James Stanley's Diary


Tuesday, March 27, 2007 Friday, May 4, 2007
Friday, June 1, 2007 Saturday, June 2, 2007
Sunday, June 3, 2007 Monday, June 4, 2007
Tuesday, June 5, 2007 Wednesday, June 6, 2007
Thursday, June 7, 2007 Friday, June 8, 2007
Saturday, June 9, 2007 Sunday, June 10, 2007
Monday, June 11, 2007 Tuesday, June 12, 2007
Wednesday, June 13, 2007  

Tuesday, March 27, 2007 I read about Alcoa’s partnership with the Earthwatch fellowship program back in December 2006 when an article was published in the Rockdale Works monthly newsletter. Having already been aware of the Earthwatch Institute’s great work from visiting its website over the past several years, I thought to myself…“Jimbo, you’ve got to give this a shot.”

I spent the next several evenings looking over the application and writing a bit about myself, my feelings about the importance of protecting our planet, Alcoa’s commitment to the environment, and why I felt that I would be a good research assistant. Upon completion, I faxed it off to corporate and kept my fingers crossed. Still, the odds seemed overwhelming, because there are so many bright people working for this company, and many of them must be applying, also.

But in mid-March, I opened an email that put my jaw on the floor. It was an email informing me that I had been selected as an Earthwatch fellow for 2007! After re-reading the message several times, I let out a yell that sent my wife, Lynette, rushing into the room to see what was wrong. “North to Alaska” is what I told her. Then we did the jitterbug together in front of the computer.

I’m so delighted to be participating, and I can’t wait to be on my way to assist research scientists studying the birds of Prince William Sound near Valdez, Alaska. I’m also delighted by the support that I’m receiving from Alcoa and my fellow employees at Rockdale Works. It’s a great company with a wonderful collection of workers.

Friday, May 4, 2007 Only 27 more days until I fly from Austin, Texas, to Valdez, Alaska, to join up with Earthwatch researchers Aly McNight, Dr. David Irons, and fellow volunteer Dora Herman from Alcoa Fujikura in Mor, Hungary, to assist in the study of seabirds of Prince William Sound. I’m really looking forward to the trip and my overdue vacation.

The daytime temperature was 31° Celsius (88° Fahrenheit) today in central Texas, and it will get warmer quickly as we enter the summer season. My real challenge thus far in preparing for my Alaskan adventure is purchasing the required cold-weather clothing this time of year in Austin. It is strange to me that Texas produces so many sheep and that it is almost impossible to find clothing here made from wool.

I am a 53-year-old electrician at Alcoa’s Three Oaks coal mine near Rockdale, Texas. Lately, I’ve been fielding questions about the trip and getting many humorous comments from the other miners...mostly about being eaten by a wild Alaskan bear. I just laugh and explain to them that in my Earthwatch briefing, it says that a wild bear roaming into camp is a very remote occurrence if all food snacks are kept in the camp’s airtight, bear-proof food storage vault. I also joke that I don’t have to be able to run faster than the bear. I just have to be able to run faster than my Hungarian companion. Besides, the camp issues each expedition member a loud air horn in the event of a bear wandering into our tents at night. The noise is supposed to scare the animal away.

I have been studying the recommended books about the birds, sea mammals, and wildlife of the Prince William Sound region. The reading is fascinating, and my camera is waiting. I rendezvous with the group June 1 at the airport in Valdez.

Friday, June 1, 2007 I arrived in Valdez, Alaska, and met marine biologists Kelsey Sullivan and Aly McKnight as well as fellow Alcoan Dora Herman from Budapest, Hungary. Our first stop was at a storage unit to get outfitted with rubber boots, a float coat, rain suits, and a survival suit. The survival suit is basically a heavily insulated wetsuit that we would use in the event of a boating mishap. The water here is very cold, and according to the biologists, we wouldn’t last too long in the water without it. Wearing this suit made for a very interesting photograph.
 
After loading our gear onboard a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services Boston Whaler (a type of boat), we were off to their weather port located on Shoup Bay. We made a brief stop along the way to collect shrimp from a trap in Prince William Sound just outside of the bay. We had 68 large Alaskan spotted shrimp for dinner on our first night...wow!
 
The camp has the perfect location to study the kittiwake seabirds nesting on an island rookery just a few hundred yards away. Behind the rookery is the Shoup Bay Glacier. The scenery was spectacular. Snow-covered peaks surrounded us. There were also three graduate students working at the camp. Joe is from New York City, Andrew from Maine, and Alex, a delightful young British woman with a great sense of humor and an accent that caused the rest of us to chuckle at times.
 
After a brief overview of the camp, I checked into my quarters for the next two weeks. It’s a tent with a sleeping bag, an air horn, and a canister of bear spray that I hoped I would never need. There was a large black bear spotted a few days earlier in the area, so this equipment was good to have just in case the animal came for a midnight visit.

Saturday, June 2, 2007 My first assignment assisting biologists was data entry into a computer as they conducted a wildlife survey by boat around a nearby large glacier bay known as Heather Bay. The bay was formed by the Columbia Glacier, which dumps into it. This type of survey is called a transect, because the biologists survey all the wildlife in a given section of waterway as they transit through it.
 
On this particular transect, the lead biologist, Kelsey Sullivan, had high interest in the number of Kittlitz’s murrelets spotted, because this seabird has suffered from the effects of climate change. It feeds primarily close to glaciers. As ice from the glaciers fall into the bay, the temperature differential between the ice and tidal ocean water forces shrimp from the bottom up to the surface. The Kittlitz’s murrelets, in turn, feed on the surface shrimp. Diminishing glacier ice due to climate change means less shrimp available to this seabird. We spotted a number of Kittlitz’s murrelets but far fewer than they did in the past. Kelsey said that this bird is in trouble.
 
I thoroughly enjoyed being along on the transect, because I had the opportunity to see and photograph colorful seabirds, numerous bald eagles, killer whales (orcas), otters, and harbor seals. The closer we got to the glacier, the more seabirds were spotted. Often times, the flocks were in the hundreds.
 
The technology software used for data entry is quite unique. It automatically logs the type of marine life spotted using global positioning so researchers have a record of their exact location. We also recorded other data, such as if the birds were flying, swimming, floating on ice, or on shore.

Sunday, June 3, 2007 My work day started at 4:30 a.m. The sun was already up in southern Alaska. Daylight lasts for 20 hours here during the summer months. The long days were something strange to me, and my body had not yet become accustomed to them.
 
The assignment today was to take part in a 24-hour predator watch. My shift ran from 5 a.m. until 8 a.m., and I was joined by biologist Kelsey Sullivan because it was my first watch.
 
The kittiwake rookery provides a steady diet for native Alaskan predators, such as wolverines, bald eagles, peregrine falcons , crows, ravens, and magpies. Gulls also make nests on the islands, and native Alaskans are permitted to take a given number of gull eggs each year from the rookery for personal consumption.
 
In this operation, we used the naked eye, binoculars, and a high-powered spotting scope. The observation location was set up on a close stretch of beach directly across the bay from the nesting islands. There was a tarp-covered portable awning to give us shade or protection from the rain. It had been drizzling off and on since our arrival, and the average temperature had been ranging from 5 to 10.5 degrees Celsius (41 to 51 degrees Fahrenheit).
 
This kittiwake rookery consists of two major rock islands that the biologists have divided into sections. They have given the sections names, such as Aruba, the Promenade, and the Ghetto, for identification purposes. There were drawings and photographs to help us identify the different sections.
 
When a predator enters the immediate area, the birds surge from their nests in large numbers, which is a clear indication to us that a predator is in that section. The larger predators, such as the eagles, falcons, and wolverines, will take grown kittiwakes as well as eggs and chicks. The scientists observe the predators but do not interfere with their hunting. It is seen as one of nature’s way of providing for different species in the food chain.
 
On this morning, I spotted a bald eagle and a falcon robbing eggs. Kelsey noticed birds surging at one end of the island, and the surging seemed to progress slowly toward the other end of the island...a distance of about 243.8 meters (800 feet). Kelsey said he bet that the way the surge moved, it was a predator wolverine. He was correct. A little later, we spotted it!
 
Wolverines are revered as the most vicious animals on earth, even though a grown adult wolverine is only about 1.2 meters (four feet) in length. They have razor-sharp teeth, long claws, and an awful personality if cornered. Even bears have been known to walk away from a wolverine and its prey rather than suffer the battle bruises it would incur trying to steal a meal away from this capable competitor.
 
Kelsey told me to wait on the beach. He then motored an inflatable dingy close enough to capture on camera the wolverine’s exit from the rookery. He obtained some excellent images of the animal using a high-powered lens.
 
The data that we collected will help researchers better understand the effects natural predators have on the bird population.
 
After lunch, Dora and I accompanied Kelsey and Aly McNight to Valdez to pick up supplies. This was an opportunity for us to take our first hot showers since arriving. There is a laundromat in Valdez that provides hot showers in two small private rooms for US$4. Our first hot showers since arriving felt great!

Monday, June 4, 2007 This morning’s assignment was to assist Aly in conducting a kittiwake capture. Some birds captured during previous years were leg banded using a color-code system to identify them. Other birds were equipped with incredibly small, lightweight, high-technology leg bands that incorporate global positioning to track the kittiwake’s winter migration. Two alligator clips are connected to the band, and the data are downloaded to a laptop computer.

According to the biologists, knowing the kittiwake’s winter migration route and the annual growth rate is important, because this information can be compared with other existing data to determine the effects of the nutritional food supply available in that bird’s particular winter migration region.

As the birds return to Shoup Bay during the months of April and May to build nests, biologists examine them closely with binoculars to locate birds wearing leg bands. Once those birds build a nest, researchers have a physical address. The nest location is photographed and marked with a stick painted blue.

A simple snare trap is used to capture a kittiwake. It is a long string with a loop placed around the nest and held in place by sticks. The eggs are marked and set in a neighboring kittiwake’s nest to keep them from being broken during the capture. This method also keeps the captured bird’s eggs warmed by another kittiwake while the captured bird is being examined.

When the trap was in place, I hid in a bush holding the other end of the string. Aly and Dora boarded a dinghy and motored a short distance away to watch. When the bird returned to its nest, I was given the signal to pull the string. After the bird was snared, it was weighed, and its beak, wing, and leg lengths were measured and recorded. This process took about 10 minutes. Then the bird’s eggs (if any) were returned to the nest, and the kittiwake was released. Usually the birds returned to their nest quickly, seemingly not bothered by the capture.

Leg band GPS data discovered that many kittiwakes spent most of last winter swimming and feeding in the Bering Strait and parts of the Aleutian Island chain.

After lunch, Aly, Dora, and I counted eggs in the marked kittiwake nests. These data are important, allowing that biologists to monitor the production rate of the birds. If production rates drop, the researchers want to quickly determine the reasons why. Some of the reasons for production rate drops could be pollution, food supply, climate change, predators, or egg quality.

The nests are sometimes examined with the help of a mirror attached to a long extension pole. For the higher nests, a ladder even has to be used reach them.

In closing, I have only one note to add. To do this kind of work, you need a hat, some old clothes, and a strong stomach. You will get bird droppings all over you. I had a hardy laugh whenever Dora got bombed by one of the birds. She would say something in Hungarian that I did not understand...that was probably for the best. But it would not be very long until she had the laugh on me. Still, I enjoyed the task because it was interesting.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007 This morning, we loaded up supplies and headed to Cabin Bay on Naked Island. On the way, we again retrieved the shrimp trap, which yielded about 45 more large shrimp for a future dinner.
 
Lush and green Naked Island is located on the western side of Prince William Sound and is a summer home to many seabirds, such as the marbled murrelet, pigeon guillemot, Canadian goose, harlequin duck, loon, and puffin...just to name a few. Bald eagles are numerous.
 
We arrived late in the afternoon, pitched tents, and made camp. We pitched the tents in the spruce forest along the beach on top of thick moss, which covers the ground. This moss is very soft and makes a great mattress.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007 The government trapper put out about 100 mink traps. According to him, the mink is not native to this region and is considered an invasive threat to native birds. Early trappers brought the minks from Russia around 1900 to raise on Prince William Sound’s many islands. The mink have thrived here, and the government trapper’s mission is to eventually eradicate mink from Naked Island.
 
The transect survey around Naked Island was absolutely fascinating. I saw all the seabirds listed previously and around 50 bald eagles. Seals and sea otters were literally everywhere. This island is beautiful.
 
To me, the most interesting birds were the horned and tufted puffins. Their large, colorful beaks make them stand apart.

Thursday, June 7, 2007 Our plans to return to Shoup Bay were postponed by the weather. There was rain and strong winds that created high seas in the sound. We did, however, find a place to fish on the calm side of the island where Kelsey and I caught some rock fish and flounder for dinner that night. The fishing was enjoyable. The fish were delicious, too!
 
The storm persisted into the evening hours. We had no choice but to wait out the storm here for another night. Luckily, we brought plenty of food and water.

Friday, June 8, 2007 We were still waiting out the high winds on Naked Island. All was not lost, however, because it was an excellent opportunity to get to know three other marine biologists. Kirsten, Karen, and Rick had joined us on the island before the storm arrived. The wait also gave Aly, Dora, and I a chance to explore. We walked up one of the many crystal-clear streams and checked out the different foliage that grows wild here.
 
There is a beautiful, wild, yellow lily that grows here that would be a prized addition to any botanical garden. Large spruce trees and ferns are everywhere. The young tender ferns are edible and very tasty. On several occasions, Aly cooked the tender shoots in a butter sauce. They make a delicious vegetable dish.
 
On this day, I counted six boats in Cabin Bay waiting out the bad weather.

Saturday, June 9, 2007 The storm finally passed, and we had clear skies. In the morning, we completed the final transect for Naked Island. Afterward, we packed our gear and headed for Valdez for supplies and a hot shower. We had some time to fish on the way to Valdez, and Kelsey and I caught some rock fish.
 
At the entrance to the Valdez harbor, there is a spot where sea lions gather. Kelsey pulled the boat in close to shore so we could get some great pictures of the harem. As before, the hot shower at the Valdez laundromat felt wonderful.
 
After showering, we stopped at Mike’s Place, a popular local gathering spot, for lunch and refreshment. We met up with Alex, Andrew, and Joe. They had completed their boat handling and bear defense classes in Anchorage and had checked in at their Valdez hotel to wait for our return.
 
As we all returned to Shoup Bay, we hoped that a bear had not raided camp during our unexpected long stay on Naked Island. Our luck held...no bear had visited.

Sunday, June 10, 2007 This morning, Kelsey and I conducted kittiwake captures. In the afternoon, I worked with Andrew counting eggs in nests.

I have learned that one of the most important aspects of wildlife research work is data recording. The data that we collected will be compiled, analyzed, and placed in a report that will be used by U.S. Fish and Game officials and our political leaders to adopt future wildlife policy.

Monday, June 11, 2007 This morning’s assignment was to assist Joe in spotting nesting kittiwake seabirds with previous year’s leg bands. We marked the nests so that these birds could be captured at some future date for examination and re-banding. Once the nests were identified, we counted and recorded the number of eggs.

In the afternoon, we switched from marking kittiwake nests to marking seagull nests. The gulls build nests on level earth but higher up on the rock than the kittiwakes do. For this reason, protective headgear was worn in the event of a fall. Since I am a trained coal miner, I was careful to uphold the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) requirement to maintain a 1.8-meter (six-foot) distance from an elevated ledge without a properly anchored safety tether line.

We marked and documented the location of 100 gull nests. One must be careful while performing this task, because the gulls are larger and much more protective of their nests than are the kittiwakes. If you get too close, the gulls will challenge you.

One thing that I found interesting was the size and color of these seabird eggs. Both kittiwake and gull eggs are light brown in color, with many very dark brown spots. The kittiwake eggs are about the same size as those of a chicken, while the gull eggs are much larger, like those of a domestic duck or goose.

Later in the afternoon, Dora, Alex, Aly, Aly’s son Ray, and I took off on a hike up to the nearby waterfalls. We trekked through streams and brush and around rock ledges to get there, and the scenery was spectacular. The sun was bright, and it made for a great day of picture taking. However, I found that when the sun comes out in Alaska, so do the mosquitoes...and they are quite healthy. Dora and I opted for insect repellent, while Aly, Ray, and Alex preferred hats with netting.

For supper, we were treated to some of Dora’s authentic Hungarian goulash. Dora is a fine chef, and her goulash was fantastic.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007 I awoke early and had some free time to tidy up the weather port a bit. The expedition weather port is a large, metal-framed tent with a wooden floor. It provides a sturdy dining and rest area that is even equipped with photoelectric panels on the roof that cleanly convert sunlight to electricity. The panels maintain a charge for three large, 12-volt automobile batteries. In turn, these batteries provide energy for a 12- to 120-volt power inverter to operate data entry computers and, more importantly to me that morning, the coffee grinder.

This system was Kelsey’s contribution. Kelsey told me that his home in Maine is located deep in the wilderness, and he designed his house to function on its own generated power—sometimes referred to as “off grid”—using a larger, but similar, solar collection system. Obviously, Kelsey’s expertise extends further than marine biology.

The weather port also incorporates a rooftop rainwater collection system that provides freshwater for cleaning. I found all of this to be quite ingenious.

After lunch, I was again assigned a five-hour predator watch. This time, the culprits were ravens. The ravens were breaking kittiwake eggs and robbing their nests. The biologists told me that if eggs or chicks are lost early in the nesting season, the kittiwakes will start another family. Otherwise, the early winter season here will prevent late chicks from reaching maturity.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007 The final full day of the expedition has arrived. On this warm and sunny morning, Kelsey, Aly, Ray, Alex, Dora, and I took the day off. We motored one of the inflatable boats up to Shoup Bay Glacier and went hiking along the side of it. Over the years, the melting ice has eroded away a vast area around both sides, leaving behind shallow rock canyons and crystal-clear flowing streams. Kelsey said that there were glacier pools good for swimming and bathing.
 
Kelsey and Alex discovered a deep pool under a rock ledge that was perfect for jumping into. I found a secluded shallow pool and took a much-needed bath in preparation for my flight to Anchorage in the morning...and then on to Austin, Texas, the following day. These rocky, freshwater pools were clean and clear but void of any fish. The water was cold but felt good after my body became accustomed to the temperature.
 
Upon our return to the weather port, we discovered that Dr. David Irons had arrived at camp outfitted with steaks, baked salmon, shrimp, beverages, and fine after-dinner cigars for our farewell feast. Aly made homemade ice cream using glacier ice. All of this turned into an Alaskan beach luau that I will never forget.
 
Dr. Irons possesses a very outgoing personality and an easy intellectual charm when discussing environmental issues. He developed the research procedures currently used at the Shoup Bay kittiwake rookery.
 
During conversation, I brought up the topic of global warming and commented that I had recently heard a nationally syndicated radio talk show host proclaim that climate change was merely a scientific fabrication. He then explained some things that made me stop and think.
 
He pointed out that the huge glacier that lay before us used to entirely cover the rookery as early as 1950, and it has receded more than a half mile to its current location. Native Alaskan villages that have existed for hundreds of years are now sinking into the melting permafrost. Many of those villages are being abandoned. He said, “Climate change is real. But before the world can debate whether it is natural or manmade, we need to first admit that it is happening. It is happening, and the evidence is overwhelming.” I believe him. I am also delighted that the corporate leaders of Alcoa concur with Dr. Irons and are committed to supporting research that may ultimately result in a plan of action to combat the problem.
 
That evening, I retired to the small tent that has been my home for the last two weeks and reflected on my experiences here. It has been enlightening and very enjoyable. If given the opportunity, I would do it again in a heartbeat.
 
This adventure did not end with my departure from Valdez the following morning. I flew to Anchorage, and Alcoa put me up in the Millennium Hotel for an additional night due to flight scheduling conflicts to Seattle. I ventured downtown, where I was able to purchase Alaskan souvenirs for my wife and grandchildren.
 
In closing, I would like to encourage more Alcoa employees to apply for future Earthwatch expeditions next year. It was, without a doubt, an environmental adventure of a lifetime.
 
Thank you, Alcoa! Thank you, Earthwatch!

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Seabirds of Prince William Sound


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