On the remote island of Aiktak in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska, wildlife researcher Mikaela Howie spent four months monitoring seabird populations. Mikaela, along with one additional field biologist, lived by themselves in extreme isolation from the outside world while conducting this research. The name Aiktak comes from the Unangan word Aikhag, which means, “going on a voyage”. This is a story about a voyage of personal discovery in one of the most remote corners of the globe.
The Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge (AMNWR) has been conducting long term monitoring of seabirds breeding in the Aleutian Island Chain since the 1970’s. This type of data is integrally important to understanding impacts from oil spills, climate change, shipping traffic, and fishing in the ever important northern Pacific and Bering Seas. Without long-term datasets, we would only be guessing to understand the impacts of incidents like the Valdez oil spill of 1989 to populations, communities and ecosystems across this part of the world.
AMNWR is responsible for monitoring over 2500 islands spanning over a 5000 mile coastline which extends from the Gulf of Alaska in southeast Alaska to the Chukchi Sea of arctic Alaska. The Refuge’s 3.4 million acres include the spectacular volcanic islands of the Aleutian chain, the seabird cliffs of the remote Pribilofs, and icebound lands washed by the Chukchi Sea, providing essential habitat for some 40 million seabirds, representing more than 30 species.
The logistics of research projects in the Aleutians are much more complicated than for other parts of the nation because of the extreme remoteness and historically bad weather associated with the Aleutian Islands. One the most important pieces to the logistics puzzle is hiring staff that are experienced not only with working with wild birds (especially sea birds) but those that also are knowledgeable with remote field living.
Aiktak Island is known for its large Tufted Puffin colony which consists of ~100,000 breeding individuals. Both Tufted Puffins and Horned Puffins breed on the island, but there are substantially fewer Horned Puffins. Although both species are similar in that they generally feed on small fish, Tufted Puffins are burrow nesters and excavate their burrows in the tundra earth while Horned Puffins generally nest in crevices found in the steep cliffs. During the summer months, Aiktak Island is also home to nesting Common Murres, Thick-billed Murres, Black Oystercatchers, Ancient Murrelets, Storm Petrels (Leach’s and Fork-tailed) and Glaucous-winged gulls in substantial numbers. Add to this the smaller populations of Cormorants (Double-crested, pelagic and red-faced) and pigeon guillemots and you have a diverse set of breeding sea birds. The majority of the work was focused on gaining information on the nesting productivity and trends in the breeding population of these species which entailed a host of different methods, some of which are documented in the video.
In addition to providing baseline data on the health and status of these seabird colonies, the data we collected this past summer can also be used to monitor the health of the surrounding marine ecosystem. Most of the seabird species we will work with feed on fish and by monitoring changes in their diet composition as well as what the adults provision their chicks with, we are able to get an idea of changes in the fish population. How well the seabird colonies are doing, meaning how many chicks they can successfully fledge in a given year, is directly related to the amount and quality of food in their foraging grounds. This type of information is important for a range of people including refuge managers, fisherman, and all of us who rely on these fisheries for our cod, Pollock salmon and other main seafood staples.
Since the ability to be successful at work and collecting data is directly related to the success of living on Aiktak Island, this video project also shows first hand what it means to live on a 2×1 km island with hundreds of thousands of seabirds and limited communication with the outside world! If you want to learn more about our daily activities and the trials and tribulations of being a wildlife researcher, check out a blog that I was able to maintain while on Aiktak Island.
Podcast episode featuring an interview with wildlife researcher and filmmaker Mikaela Howie: