg. Most people would not think of this as a compliment to Anchorage.

While in Anchorage, I tried to learn a little about Alaska. There is a museum and art gallery, currently undergoing a US$100 million expansion, with an excellent display about the oil pipeline from Prudhoe Bay (on the North Slope) to Valdez. It was completed in 1977 and is no ordinary pipeline. It incorporates a lot of high technology features to keep the oil flowing and protect the permafrost from oil leaks caused by thermal expansion and contraction and earthquakes. I also bought a book, “Guide to the Birds of Alaska” since birds, particularly black-legged kittiwakes, are the reason we have come to Alaska.

Now over in Valdez waiting to meet the rest of the party, I am surrounded by mountains. The airport is hard against the side of a green mountain, which rises several thousand feet. It has a little snow near its peak and several thin streams of melt-water flow down its flanks.

On the opposite side of the harbor lie the oil tanks of the pipeline terminal, and on this side a small-boat harbor containing a hundred or so recreational and fishing boats. With the bright sunshine it’s hard to beat this place for picturesqueness (is that a new word?).

It’s later on Saturday, and I’ve now met up with Steve Jamieson, the fellow Alcoan from Western Australia, and Aly McKnight, the project leader, although she tells me that her husband, Kelsey Sullivan, formally has that position.

On the wharf, Aly leads Steve, me, and Terri, an Earthwatch volunteer from California, through boating safety. Since the water here is so cold, safety in boats is critically important. The training includes climbing into bright orange, thick, insulating floatation suits. In them, we look like a family of Gumbies.

After meeting the others on the kittiwake project and getting provisions for the next week, we take off at 6 p.m. in our 7.6-meter-long (25-foot-long) boat for the campsite at Shoup Bay. As soon as we leave the small-boat harbor at Valdez, it becomes clear that it will not be an easy 10 miles to Shoup Bay. So when the waves start coming over the front of the boat, Aly decides that it will be safer and a lot more comfortable to turn back and wait a few hours in Valdez for the wind to abate and then try again.

Thus at 10 p.m., with still lots of daylight left in the day, we set out again for Shoup Bay.  This time, the water is calm, and the journey takes a little over an hour. All the way, the scenery is beautiful and spectacular. We enter Shoup Bay, then Shoup Lagoon and see the small island on which thousands (Aly estimates about 20,000) of black-legged kittiwakes are nesting. Just a kilometer or so beyond that, the huge seaward end of Shoup Glacier towers over the island. That island will be the focus of our work for the next two weeks. With light fading to a faint twilight, we head off to bed at 1 a.m.

Sunday, June 17, 2007 First thing on Sunday morning for two of our team is to head off to fetch fresh water from a stream that tumbles down the mountainside and ice from the lagoon in front of our camp site. They are soon back with plenty of cool water and two large bins of ice. There may be lots of places in the world with shortages of fresh water, but Alaska seems not to be one of them at this time.

For the Earthwatch volunteers, the first thing after breakfast is completion of our induction to camp procedures and safety. Of course, this includes what to do to avoid encounters with bears, and what to do if we do encounter a bear (or several). The basic rules seem to be: make lots of noise when out walking through the bush, and get yourself well separated from things that might attract them to where you are camping.

After the induction, I get my first bird colony work. Aly and I go to the kittiwake colony island that lies only 300 meters (330 yards) from our campsite. Our task is to capture a banded adult kittiwake.

First, a specific nest from among many thousands is identified, and we use binoculars to confirm that our banded target bird is on the nest. We approach it in the inflatable boat, and the birds take to the air. We go to the nest and mark and move the two eggs to adjacent nests. Aly sets the snare in the nest—a highly technical operation at which she is clearly well-practiced. I hold the snare line around the corner of some rocks, out of sight of the kittiwake if it does return to the nest. Aly then takes the boat a few meters offshore and waits to signal to me when the bird returns to the nest. Within two minutes, it returns. When Aly signals to me, I quickly pull on the snare line. The kittiwake is neatly caught around both legs!

We gently remove the bird and take it away from the island for weighing and measuring.  This allows other birds to get back on their nests so that their eggs don’t get cold.

Aly explains to me that the measurements on this bird and others will be used to assess how hard the season is and how hard it is on birds as they rear their chicks. The male and female parents take turns at sitting on the nest to incubate the eggs and then fetching food for the chicks should they be lucky enough to get any hatchlings to that stage.

After taking the measurements, we release the bird and then place its eggs back into its nest.

That’s enough bird catching for today, and I’m happy that my 100% success rate will remain intact, for now.

After lunch, Aly and I head back to the main colony island armed with a mirror on the end of an extendable pole. Previously, photographs have been taken of the thousands of nests on the island, and some have been selected and marked with blue sticks for observation during the summer. We go around one section of the eastern face of the island, and either from the boat in the water or by clambering over the rocks, use the mirror to peer into the nests and count the number of eggs present. Mostly there are two eggs. They are light brown speckled with darker brown and are about the size of domestic chicken eggs. We do about 100 nests in two hours.

The nest inspections are done about every three days. They allow an assessment of predation on eggs and success in chick-rearing. Other researchers and volunteers are working on other sections of the main colony island.

After nest inspections have been completed, Aly and I circumnavigate the island, at which time I get my first uninterrupted sight of the end of Shoup Glacier from about two kilometers (1.2 miles) away. Even from this distance, it is amazing—a mountain of white and blue ice.

The back (west) side of the main colony island has few nests. Aly explains that this is because the back side is relatively smooth, with few of the broken rock ledges that are a feature of the side that faces our campsite. This is typical of rocky outcrops that have been under glaciers—a phenomenon known as glacial plucking.

Monday, June 18, 2007 Today, I’m fortunate to be going with Alex, a master’s degree student from England who is working for the summer on the Seabirds of Prince William Sound project. She is trained in handling the boats and also a shotgun to deal with bears.
 
We first head out of Shoup Lagoon, in which the main colony island sits, and go to two large trees in which bald eagles have built their nests. This involves a great deal of clambering over rocks, tree branches, and roots, all the while talking loudly to warn bears of our arrival. It seems to work, because we do not see a single bear.
 
At the bald eagle nest sites, we hunt for the remnants of meals that they have dropped. We find a few bunches of feathers and, most poignantly, at each site we find a band from the leg of one of our beloved black-legged kittiwakes. 
 
Next it’s back to base for lunch and then to the northern end of the main colony island for glaucous-winged gull bolus collection. Bolus collecting is not something to get excited about unless you are an English master’s degree student. A bolus, in this context, is the regurgitated indigestible part of a gull’s dinner. Sometimes they are white balls of goodness knows what; on other occasions, fish bones; and on others, mussel shells. The black-legged kittiwakes dine only on fish, but the glaucous-winged gulls are a little more varied in their diet. 
 
We collect about 40 boluses (boli?) in total. Alex goes into raptures over some. She is planning to take some back to England for further study. As they say, each to his own. The gulls are generally not happy about our tramping around near their nests and try to shower us with cloacal discharge (i.e., defecate upon us from a great height) and even fly into us. That is why we wear old shirts and plastic helmets. The best they achieved on me was a glancing greenish slime to the arm and two knocks on the head with feet.
 
The gull eggs are a similar color to the kittiwake eggs, but they are a little bigger, and the nests almost always contain three eggs. A few gull chicks have hatched already, and we see some little beaks breaking out of eggs.
 
The boluses are being collected to analyze what the gulls are feeding on. There is a theory that gulls in different parts of the colony and adjacent islands have different diets, and that is being tested. One of the hazards faced by the black-legged kittiwakes is egg and chick predation by the gulls.
 
After bolus collecting, Alex and I head over to the face of Shoup Glacier. Up close, there is more to appreciate about the glacier. The upper surface is deeply fissured and uneven. Some of the fissures are more than 20 meters (65 feet) deep. The most spectacular thing for me is the river of water that rushes from under the glacier in one place. The edge of the glacier is now about 20 meters from the lagoon, whereas last year it was in the water.
 
Shoup Glacier, like almost all of Alaska’s glaciers now, is retreating and diminishing in thickness. In the 1960s, it covered the main colony island, about two kilometers (1.2 miles) from its current leading edge. At that time, it was also higher than it is now. A paper that I read before coming on the Earthwatch expedition estimated that in the seven years to 2002, the totality of the glaciers of Alaska were losing water at the average rate of 96 +/- 35 cubic kilometers (23 +/- eight cubic miles) per year. That’s a lot of water and, over the last 20 years, a direct contribution of a several millimeters rise in sea levels.
 
In the evening, Alex and I take on Andrew and Joe, the two American Earthwatch interns, in a spirited card game of euchre—using their rules. Despite Alex’s fascination with gull regurgitations, she has a healthy competitive spirit that helps us triumph.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007 This morning, Terri and I get some training on entering data into a computer in preparation for the afternoon’s trip to Heather Bay, which is where the Columbia Glacier enters Prince William Sound. It turns out that when we get to the bay, the computer is not working, so we use the ever-reliable pencil and paper.
 
Heather Bay and the Columbia Glacier and ice fields are just over the mountains that encircle Shoup Bay, but we have to travel for about an hour and a half by boat to get there. The weather is perfect by Alaskan standards—sunny, no wind, and temperature between 10° and 15° Celsius (50° to 59° Fahrenheit), depending on how close you are to the glacier and the ice that has calved from it.
 
At Heather Bay, we put Aly, Alex, and Raymond (Aly’s son, aged two and a half years) ashore with Nascar the dog, binoculars, and telescopes. They spot birds from a fixed position on a moraine island between Heather Island and the end of Columbia Glacier, several kilometers away. Later, Aly shows me a 1987 chart that shows the Columbia Glacier up against Heather Island. Columbia Glacier has a face several kilometers wide, so it’s receded a lot in the last 20 years.
 
Joe, Terri, Kelsey, and I take off in the Starik (boat) and travel some transects across the water and into little bays. This is a popular spot for tourist adventure activities. There are several power boats and two sailing boats (not under sail), some hikers with camps set up, and about a dozen kayaks in and around the coves that we venture into. The kayakers are dodging lumps of ice calved from Columbia Glacier.
 
On our five transects, we are particularly interested in murrelets. These are small diving, duck-like birds that come in two varieties—marbled and Kittlitz’s. Both have decreased in numbers over the last 10 years, and the Kittlitz’s is being considered for official endangered status.
 
The Kittlitz’s murrelet is unusual in its habits. It seems to do much of its feeding in the silty intertidal zone at the face of glaciers like Columbia, but nests high up in the mountainsides, above the vegetation line. As the glaciers recede, the feeding zones for the Kittlitz’s murrelets are diminishing. Perhaps the species will be a victim of global warming.
 
We see about 12 Kittlitz’s murrelets and three times as many marbled murrelets.
 
At the end of our work, and having taken lots of photographs of Columbia Glacier, mountains, and sea otters, we gather up the team on the Starik and head to Valdez, where Kelsey and Raymond say goodbye to us. With bellies full of pizza from Mike’s Palace— definitely the best pizza in Valdez, if not in all of Alaska—we make our way back to Shoup Lagoon.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007 Wednesday is sunny and warm once again. Our luck with the weather cannot last.
 
In the morning, Alex gives us predator-watch training. She is setting up to do a 24-hour watch of the eastern face of the main colony island and small islands at each end of it. Somebody either likes me or thinks that I am probably not a competent watcher, because I get just an hour and half stint at 8 a.m. the next day. Alex puts herself down for the midnight to 4 a.m. shift, and Andrew pulls 4 a.m. to 8 a.m. Since the light never falls below twilight, no one is left by himself or herself in the dark.
 
This morning, however, Andrew and I go out to the main colony island to do the next checks in his section. This is a good deal trickier than Aly’s section, because it involves a lot of ladder work. Fortunately for me, Andrew seems to enjoy being up the ladder, so I do the recording while he shouts egg numbers to me.
 
Today, for the first time, I become aware of why kittiwakes have that name. As I listen to the general noise of the birds, it is clear that some are giving the complete vocalization of “kittiwake, kittiwake.”  Others seem to give an abbreviated, general gull noise.
 
In the afternoon, Aly, Alex, Terri, Joe, and I take one of the inflatable boats and go up the lagoon to near the face of Shoup Glacier. On the edges of the valley formed as the glacier recedes, there are rock pools. On days such as these, the water in the pools can be tolerably warm for swimming. We find one of these pools and strip down to bathers for a quick plunge and photograph with Shoup Glacier in the background.
 
When we return to camp, there is still time for lying on the pebble and rock beach and reading and catching up on suntan time. Meanwhile, the predator watch of the main colony island continues. From time to time, as an eagle glides across the island or a crow makes a foray for an egg snack, the colony erupts in a cacophony and thousands of kittiwakes swoop for the cliff face toward the water and then skim just a meter or less above it. Then, in unison, they turn upward and back toward their nests on the cliff face. The sudden change from gray to white in the form of a wave as they change direction makes a spectacular display.

Thursday, June 21, 2007 Up early on Thursday morning and out to the shore opposite the main colony face. It’s all very quiet over at the colony island except for a lone raven that takes a kittiwake’s egg. He’s then joined by another, and they sit on separate trees perched high above the colony, watching for unguarded nests. But on my watch, there is no further predatory action.
 
Then it’s back to base, and Steve and I go back to the main colony island to do a round of glaucous-winged gull productivity plots. This involves walking and scrambling over rocks on a path that visits 100 glaucous-winged gull nests. We record the number of intact eggs, the number just hatching, and the number of chicks in each nest. All the while, the gulls are voicing their displeasure at our presence.
 
Steve has ingeniously taped tree branches to our helmets in order to ward off the gulls. However, it does not work, and Steve is knocked three times on his helmet, and I suffer one blow to the head. Luckily, they are inaccurate with their cloacal discharge, and we don’t smell any worse at the end of the gull productivity plot.
 
After lunch, Aly, Alex, Steve, Terri, and I, along with Nascar the dog, take one of the inflatable dinghies and go near the southern face of Shoup Glacier. It’s sunny and reasonably warm, about 12° Celsius (54° Fahrenheit). On this side of the glacier face, there has been a lot of silt and small rocks deposited, and two small streams run down and across the deposits from the mountain to the lagoon.
 
Small they might be, but the streams still require wading across, and we all get wet feet in our boots. Once across, however, we are in for a treat. We find a vertical succession of at least six rock pools. One of them has a ledge around it and is deep enough for jumping into from five meters (16 feet) up. After some coaxing from Aly, Steve and Alex strip down to underwear to take the jump. The water is icy cold, and they very quickly emerge, shivering and desperate to find warm clothes.
 
The weather is now changing quickly, as low clouds sweep up the lagoon from the direction of Valdez and almost slither over the mountains for the direction of the Columbia ice fields. It’s time to head back to the campsite with forebodings of perhaps not seeing the sun again during the eight days that remain of our time at Shoup Bay.
 
On the walk back to the boat, Aly tells me of how dramatically the area we are walking though has changed in the last year. Just a year ago, it was an elevated and vegetated bench. Now, it has all been washed away. There is no vegetation except for a few plants here and there trying to reestablish, and the land is strewn with rocks and pebbles—virtually nothing resembling soil.

Friday, June 22, 2007 This morning, Joe and I go to the south end of the colony and take digital photographs of easily accessible kittiwake nests. We then go back to the camp and print them so that Joe can select nests from which chicks are going to be taken for weighing and measuring at various times over the next month. Normally, this photographic operation is done on an inflatable boat using a Polaroid camera, but Joe is happy with the results using the digital technology. We’ll see over the next few days how well he has chosen the nests.

On the way to the island, we witnessed a predation event. The kittiwakes were in a state of high excitement because a juvenile (but large) bald eagle had chosen to sit among them. We didn’t actually see it take a kittiwake on this occasion, but it was located close to where later in the day Aly and I saw the freshly chewed carcasses of kittiwakes.

The bald eagle was attended by a magpie and two crows. This seems to be a common situation. The eagle flushes kittiwakes off their nests, and then the crows, ravens, magpies, and seagulls, which seemingly do not fear the bald eagles, move in to steal eggs and perhaps chicks later on.

In the afternoon, I witness one of these events involving a peregrine falcon and see 10 eggs taken by about five crows. It’s tough for a kittiwake to produce a fledged chick. Aly tells me that in an exceptionally good year, the rate of success is about 0.3 fledglings per nest successfully completing the summer. In hard years, that will plunge to 0.01.

With Aly in the afternoon, I try my hand again at capturing kittiwakes using the snare. This time, my 100% success rate is demolished. We capture just three birds from seven tries. Perhaps we went for smarter birds. Among those captured, we get one that is definitely a male. He weighs about 520 grams (18 ounces), whereas the others that we had been catching were about 100 grams (3.5 ounces) lighter than that.

On the way back to camp, we are joined by Alex and witness some amazing flushes of kittiwakes from the cliff face. A peregrine falcon darts along the eastern face and then goes around the back, time and time again. All the while, the crows make the most of the kittiwake absence from the nests, and poor Alex is dismayed at the havoc they wreak. As the peregrine falcon tires of his sport, a mature bald eagle glides over the island and causes further ruckus among the black-legged kittiwakes. The glaucous-winged gulls, however, are not afraid of the bald eagle and repeatedly swoop at it, even when it flies several hundred meters from the island and takes up a watching position in a tall tree.

Saturday is to be our day away from the camp in Valdez, so Friday night is spent packing up dirty clothing and working out what we need to buy there. Most important of all, it will be time for hot showers!

Saturday, June 23, 2007 Before heading to Valdez, we do nest checks on the kittiwakes, and there is great excitement when several reports come back of chicks in the nests. Joe sadly reports that the nests in his group have been hit badly by the predators.

To Valdez and hot showers for US$5 each. At US$20, they would be a good deal. It’s also a chance to do some washing of clothes. We are going to be so much nicer after this visit to Valdez.

Joe stays in Valdez to meet his mother and two sisters, who have come from New York to see Alaska in four days.

Back to base and early to bed at 11 p.m.

Sunday, June 24, 2007 This morning was our day for a sleep-in. By the time we’d all had breakfast, featuring Aly’s famous Alaskan sourdough pancakes, it was 10:30 a.m. This is almost like a holiday!

Andrew and I try our hands at capturing some adult kittiwakes, but no one was finding it easy. The birds seem to have become more wary. Nevertheless, we capture and measure a total of six between the three teams that try. By the end of the day, we still need another five to fill the quota of 30 measured before the chick rearing. We are now starting to be restricted in which birds we can capture by the fact that chicks are hatching.

While waiting to capture a bird, we notice that a chick is just starting to emerge from an egg on the ledge below us. It provides the perfect opportunity to take a movie of a chick hatching. So over the next two hours, I take a series of short movies that show the hatching from the head just emerging to completely out of the egg. Later, we review the movies and see that I will be able to edit them into a delightful movie of the chick’s struggle and first hours in the world outside an egg. Perhaps I will be able to add more from its succeeding week of life—providing it does not fall prey to one of the many predators that get their meals at the kittiwake colony dining hall. There are glaucous-winged gulls, crows, ravens, magpies, peregrine falcons, and bald eagles that our new bird has to avoid for the next 35 days or so before it leaves the nest.

In the late afternoon, Steve and I do inspections of the 100 glaucous-winged gull nests in the gull productivity plot. We have become very efficient at this task, which now takes just an hour. Along the nest path, we are surprised to see a gull nest containing six eggs (three is the most seen before). It appears that what has happened is that three eggs from a nest on the slope above have rolled down and have either come to rest in or (more likely) been pushed into this super nest. We wonder how many will hatch.

Monday, June 25, 2007 By this morning, we are starting to get into a rhythm on the tasks. Everyone has tried his hand at each of them. I am back at trying to snare-capture adult black-legged kittiwakes, and this time I have it down to a fine art despite the birds’ increased caution. I record three tries and three birds—back to 100%! Now we have finally captured and measured our quota of 30 birds before the hatching of their eggs. (The number 30 was employed so that estimates of average bird sizes would be sufficiently reliable for representing the condition of the bird population before chick rearing.)

The afternoon finds me collecting gull boluses again with Alex and Steve. The gulls are getting very annoyed with us, because they now have chicks all over the place. The glaucous-winged gull chicks take off from their nests very quickly and seek rocks and bushes under which they can hide. Consequently, we have to be careful that we don’t step on them or frighten them into running into places that are bad for them. All three of us take cloacal discharge hits or knocks around the head from gull feet.

I do a check on the chick that I filmed yesterday and see that he is doing well—now a healthy dry ball of fluff. We have decided to call “him” Braveheart—because it sounds better than Mel Gibson. We figure that any bird that puts its beak into the world so full of dangers that will claim the majority of his siblings, if not himself, would need to have a brave heart. Peering into Braveheart’s nest, we see that his sibling has knocked a hole in his (or her) egg. Perhaps tomorrow Braveheart will have a fluffy ball beside him.

It was Steve’s and my turn to cook dinner, so out came the best of Australian culinary skills to prepare spaghetti bolognaise, also known as “spag bol.”  The beauty of cooking here is that we are all very hungry and, as a result, everyone’s cooking is very much welcomed.

After dinner, Aly took us through some electronic slide presentations that she had made for talks that she has given to various groups about the Prince William Sound work. One of them related to oil residues (from Exxon Valdez) found in birds and recovery in numbers of different bird species. As of last year, some had still not recovered to pre-Exxon Valdez levels (while their numbers had not declined in areas away from the spill). Black oyster-catchers (a species that feeds on the shoreline) still showed elevated levels of contaminants from the oil spill.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007 Today dawned with perfectly clear and blue skies—ideal for our trip to Heather Bay. We got underway early and had excellent water for the travel. One the way, we saw four Stellar sea lions lounging on a large metal buoy.

Alex and I take up the stationary position for observations of marbled and Kittlitz’s murrelets, while all the others travel the transects in the Starik. Aly is very excited when they spot a large group of Kittlitz’s murrelets. In fact, they spot more Kittlitz’s murrelets than ever seen before on the transects over the years.

On the way back to Shoup Bay, we see an orca (killer whale) wave one of its flippers—about five meters (16 feet) long—from the water. We are also held up for half an hour by having to wait for an oil tanker to navigate Valdez Arm, which is the entrance to Valdez for waterborne traffic. Since the Exxon Valdez accident in 1989, many more precautions have been put in place. It looked rather strange to see an oil tanker towing a tugboat backwards, but the reason is if the tanker’s engines fail, then the tug can haul it back before disaster happens.

In the afternoon, we complete another round of kittiwake nest checks and growth-rate nest inspections, marking any chicks that have hatched.

I check on Braveheart to see if his sibling has emerged yet. All that has happened is that the hole in the egg has grown a little. Perhaps by tomorrow something bigger will have happened.

We also get another 24-hour predator watch underway, beginning at 8:30 p.m. The noise that I hear from the colony around midnight tells me that there is a lot of predation going on.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007 This morning, Aly confirms that the bald eagles were busy overnight. Two adults and one juvenile bald eagle had been at work, scaring the kittiwakes, killing several, and creating diversions that allowed magpies to take eggs from unguarded nests. Andrew reports that on his watch he saw a bear climbing a steep cliff only a couple hundred meters from our camp. Aly reassures us that they commonly pass close to the camp as they move through to salmon-hunting areas—nothing to worry about.

Around lunchtime, I go to see how Braveheart is progressing. Wow, he has a sibling, which we have decided will be named Bodicea. Scottish and English heroes will sit together in the nest. There are no parents on the nest, so I get some nice photos of the pair. However, while I am watching, tragedy strikes. Bodicea has a wandering inclination. As “she” wanders to the edge of the nest, she falls five meters (16.4 feet) down the cliff face and into the water below. I cannot see her, but I fear that she has met her demise after less than one day out of the egg. Braveheart seems distraught. His little beak is repeatedly opening wide and closing, and his head turns this way and that as if he is looking and crying out for Bodicea.

But something good has happened. Aly is waiting in the inflatable boat just offshore but has not seen what has happened. Terri and I beckon her to pick us up to see whether Bodicea might have survived. Good news! Bodicea, the black-legged kittiwake, is swimming (not very competently) at the base of the cliff. We pluck her to safety, and likewise for another chick that we find nearby in the water. We dry her off and place her back in the nest, where Braveheart puts a tiny, comforting wing over her. We hastily depart so that the parents can return and warm Bodicea and curb her wandering ways. When I check again later in the day, Bodicea and Braveheart are both dry, fluffy, and happy.

My predator watch in the afternoon is very quiet. Just one crow is seen, executing a mid-flight plunge for a kittiwake egg. The quietness allows me to strip down to catch some sun, unfortunately resulting in sunburn.

Later, I help Alex with her chick growth-rate nest inspections and marking of the chicks. When we make it back to the beach, it looks like a holiday camp—others are playing cards, gathered around a table on the beach and indulging in a quiet ale before our final dinner at Shoup Lagoon.

Thursday, June 28, 2007 Today is the last day for our group of three Earthwatch volunteers at Shoup Bay. Once again, the weather is kind to us. It is calm and sunny. In fact, by the time we get to Valdez later in the day, people are talking about record temperatures. Perhaps it’s an exaggeration, but it feels as though the temperature is more than 25° Celsius (77° Fahrenheit).

We spend the morning taking chicks (about 25 in total) from the growth-rate nests. We take them to a little pebble island off the main colony island. Under shelter, Aly trains us to measure their vital statistics and place bands around their legs. They are just three days old but have grown remarkably since hatching.

When one of them coughs up its most recent meal (regurgitated by a parent), we see why they are gaining weight and size so quickly. The size of the ball of food is about the size of a bucket corresponding to an adult human. The chicks typically get a meal this size four or five times a day. Aly pokes the ball of food back down the chick’s throat, and he seems very grateful for her efforts.

I do a final check on Braveheart and Bodicea. Both are doing well, and the parent on the nest is comfortable enough to hang around while I take a movie from close quarters. Since this nest is one on the nest checks, Aly is able to determine that one of the parents is a bird from her first summer (2000) of study of the black-legged kittiwake colony in Shoup Lagoon. So, one of the parents of Braveheart and Bodicea is seven years old. The oldest recorded black-legged kittiwake is 31 years.

After a quick lunch, we pose for a last photo as a group of seven on the beach with the kittiwake colony in the background and then pack our gear into two inflatables and head for Valdez. At Valdez, we are joined by Aly’s son Raymond and her mother-in-law for a final dinner together.

The Earthwatch volunteers say goodbye to the four permanents who will remain at Shoup Bay to welcome a new group of volunteer assistants on Saturday. It is a sad parting, because we have bonded and worked well together. It’s also a little sad for us as Earthwatch volunteers, because we will not be there for the rest of the summer to see the progress of the colony and individual birds, such as Braveheart and Bodicea. The permanent crew promises that they will keep us informed via email on what happens at the colony when they make their weekly trips to Valdez—weather permitting.

Epilogue #1
So what are the big thoughts that will remain from our two weeks at the Shoup Lagoon black-legged kittiwake colony near Valdez, Alaska?

The first thing is that the landscape around Shoup Bay dominates all. The mountains are very high and create barriers and opportunities. They enclose, and for those of us used to being able to drive, ride, or walk virtually at will over the land, they create a different world. (I think of my friend from the Canadian prairies who says that mountains are okay, but they do block the view. How very true.)

The mountains also create the glaciers and, in proximity to the ocean, have created the nesting place for our colony of black-legged kittiwakes. Together with ice, they create a very aggressive environment for breaking down the rocks that are the mountains themselves. This process of rock fracture and movement of residue seems much faster than in the Mediterranean climate that I am familiar with, but perhaps not.

Everywhere we went around Valdez, we saw evidence of rapid recession of the glaciers. Shoup Glacier has receded about two kilometers (1.2 miles) in the last 40 years; Valdez Glacier has receded much more. Old Valdez was the base of the inland transport route just 100 years ago. It now terminates several kilometers from where it did then. Columbia Glacier is still large and calving small icebergs into Heather Bay, but it has receded several kilometers in the last 20 years.

Apparently, the pattern (along with glacial thinning) is repeated all over Alaska and, in fact, the polar and mountain regions of the Earth. The recessions seem to be caused by a mixture of decreased snowfall and increased atmospheric temperatures. The former is perhaps caused by the latter. As the area covered by glaciers, which are highly reflective of heat and light, diminishes, the process might be accelerated because of increased heat absorbed by the Earth.

In these parts, close to the Arctic Circle, the growing season for “normal” green plants is very short. In May, it took four people two days to dig the 2.5 meters (8.2 feet) down to the soil so that the shelter could be set up. The mountains around the camp were covered in snow, and the kittiwakes had not yet arrived for their breeding. By mid-June, most of the nest building and egg laying is done. Around our camp now, the alder is thick, green, and three meters (9.8 feet) tall. By mid-August, autumn will be showing its face. By September, any chicks that have survived the predators and the various other mishaps that can befall chicks will have departed to spend their time far away with the rest of the flock.

The effects of global warming are subtle and, in most cases, become evident only over periods of decades. By geological time scales, these are very short time periods, but on our human lifespan time scale, they seem long and the changes slow. More than that we are aware of makes it difficult for us to know what is the significance, source, and long-term consequences of changes that we do notice. For example, just 1,000 years ago, Greenland was warm enough to support pastures and agriculture based on cattle; 15 thousand years ago, sufficient water was locked up in ice that people could walk from Asia to North America.

Now when we study the seabirds of Prince William Sound, we see fluctuations in the numbers of various species and their reproductive successes. Kittlitz’s murrelet numbers have been decreasing, but in this season we saw the biggest groups for a long time. Theories have been developed as to why their observed numbers have been decreasing, but how do we test these theories? The experimental intervention techniques of industrial and laboratory scientific research cannot be applied here.

Kittiwake numbers at the colony seem to have leveled off. Is this a portent of a decrease to come because of climate change? Or is it just an indication that the colony islands are fully populated?

Reproductive success, which is a major determinant of future numbers of kittiwakes (and other wild animals), is a very fluky thing. In one year, virtually no chicks were fledged—and the major cause was the destructive behavior of two immature bald eagles. But for their presence, or were there just one rather than two, the success rate of fledging chicks would have been much greater.

If any of these things are the effects of global warming, they are very subtle and require accumulation of huge amounts of physical and ecological data to determine their significance.

Events such as the Exxon Valdez oil spill can be devastating, but to a newcomer to the region such as myself, it appears that with human intervention and future protective actions, the consequences for the environment and its inhabitants can be limited to a period of 50 years. But an event of that magnitude occurring at a most unfortunate place or time could wipe out an animal (or plant) species if that species is already in a precarious situation. Luckily with the Exxon Valdez, that does not appear to have happened.

As a side highlight, I note just this week the removal of the bald eagle in the lower 48 states of the USA from that country’s endangered species list. The listing applied only to the lower 48 states and not to Alaska, because bald eagles have always been plentiful during the time since the presence of Europeans.

About 30 years ago, the number of individual birds was estimated to be less than 500 in the lower 48 states. The current estimate is that there are more than 10,000. Such an event provides hope that wise environmental stewardship can reverse the adverse consequences of man’s actions in former times.

One of the other lasting impressions is of the dedication of the field research workers, especially that of Aly McKnight in our case. Much of the work is arduous, involving long hours in conditions that would be considered unpleasant by persons in the citified developed western world. It requires special knowledge, special skills, and a different view of the creature comforts with which we are familiar. While we were lucky in our two weeks with regards to weather, it is not always that way. For researchers coming from the northern part of the lower 48, they are virtually giving up their usually pleasant summer weather for probably extended periods of what most would consider poor winter weather. Mountain scenery can only compensate for a short while.

It also requires a self-reliance and a confidence in one’s own abilities to solve problems, improvise, and overcome adversity. Guiding a group of volunteers, who have only limited technical skills and knowledge under such circumstances, also requires special abilities. It would be no surprise if destructive frictions were to emerge in a group of individuals thrown together to work long hours in trying conditions for two weeks with limited input from outside. But we were fortunately free of manifestations of the frictions. We were lucky that Aly had the necessary qualities and was able to get us to work cohesively. Aly certainly made an effort to ensure a fun and memorable experience for all. We were also lucky that the permanent summer crew showed admirable dedication to their tasks and willingness to help the short-term volunteers so that we could quickly achieve maximum productivity.

Finally, when I see the amount of work that was done in data collection on the colony and in the Heather Bay observations, I realize the enormous contribution that the Earthwatch volunteers make to this project (and presumably others, too). Without the assistance of these people who give up their time and money (or for Alcoa’s Earthwatch fellows, Alcoa’s money), much less work would be achieved. The volunteers also enhance the safety of the crew by minimizing the need for people to work by themselves in conditions that sometimes require working at elevated heights in unpleasant weather.

All in all, I found it a very worthwhile experience, although at times, when lacking a shower for a week, being knocked on the head by an angry glaucous-winged gull, and discharged upon by indiscriminate black-legged kittiwakes while working for several days in wet boots (the inside of them), I might have had second thoughts about it being an ideal way to spend two weeks of annual leave.

It has been a great experience, and there is a great feeling of having made a contribution to this particular project, the study of seabirds of Prince William Sound, and perhaps the future course of our actions to care for the Earth and its living things. I know that I did make a difference to the life of Bodicea. Perhaps a later epilogue will reveal how she has done in the longer term.

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