M/V Tiglax Sails for Science

Authors: Lisa Spitler and Jeff Williams | Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge

Tiglax SketchThe M/V Tiglax (TEKH-lah – Aleut for eagle) is essential to managing the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. The boat is 120 feet long and operates with a crew of 6. Fourteen scientists can live and work aboard. She has wet and dry labs and freezers for storing samples. Tiglax can deploy midwater and bottom trawls for sampling fish and plankton, and hosts bioacoustic transducers and data processors for sampling fish/plankton densities; and a SBE-21 thermosalinograph for diving seabird studies.

In a season, the Tiglax may sail to Forrester and St. Lazaria Islands in Southeast Alaska, or into Bering Sea as far as St. Matthew Island. Her main operations area is, however, the Aleutian Chain. Tiglax typically spends 120-160 days at sea covering as many as 20,000 nautical miles (at a top speed of 10 knots) traveling from the home port of Homer, Alaska out to Attu Island at the extreme west end of the Aleutian chain and back, several times a season.

The main role of the Tiglax is to transport service personnel, equipment, and supplies between work sites throughout the refuge. This year Tiglax departs Homer on May 17 to deploy FWS biologists and biological technicians at field camps in the Semidi Islands, on Aiktak, Buldir, Kiska, and Attu. These scientists focus on studying seabird colonies, but also work on reestablishing endangered habitats, they identify and monitor archaeological and historic sites, they monitor bird populations and human impacts on habitats, they maintain remote field facilities, and they patrol refuge waters.

 Tiglax also serves as a seagoing research platform and living quarters for scientists from the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) or other federal or state agencies and universities. This year’s FWS projects include removal of invasive foxes from islands to restore native bird populations, collecting background information on contaminants left over from World War II, and monitoring other contaminant cleanup efforts on Attu and Amchitka, studying Kasatochi Island as she recovers from an eruption in 2008, lichen research on Adak, and visiting remote bird nesting colonies.

Non FWS partners include the National Marine Fisheries Service for sea lion studies, the University of Alaska, Institute of Marine Sciences and School of Fisheries, The Alaska Volcano Observatory, and the US Navy.

Stay with us for the “Summer of the Tiglax” as we report in on monitoring and research activities supported and facilitated by the Tiglax and crew!

 

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Our Rare and Mysterious Murrelets

Compiler*: Debra G. Corbett | Nanutset Heritage

(All photos courtesy of the USFWS. *Originally presented in “From the Wildside” USFWS /Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge / Aleutian Islands Unit Newsletter)

Kittlitz’s and Marbled murrelets are among the least-studied seabirds in North America. Both live and breed in the Aleutian Islands and are found primarily around mountainous islands with deep bays.  Both species spend the majority of their lives at sea and come ashore only to breed.  Unlike most other alcids they do not nest in large colonies, instead they establish isolated nest sites at high elevations.  Also unlike other alcids their breeding plumage is cryptic, light colored and mottled which serves to disguise the nesting birds.  In winter they sport more dramatic white and dark plumage.

Kittlitz’s murrelets are small, stocky birds with a relatively large head and short bill and tail. Both female and male birds have a light, off-white underside, with brown, gray, and reddish-gold feathers on the back, wings, and head. In winter they have a white underside, throat, and face, with black or dark gray back, wings, cap, and sometimes a distinct black necklace. They forage in turbid nearshore waters for small fish, especially Pacific sandlance, Pacific herring, capelin, and Pacific sandfish, and shrimp-like crustaceans called euphasiids, and amphipods.

A brooding Kittlitz’s murrelet with a monitoring camera.

A brooding Kittlitz’s murrelet with a monitoring camera.

All of the North American, and most of the world population of Kittlitz’s Murrelets, breed and winter in Alaska. Total population numbers are unknown but 4,000 birds have been counted in the Aleutians with major concentrations off Unalaska (1500 birds) and Adak (1000 birds).  Pairs establish a remote nest site on steep unvegetated mountainsides, or slopes above the timberline near glaciers and cirques.  Biologists think they are monogamous and lay one egg in June that hatches in July.  The young fledge in August.  To get from the nesting site to the sea, up to 40 km away, the fledglings may float down small streams.

Would you notice the chick, circled, if you were out hiking?

Would you notice the chick, circled, if you were out hiking?

As late as 2000 only 17 nests had ever been found. In 2006 a biologist stumbled upon a nest on Kodiak and since about 2010 biologists Robb Kaler and Leah Kenney have been hunting nests on Adak.  In 2012 they found nine nests in the mountains of Adak.  Their search continues with new nests found each year since.

Marbled murrelets are small, chunky birds with pointed wings and a slender black bill. Non-breeding plumage is white underneath with a black crown, nape, wings, and back. When breeding, both sexes have a brown mottled body and face. They feed primarily on fish and invertebrates in near-shore marine waters, protected bays, and even on rivers and inland lakes. Their main prey include sandeels, herring, capelin and shiner perch, along with euphasiids and amphipods.  Marbled murrelets often forage in pairs. Loose aggregations of 500 or more birds occasionally occur in winter.

Adult Marbled murrelet.

Adult Marbled murrelet.

The total population exceeds 20,000 with about 10,000 in the Aleutian Islands, where 7,000 live and breed around Unalaska.  The most common nesting sites for marbled murrelets are on branches of old-growth and mature conifers, as far as 80 km inland.  Before 1990 only four marbled murrelet nests had ever been seen.  In the non-forested portions of Alaska however, they nest on the ground in a small depression.  No marbled murrelet nests have been found in the Aleutian Islands, but recently fledged birds have been seen.  Marbled murrelets produce one egg per nest.  Incubation by both parents lasts a month then the chick is fed for around 40 days until it is able to fly.  It then leaves the nest and flies unaccompanied to the sea. Breeding success is low and chick mortality high.

Marbled Murrelet Chick on tree branch.

Marbled Murrelet Chick on tree branch.

For more information: Gibson, Daniel D., and G. Vernon Byrd. 2007. Birds of the Aleutian Islands, Alaska.  Nuttall Ornithological Club and The American Ornithologists’ Union. AOU Publications Office, Fayetteville, Arkansas

Fine-scale Dynamics of Marine Foodwebs in the Western Aleutian Islands

Authors: Douglas Causey, Veronica Padula, Rachel McKenna, University of Alaska Anchorage.

The Arctic regions are experiencing rapid change in marine and terrestrial environments from many sources, primarily caused by climate change and anthropogenic impacts of increased development and pollution. Even in the low Arctic – such as the southern Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands – multiple lines of evidence point to rapid environmental change on relatively fine-scales of space and time. A diverse avian community inhabits these region during summer, comprising terrestrial and marine species of several different upper trophic levels. Several endemic species, such as Red-faced Cormorants (Phalacrocorax urile) are currently undergoing dramatic population declines, likely related to climate-related change in food availability and trophic structure of the local marine environment.

This project is focused on the dynamics of climate change on marine bird communities. We use several data sources and analysis techniques, including diet data, stable isotopes, and Bayesian inference, and encompassing current, historical, and prehistoric time periods. We are working to develop an initial understanding of modern upper trophic-level food webs in the Aleutians. This will provide fundamental data for comparison with patterns of the past century and developing models predicting future change. In this study, we are analyzing constituent stable isotopes (e.g. H, C, N, O, S) of blood and feather samples from 16 avian species collected in the far Western Aleutian Islands (the Near, Rat, and Delarof Islands) since 2000, as well as from archival modern specimens collected as early as 1820, and prehistorical bony material dating 5000-6500 ybp.

The Red-faced Cormorant, Red-faced Shag or Violet Shag (Phalacrocorax urile, Cormoran à face rouge, RFCO) is a species of cormorant that is found in the far north of the Pacific Ocean and Bering Sea, from the eastern tip of Hokkaidō in Japan, via the Kuril Islands, the southern tip of the Kamchatka Peninsula and the Aleutian Islands to the Alaska Peninsula and Gulf of Alaska.  Deriving their name from the Latin term corvus marines ("sea raven"), cormorants are highly adapted for underwater hunting. Their bodies are streamlined and somewhat flattened beneath, the neck is long and supple, the wings broad, long, and blunt, and the legs powerful and set far back. Using their lean bodies, they thrust through the water and along the seabed to flush out prey. They range in size from the Pygmy to the goose-sized Great cormorant; the heaviest is the flightless Galapagos cormorant.

The Red-faced Cormorant, Red-faced Shag or Violet Shag (Phalacrocorax urile, Cormoran à face rouge, RFCO) is a species of cormorant that is found in the far north of the Pacific Ocean and Bering Sea, from the eastern tip of Hokkaidō in Japan, via the Kuril Islands, the southern tip of the Kamchatka Peninsula and the Aleutian Islands to the Alaska Peninsula and Gulf of Alaska. Deriving their name from the Latin term corvus marines (“sea raven”), cormorants are highly adapted for underwater hunting. Their bodies are streamlined and somewhat flattened beneath, the neck is long and supple, the wings broad, long, and blunt, and the legs powerful and set far back. Using their lean bodies, they thrust through the water and along the seabed to flush out prey. They range in size from the Pygmy to the goose-sized Great cormorant; the heaviest is the flightless Galapagos cormorant.

Our preliminary results indicate that the community-wide spatial and temporal dynamics of marine bird ecosystems are far greater in the last decade (2009-2012) than has been evident over recent decades. We also find that the magnitude of change is lesser here in the low Arctic (e.g. Westerns Aleutians Islands 53°N) compared to High Arctic coastal marine ecosystems (e.g. 78°N). In particular, we show that the ecological patterns observed within such widespread arctic species as puffins (Fratercula spp.), Northern Fulmars (Fulmaris glacialis), and Black-legged Kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla) indicate diets are strongly perturbed on small geographic and temporal scales of 101 km and decades. Moreover, we find that the variance in environmental and ecological parameters is increasing rapidly over time. We hypothesize that these fine-scale changes are related to mid-scale oceanographic and trophic-level changes, in addition to larger-scale perturbation possibly related to a cascade of climate-related factors.