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We Alaskans

A challenging bird count on a remote Alaska island

  • Author: Rick Sinnott
  • Updated: December 2
  • Published January 15

Abandoned radar facility used by nesting kittiwakes, Middleton Island, May 2015. (Rick Sinnott)

Dr. Dan Rosenberg retired from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in November. A good friend, Rosenberg never pursued a Ph.D. and he doesn't have any medical training. He earned the title by offering me medical advice that involved rubbing stinging nettles onto my skin.

Rosenberg was a waterfowl biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game for 36 years. He let me tag along on field trips over the years, including one to Middleton Island in 2015.

I told the tale of the stinging nettles at his retirement party. Afterward, as other memories from that trip flooded over me, my wife informed me I forgot to mention the punchline.

The mission

When major seismic events topple buildings and bridges they can also alter wildlife habitat. For instance, the 1964 Alaska Earthquake raised the Copper River Delta almost 7 feet. Wetlands preferred by nesting dusky Canada geese became drier and brushier. Goose numbers plummeted.

Dusky Canada geese are one of several subspecies of Canada goose in Alaska. In 1981, a pair of duskies was found on 6-mile-long Middleton Island, an isolated spot 50 miles southeast of Montague Island. Middleton had suitable nesting habitat and no terrestrial predators, so the new colony flourished. In the last two decades, Middleton Island duskies comprised 10-20 percent of the world population.

Dusky Canada goose on nest, Middleton Island, May 2015. (Rick Sinnott)

Fish and Game waterfowl biologists visited the island every other year to count the geese and measure productivity. Rosenberg has conducted surveys since the mid-1990s.

Being retired, I was the odd man out. Jason Schamber and Kyle Smith are waterfowl biologists who worked for Rosenberg. Others included Grey Pendleton, a biostatistician, and Joe Meehan, the state's refuge coordinator.

Fish and Game's only other waterfowl biologist, Mike Petrula, organized the trip and worked with Pendleton to design a method for surveying goose nests more accurately.

Petrula had superimposed a grid of quarter-mile by half-mile survey plots on a map of the island, 42 in all. Twenty plots were selected at random for surveys. Of these, five plots were to be surveyed twice by different three-person teams to quantify how many nests were being missed. Petrula believed each three-person team could survey a plot in two or three hours and, based on previous counts, find an average of eight nests.

Dusky Canada goose nest, Middleton Island, May 2015. (Rick Sinnott)

Poring over the map on the morning of the first survey, Rosenberg admitted he'd violated a cardinal rule of fieldwork: Don't let somebody sitting in an office determine how far you need to walk every day.

The island

We were met at the island's gravel airstrip by Scott Hatch, the self-proclaimed "Mayor of Middleton Island," a seabird researcher who has worked on the uninhabited island every summer for more than two decades. We loaded our gear on a trailer behind his four-wheeler and followed him to a cluster of buildings, a former Air Force facility.

Over most of Middleton Island, the sounds of winnowing snipe and chuckling glaucous-winged gulls predominate. But as you approach the buildings, the incessant cries of thousands of kittiwakes drown out other sounds: kittiWAKE, kittiWAKE, kittiWAKE.

Middleton Island is a speck of land perched on the lip of the outer continental shelf. Thousands of years ago, the island was thrust out of the sea by seismic activity. Subsequent lurches have continued raising the island, creating a series of six terraces.

Most of it is windswept, covered in sedge tussocks, with marshes around the coast and dense patches of salmonberries and brush along the bluffs.

Centuries before the duskies colonized it, the growing island attracted nesting seabirds, mostly black-legged kittiwakes, murres, puffins and auklets. Kittiwakes and murres are cliff-nesters. Puffins and auklets nest in burrows. During the 1964 quake, the island nearly doubled in size and sea-washed cliffs became heavily vegetated slopes that are shunned by cliff-nesting birds.

Fortunately for the cliff-nesters, the Air Force came to the rescue. Buildings constructed to house personnel who maintained an airstrip and radar installations were abandoned in 1963. As deteriorating wooden structures slowly collapsed, their weathered bones created de facto cliffs, especially for the kittiwakes. Thousands of the small gulls nest and roost on the buildings.

Welcome to The Chateau

Hatch pulled up to The Chateau, a ramshackle one-story building that serves as an office and gathering place with a cooking facility, with large tables, wood stove and several overstuffed sofas. Hatch told us a bunch of university students were landing in a few hours to spend the summer studying seabirds.

The Chateau, Middleton Island, May 2015. (Rick Sinnott)

The next morning our whole crew walked to a nearby plot for a shakedown cruise.

The first plot was a wake-up call. We found not eightPetrula's estimate — but 41 goose nests. Negotiating sedge tussocks and recording the required data took six of us more than six hours.

When we limped back to The Chateau, the seabird crew was eating supper. We were too bushed to engage in much social interaction with our fellow biologists so we ate quickly and crawled in our sleeping bags.

My tent mate was Kyle Smith, who I didn't know well. Smith is laconic to a fault with strangers and has a thing about fleas.

The next day we were introduced to the fleas.

Fleaphobia

After breakfast we split into two teams and each team surveyed two plots, which involved 5 to 6 miles of walking for each plot. Petrula had scheduled five full days for surveys. We clearly weren't going to complete the remaining 20 plots.

Having lost hope for a clear-cut victory, we staggered back to The Chateau, sank into the overstuffed furniture and watched the four university students and professor prepare their supper.

Surprisingly, their dinner-table conversation was not about future careers, or even their more immediate focus on seabirds. They compared flea bites. The discussion was dominated by Shirel Kahane-Rapport, a senior working on her thesis at the University of Guelph in Ontario.

"I've got to deal with these fleas," she said brightly.

Her older classmate, Josh Cunningham, a first-year graduate student, explained how he was overlapping layers of clothes, tucking shirttails into waistbands. Kahane-Rapport nodded and said, "I had six bites in my belly button last night because it couldn't get out."

"They're getting closer to places they don't need to go," she added.

Kahane-Rapport seemed to have the worst luck, or perhaps she was the most willing to talk about it. Only those who handled seabirds suffered bites; nevertheless, the threat loomed large in our imaginations. Later, Smith muttered an aside to me. "You notice I don't sit on the furniture?" he said. "I stand, or I sit on coolers."

One morning Angelika Aleksieva, a graduate student from Bulgaria attending McGill University in Montreal, announced — rather proudly, I thought — "I've been bit."

"By a flea?" I asked warily. "No," she said, showing me a red mark on her hand, "a kittiwake."

Kittiwake cacophony

As Middleton Island rises from the sea, its buildings slowly collapse into the island. Their post-apocalyptic ambiance suggests we lost the Cold War. The plumbing quit working decades ago, so we used an outhouse tucked among the crumbling barracks.

Angelika Aleksieva and Shirel Kahane-Rapport taking notes in the kittiwake tower, Middleton Island, May 2015. (Rick Sinnott)

Walking from The Chateau to the outhouse, one passes the kittiwake tower, a tall building shaped like a concrete cylinder with hundreds of small windows. Once a radar facility, Hatch has retrofitted the outside of the tower with 400 nesting shelves for kittiwake pairs. Each nest site can be accessed from the inside of the building through a small window. Hatch and his assistants use one-way glass to capture and observe nesting birds. Numbered and colored leg bands identify individuals.

The unique facility has allowed Hatch to conduct research since 1996 on kittiwake and cormorant feeding and nesting habits. Kittiwakes forage offshore on small fish and invertebrates. Their numbers have been declining for decades due to climate-induced reductions in the quality and quantity of food fed to nestlings, among other reasons.

Using the windows to feed bait fish to randomly selected pairs — as much as they want to eat — Hatch can calculate how the paucity of their natural prey species affects annual nest success and adult bird survival. Because the same tiny fish and invertebrates are eaten by many seabirds and larger fish, the information is valuable for tracking the ecological health of the north Pacific.

Kittiwake pair on nesting shelf in kittiwake tower, Middleton Island, May 2015. (Rick Sinnott)

Capturing and monitoring birds requires a lot of handling. Kittiwakes carry avian fleas. The blood-sucking insects aren't particularly interested in humans, but they like to bite a few times before they decide you're not a bird.

I visited the tower on several occasions. Once Hatch, who was measuring a kittiwake, quickly handed the bird to me so he could make a note. When Smith found out about that, he almost asked to switch tents.

The kittiwake tower may be an artificial cliff, but its nesting birds produce real guano. The tower smells like a five-story chicken coop. Yet it's not the pungent odor you notice most, it's the cacophony. Periodically, hundreds of screaming birds flush and wheel about the tower, then land on the shelves where they lapse into low purrs with occasional screams.

Thousands of kittiwakes unable to find room on the preferred tower settle for second-best sites in the barracks, where broken windows ease access. There's no relaxing on the seat when dozens of kittiwakes perch above, shrieking their names.

The commotion never really ceases.

Kittiwakes outside and inside abandoned barracks, Middleton Island, May 2015 (Rick Sinnott)

Twisted ankle

By our fourth day the miles of hiking across tussocks and marsh in rubber boots took its toll. Several of us were gimpy from blisters and twisted ankles.

Finally, I rolled my Xtratuf-clad ankle far enough to hear a muffled pop. After completing that plot I knew I couldn't finish another, so I limped painfully back to The Chateau, feeling like I'd let everyone down.

Dr. Rosenberg examined my swollen and purplish ankle and recommended treating it with nettles. I remember mentioning that I'm kind of allergic to nettles. Rosenberg persisted, recounting how he had used Middleton's nettles on several occasions to relieve pain from "tennis elbow." I was in too much pain to question how one plays tennis on windswept Middleton Island.

After considering my limited options, I agreed to try anything. Rosenberg handed me a few ibuprofen, disappeared over the edge of the bluff and returned 15 minutes later with two garbage bags stuffed with stinging nettles.

He stopped me when I started reaching into a bag and handed me a pair of gloves. "You don't want them to touch your skin," he warned. I tentatively rubbed a fistful of leaves on my bare ankle, which sent pains shooting up my calf. "Rub harder," Rosenberg advised, "and keep it up until both bags are empty."

After I completed his homeopathic cure, I wrapped the ankle in an ACE bandage reinforced by several layers of duct tape. I was determined to persevere the next day if possible. Under the layers of duct tape, electric shocks of pain, searing flashes of heat and almost unbearable itching sensations alternated with spates of numbness.

The ankle continued to swell from the sprain — or the added trauma of the nettles. I lay awake for hours in the tent, then sat up suddenly and parted the duct tape from top to bottom with my pocketknife to relieve the pressure. It took several minutes of careful slicing to avoid stabbing my leg in the dark.

The next morning Smith told me he awoke to see me hunched over and sawing vigorously. He figured I was trying to start a fire in my sleeping bag. He was so exhausted, he just went back to sleep.

Twisted advice

I eschewed more nettle treatments the next morning, but popped a couple of ibuprofen. Struggling to pull my weight, I was relieved when we finished the final plot.

We had found 239 nests and estimated the island held 1,058 nests.

What horrors would I discover when I unwound the dirty duct tape and bandage at home, I wondered. My ankle had more shades of purple than the paint-sample display at Home Depot. The nettles had raised dozens of blisters. The biggest — swollen like a tennis ball — looked like I'd pressed a hot iron against the bony protuberance of my ankle. I was still peeling dead skin from broken blisters a month later, long after the sprain healed.

Back in the land of the internet, I Googled the medicinal properties of nettles. Dr. Christopher's Herbal Legacy website recommends nettles for treatment of laryngitis, tuberculosis, arthritis, gout, hay fever, asthma, sciatica, dandruff, kidney stones, hemorrhoids, nose bleeds, acne, chicken pox, bladder infections, PMS, burns, fever, gingivitis, and insect bites, among other things.

Sprains were not included in the list of 65 treatable ailments. It's too bad Rosenberg didn't prescribe nettles for the students' flea bites.

Another website, WebMD, claims nettles are "used for many conditions, but so far, there isn't enough scientific evidence to determine whether or not it is effective for any of them." Hmmm.

To this day, Rosenberg swears the nettles worked "because you were able to finish a plot the next day."

I'm not a good storyteller, and I regret forgetting my punchline during his retirement roast. It's not often one gets to call a waterfowl biologist a quack.

Rick Sinnott is a former Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist. Contact him at rickjsinnott@gmail.com.

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