Sunday, May 31, 2009

More Birds!!

Well, we've been accomplishing a lot of work since the weather's been better - bivalve surveys outside and inside the lagoon and repeating recruitment studies, since we've been here three weeks now. However, I've already talked about both these projects, so let's talk more birds! Before I do though, I've already asked my field assistant (and essentially partner) Kate to write a blog entry on sediment collection or algae and Laysan duck biologist Jimmy Breeden to write a blog entry on his work with the Laysan ducks - so that's what's coming!

I took three Air Force visitors (flying a C-12 from Kansas to Japan and making several stops along the way) on a tour of Midway today and was able to take lots of great photos of birds that I don't normally get to take, so it's a good day to talk birds.

I've already mentioned the Laysan ducks and Jimmy Breeden will talk more about them, but I had to share this photo of one of the first ducklings I've seen this year. One duck (banded White-7) has been wandering around the boathouse for at least three days with her darling ducklings. Friday, we saw her for the first time with 5 ducklings; yesterday and today, we saw her with only 2 ducklings - apparently they only have a 30% chance of surviving, according to Jimmy. :(

I've also seen several chicks lately of red-tailed tropic birds (Phaethon rubricauda rothschildi - at left). These birds are known for their long red tails and for their loud squawk at any disturbance. They lay one egg each year and nest in the shade against a tree or structure. I'm told they have fabulous displays of aerial courtship, including flying backwards, but I've never seen it. They are solitary feeders who dive, far from land, to retrieve fish and squid. Like the albatrosses, they'll regurgitate food for their chicks for about 11 to 13 weeks. Midway hosts nearly 5000 pairs, according to the refuge website.

Just before dinner today, we found a bonin petrel (Pterodroma hypoleuca) fledgling near the hydroponics greenhouse and the Chugach office. These birds feed at night on small fish and squid and spend the days in their underground burrows, which can be as long as three meters and one meter deep. We have to be very careful walking off paths and roads on Sand Island because we can easily crash their burrows by stepping on them. If we do, then we have to dig out the birds. They arrive in August, raise one chick, and depart by the end of June. When they're here, the skies come alive at sunset with thousands of petrels departing to feed for the night. We have to be careful with lights at night because the petrels aren't used to them and frequently crash into lighted windows and bikers wearing headlamps! Sand Islands hosts over 32,000 pairs!!!

Monday, May 25, 2009

Midway Socializing :)

Since we're so isolated at Midway (3-4 planes per month normally, plus phones, Internet, but very little TV), we try to create our own social events fairly regularly. Captain Brooks (the only bar) is open Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, but there's a lot more than that happening, especially recently! Midway's Morale, Welfare, and Recreation (MWR) committee runs the "Ship's Store" (with most necessities from shampoo to pizza and wine) and the bar and plans events like these. We also have movie night and less organized events like margaritas or cocktails at someone's house or impromptu parties at Thai houses.

The day after we arrived was the first round of a 3-month bowling league incorporating 5 teams of 5 - very exciting!! Lots of beer and pizza at Midway's old-fashioned bowling alley every Saturday night - we have lots of bowling balls and bowling shoes, but I don't think most things have changed there since Navy days. Bowling isn't my thing, but it's very fun to watch and cheer every time someone gets a strike!

Saturday was the 2nd annual 5k race, with bikers, runners, and walkers. As predicted, our refuge biologist, John Klavitter, won the running division by a few minutes - he seems to be very skilled at everything athletic, from bowling to basketball. I think at least 30 people participated, while others staffed water stations, took photos, and cheered! Kate and I took photos and cheered from the Boathouse - it would have been a shame to miss it to work, so we went out to work afterwards! Every participant and volunteer received a raffle ticket and the winners of the various divisions received extra raffle tickets for the prize of a nano iPod. At left, head chef Pong competes in the bicycle race. Below John Klavitter leads the runners and transportation mechanic Tawan race-walks while Laysan duck biologist Jimmy supplies water and Kittipong/Bob takes photos.

We enjoyed Midway's Chugach band last night at the All Hands Club - they covered the Eagles' "Hotel California", John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads," Eric Clapton's "You Look Wonderful Tonight," "Sultan of Swing," and many Thai songs. Apparently the band hadn't performed in over two months, so we were glad to participate! One of the Thais, Prajim, sold beer and sodas and helped Kate figure out the popcorn machine. There's also a game room with 3 pool tables, a Ping-Pong table, and shuffleboard, which was popular for a while. We had two Coast Guard C-130 planes arrive last night for a medical evacuation mission and a search-and-rescue mission - apparently one Japanese fisherman fell overboard and was lost 700 miles north of here and another suffered a heart attack and is being evacuated. The crews joined us after they all arrived at 11 or so and the party lasted until 1 am with an iPod player eventually replacing the band. Glad we were taking today off and could sleep in!!

For Memorial Day today, FWS Visitor Services coordinator Tracy and acting refuge manager Ken Foote organized a ceremony at one of the Battle of Midway memorials. We started outside, but then it started raining pretty hard so we moved inside while Tracy read a message from Ken Foote welcoming the Coast Guard crews and remembering America's brave armed service members. After a moment of silence in their honor, head chef Pong and Kittipong/Bob deposited a beautiful wreath they had made at the memorial and we listened to "Taps". We also took photos of all the island's military veterans at the memorial.

Searching for Bivalves

Hmm . . . so much for twice per week! But I do have an excuse - the winds finally died down enough for us to go out starting Thursday and the waves were actually quite calm the last few days, so we could actually get work done! It's still cold though - and it hasn't been all that sunny either.

We finished deployed temperature loggers and checking my bivalve recruitment spat collectors (although that begins again very soon, since we try to do it every 2 weeks) and have moved on to a new project: random surveys around the atoll for bivalves. So far, we've done 10 sites in the SW patches and sand, N backreef, and NW patches. The first two were dictated by weather, since we can only work in the NW area (Welles Harbor) when winds are pretty low since it's not protected by the island or raised rim.

For those who don't know, a bivalve is, broadly, a mollusk with two shells, like a clam, mussel, or oyster. The main point of these surveys is to estimate the population size and distribution of black-lipped pearl oysters Pinctada margaritifera (above), since I'm working on the population dynamics and restoration of this species. However, we've expanded it to include other large bivalves, such as the Chama to the right.

We've been surprised to find very few bivalves for the amount of time we spend looking, but we've seen some other cool things, like branching coralline algae, nudibranches (first two below), sea stars, another huge marine debris net that Kate managed to bring back to the island, and a big channel marker buoy with a solar panel, light, and huge chain. The branching coralline algae (last photo below) was interesting to me because I've seen sediment samples from Midway with lots of branching coralline algae, but hadn't noticed it alive before so I took some photos of that. We also found one site with an extraordinary diversity of algae - seemed like at least 10 species fairly common.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Midway's For the Birds!

It's been really windy lately, so we haven't been able to go out on the water much since Thursday. We went out briefly yesterday to check spat collectors at the site we call Forbidden Beach, which is off the northwest side of Sand Island (the beach is reserved for the monk seals and other wildlife, so therefore forbidden to people!), which was pretty protected, but the waves were too big to go elsewhere. Unfortunately, May still gets a bit of winter weather, so it's not as predictable as the summer! We've been doing lots of data entry, planning, tile-drilling, etc.

Since I don't have much interesting work to talk about, I'll use this blog to introduce the most famous residents of Midway: its birds!

The most common bird at Midway is, of course, the albatross. We have two species here: the Laysan albatross (Phoebastria immutabilis) and the black-footed albatross (Phoebastria nigripes - pictured left). Once in a while, we get a short-tailed albatross, or a "golden gooney," but I've only seen one once. The albatross generally come back to the island in November and lay their eggs by December. The parents trade off sitting on the nest and feeding thousands of miles away for two months until the single egg hatches in late January to mid-February. The parents regurgitate flying fish eggs and squid oil to the chicks. By now, mid-May, the chicks are quite big and nearly as large as the parents. In about a month, the parents will stop feeding the chicks and the chicks will start trying to fly and moving toward the beaches. The chicks will fledge in late June to July; since Midway hosts over 450,000 breeding pairs of Laysan albatross and over 25,000 breeding pairs of black-footed albatross and only about 65% of chicks survive to fledge, we have lots of dead birds and flies in July, but we also have lots of chicks out on the reef. It's also known as tiger shark season for those of us in the water because the chicks are easy prey!

The juveniles will stay at sea for 3-5 years before returning to Midway to look for a mate, but they frequently don't mate until they are 8-9 years old and then may only have a chick every other year. One of the threats to these birds is the huge amounts of plastic floating on the surface of the North Pacific Ocean; parents will feed pieces of plastic to their chicks, and it's common to see cigarette lighters, toothbrushes, and other myriad pieces of plastic in the gut of dead chicks. Fortunately, albatross chicks spit out their stomach contents in a bolus in order to get rid of squid beaks, and this mechanism also rids the chicks of plastic generally. There are lots of dark boluses of squid beaks and plastic all over the island now.

Another common bird is the white tern (Gygis alba rothschildi), which dart above our heads all the time. They lay their eggs on any available flat surface and don't bother to build a nest, so we find eggs and chicks on window air conditioners, trees, ledges, etc. The parents bring whole small fish and squid to the chick for nearly 4 months! We've observed a white tern pair laying an egg and raising a chick on the exposed reef rim in the northeast part of the atoll (Reef Hotel) for the past three years at the same location . We've seen the chick the last two years, but saw a parent incubating an egg last week there (at right).

One of the more recent additions to Midway's birdlife is the Laysan duck (Anas laysanensis - at left). These endangered ducks have only been found since 1860 at Laysan Island, one of the islands to our southeast, but FWS decided to establish a second population at Midway in 2004 and 2005. Despite an epidemic of botulism last year, the birds have become a com around Midway - I saw 7 of them tonight while biking around town at dusk.

We also see a lot of red-tailed tropic birds, frigate birds, boobies, other tern species, and other seabirds, but I'll save them for another day!

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Crazy About Pearl Oysters

Well, I've already gone longer than I intended between blog posts - not an auspicious beginning! I think the first few blogs will be long as I introduce our work.

Anyway, we've been really busy with long, exhausting days on the water. Sunday, we were able to go on a "sediment collection" dive with Keoki Stender at a site they used to take tourists to called Fish Hole. We had a big grouper that followed us around for the whole dive, and saw some other really cool fish and invertebrates (I'll have to let Kate tell you about algae - not really my thing!). It was a great dive and a great re-introduction to Midway! Check out our photos on Picasa for more info. That night, Keoki gave a great talk on underwater photography, which I look forward to applying! At left is a photo of Keoki with his great camera and the grouper.

The last few days, we've been collecting and deploying temperature loggers at various sites around the atoll, checking my bivalve recruitment sites (AKA "spat collectors"), collecting coral reproduction samples, preparing for other projects, and organizing things. We have 8 temperature loggers deployed around the atoll that record water temperature every 15 minutes, so we have to bring these back to land once or twice per year to download the data and re-launch them. We've also collected a few tiny samples of coral to preserve in formalin and ethanol to determine when corals here are reproducing - maybe we'll discover a mass spawning event like they have on the Great Barrier Reef! We're figuring out how to build cages for my juvenile growth and predation experiment on pearl oysters and building large calipers to measure adult bivalves (= 2-shelled mollusks like clams, oysters, mussels). We also collected a huge net on the reef yesterday that would be an entanglement hazard to endangered monk seals, dolphins, and turtles.

However, our main project this week is checking my spat collectors for my own research. Black-lipped pearl oysters were heavily overfished in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI) in the 1920s for the mother-of-pearl or nacre on the inside of the shell, which was used to make buttons. NOAA surveys in the last few years determined that the species has not recovered in the 80 or so years since then, so the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument (AKA, the Monument or PMNM) and FWS are interested in a restoration. Before last year, we'd never seen an adult pearl oyster at Midway, but we were finding a lot of pearl oyster recruits on our cages and tiles, so I decided to study the ecology and population dynamics of this species and methods for restoration.

Last year, I started a major project on the recruitment of this species, which means the settling of larvae onto substrate. In August of 2008, I put sets of 10 spat collectors, which are pieces of black plastic shadecloth folded like an accordion, at 10 different sites throughout the atoll to evaluate when and where recruitment is highest. Apparently, pearl oyster larvae really like dark crevices, so these spat collectors are perfect substrate and are used in pearl farms in the south and western Pacific. I check them every two weeks when we're here and measure and count all the tiny pearl oyster juveniles. At right is a photo of one of my spat collectors.

This year, I'm also planning some major surveys, permanent transects for population dynamics, and a caging experiment to determine growth and mortality with and without predators. More on this later as we get it started. Check out my photos of pearl oysters here and of the bivalve recruitment study here.

Saturday, May 09, 2009


Kate and I arrived at Midway last night to drizzly sort of weather, a lot of familiar faces, and thousands of wet albatross chicks and adults. The flight seemed pretty short because I spent nearly the whole flight talking to the other passengers, including a scientist and a man who worked as a divemaster at Midway when there was more tourism ten years or so ago. After arriving, we greeted a lot of familiar faces, met several new people, and bid farewell to several familiar faces leaving for vacation. Kate and I moved into Charlie Barracks (the "hotel," which used to be bachelor officers quarters when Midway was a Naval Air Station) and then headed down to Captain Brooks (the island bar) - yummy pizza and your choice of a variety of beer, wine, or soda.

Today Kate and I organized everything we brought and moved things around between our rooms, the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) office, and the Boathouse, which we use as our lab and staging area.

Kate jumped in the water briefly in front of the Clipper House (where we eat meals) after lunch and decided the water was colder than she'd expected - I've been here in April and May before, but she hasn't. Oddly, the water is actually coldest here in April, so we'll still need warm wetsuits now - I'm glad I brought my 5 mm wetsuit and hood! The divemaster, Keoki Stender, is teaching an open-water SCUBA class for 8 FWS and Chugach employees, and he brought a 7-mm wetsuit, which is what I would use in California! Brr!!!!

The albatross chicks are just starting to become mobile, so they're moving into the roads. I had to drive a golf cart today to move all our gear around and it was a true obstacle course - riding my bike was a relief! I always forget how much I enjoy riding a bike when I'm not here - everyone else rides bikes in Santa Cruz, but I never do because of the hills.

Our goal for tomorrow is to get our boat in the water and prepared to start research Monday. We may take advantage of Keoki's knowledge of the reef to go out diving with him tomorrow, which would be a lot of fun!
And now, off to join the bowling tournament - or at least to join in the general hilarity and fun, not the actual bowling! They're bringing pizza and drinks for sale, and it's the major entertainment for Saturday night!

Check out more of my photos here.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Heading to Midway!!

The 2009 Midway field season is beginning! Kate and I are heading to Midway on 8 May 2009 to start the 2009 field season. We will focus on my research on the population dynamics of large bivalves, particularly the black-lipped pearl oyster (Pinctada margaritifera). Check out photos of black-lipped pearl oysters here!