One of the unexpected pleasures of this experience has been the opportunity to work with so many people that are engaged in important research projects here on St. Paul Island. While I am here to work with kittiwakes and murres, I have had opportunities to connect with people doing research on Northern Fur Seals, Least Auklets, Crested Auklets and other species as well. Today, one of those opportunities presented itself and I was able to expand my experience just a bit more back at Tsamana Beach, this time with Red-faced Cormorants.
Cormorants are an interesting group of birds. They are in the same bird family as the pelicans and have a small pouch of skin beneath their bill as do the pelicans. As a group, cormorants are wide spread throughout the world, with some forms like the Red-faced Cormorant ranging well up into Alaska and others like the shag (really a type cormorant) that can be found in Antarctica. Some cormorants live strictly in the tropics. The one thing that all cormorants need is water with fish living in it. They are almost strictly piscivores (students, what does piscivore mean?). Here on St. Paul Island there are two species of cormorant, the Red-faced and the Pelagic Cormorants. Back home in Maryland, we have one species that breeds in our state, the Double-crested Cormorant, during the winter months the Great Cormorant will show up on the Chesapeake Bay and occasionally the Patuxent River.
Greg Thomson, one of the biologists from the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge (AMNWR), which includes part of St. Paul Island, was heading out with his team to band some cormorant chicks and asked if I wanted to come along. It meant juggling some things around, I'd have to take the 8:00 pm until midnight shift on the murre observations, but it was well worth the late night at the murre colony. In fact, I saw some things at the watch that will be the focus of my next journal entry, but for now, back to the cormorants.
We met at 9:00 AM sharp and we drove our ATVs on a 40 minute trip to the capture site. Our job today was to catch some nestling cormorants, take some measurements, band them and put them back in the nest. Sounds simple, right? Not really. First of all, cormorants nest fairly high up on the cliff face. They are also rather heavy birds, weighing in about 2 kilograms (about 4 and a half pounds), so noosing them like we did the kittiwakes wouldn't work, also since they can't fly just yet, how would we put them back? No, this job called for a ladder, in this case a big one, a 27-footer.
Setting up the ladder against a rocky slope with broken rock all around the ground poses some challenges. It is important to find stable footing for the bottom of the ladder as a secure spot for the top, making sure that the ladder doesn't go sliding sideways while someone is up there trying to get to the nest to hand down the cormorant chicks.
The other "hazard" is what can come down from above. Cormorants shoot their liquid "poop" a couple feet over the side of the nest. It seemed that every few minutes, great gobs of the stuff would spatter down all around us and often, right onto us. Good thing we all wore rain gear! By the end of the day we were covered in the stuff.
Once we get the ladder set, we're in business. Someone climbs the ladder, grabs a cormorant chick, stuffs it under their arm, climbs part way down the ladder to hand off the chick to a team member waiting below. Goes back up, grabs another chick until we have them all.
Then the banding work begins. If you looked at my previous journal entry, you read how bird banders take numerous careful measurements of the birds and we did that with these cormorant chicks. We also placed a larger yellow band around the bird's leg that might be visible through a pair of binoculars or a spotting scope if the bird is perched upon a rock or a ledge. If the bird shows up next summer on St. Paul Island and a biologist happens to notice the band on the leg, they will try to determine the band number and get some useful information about the bird. For example, do the chicks return to the same cliff the year after they are hatched or do they tend to strike out on their own for new territory? Do sibling groups remain in the same general vicinity? Will they travel to another island like St. George? These are just the types of questions that could be examined with a project such as this one.
Working as a team, with someone taking measurements, someone else recording the data, and another person holding the chicks during the procedure allowed us to get these birds processed and banded in about 20 or 30 minutes before we were back up the ladder and replacing them within their nest. Cormorant chicks are cute in a gawky sort of way. They are covered with gray down and a few of the feathers are starting to grow out. They have a long pointy bill with a little hook at the end that is useful for snapping up fish from the Bering Sea. The bill is also useful for pecking at intruders to their nest, including people trying to stick bands on their legs.
Working together, we managed to band 17 cormorant chicks today and I hope to have the chance to band some more later this week. Red-faced Cormorants are interesting birds with a lot of personality!