Summer of the Seabirds – Techniques in the Field

2011/02/03
By Ms Baker

I posted last week about my research experience in Alaska.  Before I discuss the research project, I want to describe the techniques I used to capture the birds.

The larger birds – Common & Thick-billed Murre and Red & Black-legged Kittiwakes -were captured with a simple noose attached to a long pole.  These seabirds nest on cliffs away from the ground.  Why do you think they do that?

Black-legged kittiwakes build nests on cliffs; Note the bird on the upper right has a black smudge on its face. That's so we can keep track of it. We also have leg bands on the birds which you can see on two of the birds in this photo.

In order to capture the birds I used a long noose pole.  I would dangle the noose over the bird’s head and then pull!  This didn’t hurt the bird, but I’m sure it was quite a shock!  Why was I able to do this without breaking the bird’s neck?

I remember this Red-legged Kittiwake capture! It was tough! Look at the end of the pole and you can just barely make out the bird I was attempting to capture.

I got it!

Look at my pretty red feet!

Common & Thick-billed Murres also nest on cliffs, but they tend to nest up higher than kittiwakes so we had to noose them from above.

My research partner Ali bravely sits on the edge of a cliff to capture a Common Murre.

Common Murres nest on cliffs, but note the absence of a nest. Murres just lay their eggs directly on the cliff. What would be the advantage and disadvantage of that?

The noose method only works on large birds.  How did I catch the medium-sized Crested and Parakeet Auklet?  I used something called a mist net.  Mist nets are nylon mesh strung between two poles.  When set up they are very hard to see!  Can you see the mist net in this picture?

I promise there's a mist net strung up behind me. Can you see it? I can't!

Because it’s nearly invisible, my partner and I would set up the mist net right in front of an area where Parakeet & Crested Auklets were nesting (like the Murres, they also nest on cliffs).  When the adults would leave the nest to fly out to sea, they would swoop down into our waiting net.

Removing a Crested Auklet from the mist net. Now, can you see the net?

I thought the mist net was the most difficult of all the techniques as the birds would sometimes get quite tangled and it was hard to get them out.  It was really stressful because we had to get the birds out within two minutes to take a blood sample right away (more on that later).

Posing with a Crested Auklet

The smallest bird, the Least Auklet, doesn’t nest on cliffs.  It nests in rock crevices!  The Least Auklet is only the size of a sparrow, making it one of the smallest seabirds.  Why does it nest in rocks?

Least Auklets sitting on rocks. They nest in the crevices below.

It was really fun capturing these birds.  We made noose mats – basically, mesh that had tiny little loops tied into the mesh.  When the birds would step on the mat and walk around, their feet would get stuck in the loop, and when they tried to fly away – caught!!  It was fun because sometimes you’d catch two or three birds at a time.

My research partner, Ali, sets up a noose mat on a popular Least Auklet hangout. Note the shipwreck!

Measuring a Least Auklet's beak.

So those are the techniques I used to capture the seabirds.  Did you think it looked like fun? Would you like an experience like this one?  A couple of years ago I took some students on a research expedition to study seabirds in Alaska through the organization Earthwatch.  They have some great research trips for teenagers.  Most of them are quite expensive, but they do have a fellowship program (unfortunately, the deadline was December – next year!).  Let me know if you’re interested in an Earthwatch trip and I can give you tips on which ones are really good (I still know people who work there).

I will end with a great video of the island I was on – St Paul Island, Alaska.  Brings back such great memories!  Truly one of the most amazing experiences of my life!

  • Anonymous

    Wow Ms. Baker, it sounds like you had a really good time in Alaska! While researching about Common and Thick-Billed Murre, I wasn’t able to find a direct answer to your question but I was able to find enough information to make a guess. I find that it would make the most sense for this species to live on cliff edges because of their eggs. The eggs must be kept warm and sat on by the parents for four weeks before they are ready to hatch and fly. The parents take turns sitting on the egg and going out to catch food from the sea. The eggs are shaped in a certain way so that if the eggs are gently brushed up against something, they wont roll off the cliff. However, I do find it bizarre that the birds insist on always living on cliffs, because in my research it said that their habitats are very scarce and that they often have to cram hundreds of birds with eggs on one cliffside. My research also stated that the birds face many dangers living near sea water, due storms, erosion, cold weather, and oil spills. Perhaps the Murres are less affected by these situations by living on cliffs rather than the water itself? Or maybe they nest on the cliffs so that they have a better chance of avoiding any prey? Has anyone else been able to find directly why they nest on cliffs?

    http://www.polarlife.ca/organisms/birds/marine/puffins/thickbilled.htm

  • Deirdre

    Wow, this opic of birds seems very interesting, and I love all the pictures! After reading the part about capturing the birds with the loop at the end of a pole like structure, I would like to answer your question of “Why was I able to do this without breaking the bird’s neck?” I learned that some catchpoles swivel allowing the animal to twist without being suffocated. These catchpoles lock once, but also have a quick release if you think the noose is too tight on the animal. The advice this website gives is to never work alone, and be trained in what you are doing. I’m sure ms. Baker followed all these rules, the pictures prove it.

    http://nwco.net/0530-StepThreeNonlethalToolsAndTechniques/5-1-DirectCapture.asp

  • Anonymous

    Great comment Deirdre! I researched the question that you asked Ms. Baker ” Why do the Least Auklets nest between rocks?”. Although I wasn’t able to find a direct answer for this question either, I can make a pretty safe assumption with the information that I found. These birds most likely live between rocks because a large part of their lifestyle is the colonies that they live in and living between rocks and in boulder fields make this living style easier. They are said to have somewhat of a system between these rocks, so it makes the most sense for them to stay in these rocks simply because its most suitable for their living choices.
    Also, because these birds are so small it must be easier for them to avoid any predators by making it more difficult for them to get between the rocks. Living out in the open on a cliff would probably be more dangerous for the small species.
    http://nsolomonphoto.com/PhotoJournal/Least%20Auklets.html

  • Anonymous

    Fascinating pictures Ms. Baker! It must have been a great experience for you. I did a little more research on the question of why does the Least Auklet nest in rocks? Before I answer this question I learned that Least Auklet’s preferred habitats are rocky coasts and open oceans. Although i could not find an exact answer on why the Least Auklets nest in rocks, I have come up with a conclusion of my own. The conclusion I came up with is they live on rocks because of their breeding habits. When breeding, these birds lay a single egg in a rock crevice. Both parents incubate and hatch the egg in the rock crevice. I am led to believe that the birds do this for a measure of protection for their egg. They only lay one egg a year, so it is obvious and apparent how important the egg must mean to the mother bird. The mother must go through great extremes to keep it safe, and the rock crevice must give it a sense of safety and security. Least Auklets live in colonies, so they need plenty of rock crevices for the nesting colony. When it is not mating season and breading season for the birds, they prefer wide open areas such as the open sea. This is another fact that led to my conclusion. Readers, please feel free to re-comment on this one on your own thoughts on why the nest in rocks.

    http://www.allthesea.com/Sea-Bird-Least-Auklet.html
    http://identify.whatbird.com/obj/239/overview/Least_Auklet.aspx
    http://www.wildlifenorthamerica.com/Bird/Least-Auklet/Aethia/pusilla.html
    http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/069/articles/introduction

  • Anonymous

    That looks awesome, I would love to do something like that, I watched the video and the island is stunning. I know that birds are captured to record migration patterns by banding them, or are swabbed to check for illnesses, like the avian flu. This was shown on a popular show on discovery, “Dirty Jobs”. Mike Rowe traveled to Alaska, like you, but he went to check flocks of geese for the bird flu. This clip shows them swabbing the geese, and is a bit humorous. However, my question to you is what exactly were you capturing them for? You mentioned that you took blood samples, and I’m very intrigued to know why.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XHp33FBw48s

  • Anonymous

    Fascinating post Ms. Baker !
    I was really interested in how you traveled so far to find these birds, so I thought it would be interesting to look up more scientists and researchers who have done the same.
    What I found was a journal blog written by a man named Thomas Harten, a man who traveled with a team of researchers to attach GPS recorders on the birds, the purpose of this being to see where the bird has traveled in the winter. This man used a technique very similar to the one shown above in order to catch these birds, he even had a picture just like one Miss. Baker posted ! Overall, I thought this mans story would help to show a variation in what people travel to far places for in order to use birds as part of research.

  • Anonymous
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