Rhinoceros Puffins

20130625-DSCN0657 Is a seabird? Check. Is relatively small and dives for food? Check. Does not have a brilliantly colored bill like a puffin? Nope. Must be an auklet.

This is what I think happened when Rhinoceros Auklets were named. But really and truly, they are puffins. They radiated about 5 million years ago and are closely related to auklets. My research provides further evidence of this in that they have similar voices. But they are individuals in their own right.

Little is known about Rhinoceros Auklets. We have studied them on land during their breeding season.


But we're not entirely sure where they go for the rest of the year. We know they go far out to sea. And to watch them on land is to verify that they're built for living on the water. I've never witnessed a more clumsy bird (then again, I've never seen albatrosses in person).

I spent 3 months virtually alone on Protection Island, WA with these birds (and the guillemots). I weighed and measured the rhino chicks every other day and recorded them every night. When they fledged their burrows, it was actually a bit sad for me. I had become their loud, obnoxious people-parent and they had grown so used to me that they would crawl into my red weigh bag every time I dipped them from their nests.

I saw some of the fledglings the next morning in the marina. They usually stick around for a single day before they head all the way out to sea--or wherever they go. So as I observed the guillemots from the boat every morning, I watched the fledgling rhinos and said goodbye to them as I fondly recalled them as tiny puffy babies.

Again, I have many photos of them as pufflings. But I cannot show you just yet because they're tied up in a manuscript I will soon submit for publishing. Patience, my friends.

What I can do is show you some fledgling rhinos.





Do you see the tiny rhinoceros "horn" on the tops of their bills? Both males and females have those.








I hope you enjoyed the photos of one of my favorite birds. I am a little biased. When you spend 3 months on an island with no one to talk to but the birds, you become very attached and pretty weird.

Come back next Sunday for my final post on Protection Island, WA.

They're not just boring seagulls

I have to admit that as I write this, all I can think about is Pet Shop Boys' "West End Girls" lyrics. Except for I like to sing it "In a West End town, a dead-end world...the East End boys and Western GULLS". Of course, the gulls on Protection Island are mostly Glaucous-winged Gulls (GWG). But many of them are varying degrees of hybrid between GWG's and Western Gulls. I think the reason I'm so defensive about gulls is that the average person is so used to seeing them (often eating at dumpsters or using the restroom on your car) that they reduce gulls to the level of pigeons. Which ALSO isn't fair. Pigeons are technically doves people and gulls are incredibly successful seabirds with hilarious personalities. Successful? Yes. They are numerous, aren't they? And very speciose.

Just look at this fellow preening. Isn't he beautiful?


There are two GWG colonies on Protection Island, one of them quite large. I spent every morning recording and observing Pigeon Guillemots in the marina which is also the epicenter of the large gull colony. Between the rock crevices full of nesting guillemots, the high tide embankment lined with gull nests and the rocky beaches with scattered oystercatcher eggs, it was a busy, exciting place to watch. Gulls are very protective over their nests. They will absolutely dive-bomb you and I've heard many stories from other scientists who have studied gulls on the island which detail thumps to the hard hat that nearly knocked them over. A bird colony where hard hats are necessary? Yes. Gulls do not enjoy human presence around their babies. Also, imagine this many gulls...times a few thousand...

Glaucous-winged Gull

...and now try to think up another reason you would want to wear a hard hat whilst walking among and under all of these flying birds.

Recognizing the difference between male and female GWG's takes a bit of practice. They both gather nesting material, build the nest, and incubate the eggs so you can't cheat and tell one from the other just by their parental duties. The key indicator is the shape of the head. And even that is not always reliable. Males have a skinnier, longer looking head while females' seem more puffy. Because birds can change their body shape just by adjusting their feathers, you have to observe gulls for some time before you can form a hypothesis on sex.

Try your hand at these guys.

Glaucous-winged Gull

Glaucous-winged Gull

Glaucous-winged Gull

Glaucous-winged Gull



I counted 4 males and 2 females. What about this one? (I've given you three poses to choose from.)

Glaucous-winged Gull (Larus glaucescens) - Protection Island, WA

Glaucous-winged Gull (Larus glaucescens) - Protection Island, WA

Glaucous-winged Gull (Larus glaucescens) - Protection Island, WA

I'm going to go with female here but this gal is tricky. It's nearly impossible without seeing them move around in person.

I'm betting some of you are still saying to yourselves, "Ok Steph, I've seen a gull before. And now I've seen one from every angle. Still a bit bored." That's about to change.

Soon: babies. But first! A few happy parents before their chicks hatch.

Glaucous-winged Gull

Glaucous-winged Gull

Glaucous-winged Gull

And now...the little camo babies!

Glaucous-winged Gull

Glaucous-winged Gull

Glaucous-winged Gull

Glaucous-winged Gull


Glaucous-winged Gull

And here's a mama regurgitating fish for her babies:


I hope you've enjoyed the photos and videos of the gulls and that you might be willing to give them another chance and take a closer look. I will say this in your defense. The GWG's did snack on one of my study chicks and I didn't appreciate that. I saw the culprit and wished I had a slingshot. So, one bad gull. There's one in every crowd.

Come back Wednesday for a look at the wildflowers and other flora on Protection Island!

Glaucous-winged Gull

Glaucous-winged Gull



Black-tailed Deer on Protection Island

Black-tailed Deer (Odocoileus hemionus columbianus) fawn in tall grass - Protection Island, WA A herd of yellow curry-colored beasts inhabits Protection Island, Washington. Black-tailed deer. Also known as: the only traffic I had to contend with on my bicycle. These deer are the northwestern subspecies of the Mule deer. For some time, Black-tailed deer were their own species but with genetic analysis, it seems that the deer in British Columbia and Alaska (Sitka deer) and the deer in the northwestern US (Columbian black-tailed deer) are almost one in the same.

Growing up in Colorado, I have seen my fair share of Mule deer. They are brown-grey with very large bodies and heavy antlers. Columbian black-tailed deer are somewhat different. Aesthetically, they retain the heavy antlers and the large bodies but they differ greatly in colour.




These deer are beautiful and as you can see, not easily disturbed. I'm not entirely sure how they came to live on the island in the first place. The most likely explanation is that they swam over from the mainland (quite a distance) at some point. Their population on the island varies from about 30-70 deer at any given time. I found carcasses fairly often as evidence of food limitations. In some ways, this helps keep the population from getting out of control.

There is a big problem with the deer presence on the island though. They are directly responsible for collapsing seabird burrows. When they walk along the steep hillsides that contain auklet and puffin burrows, their hooves fall through burrow roofs and crush nests, sometimes killing nestlings. The island's refuge status protects the seabirds so it's a catch 22 situation. Does one maintain the island's ecosystem as it is now and support both the deer and seabirds or does one eradicate some or all the deer to preserve precious nesting ground for seabirds?

The US Fish & Wildlife is part way through a study which consists of stationed cameras overlooking seabird colonies which are motion-triggered. Hopefully captured images will better inform officials on the level of damage the deer are actually responsible for.

In the mean time, I got to enjoy the fawning season.





And how can you resist these bucks?






Whether or not the deer belong on the island, I welcomed their company during my months there.

I hope you're enjoying the mammalian presence on this bird blog lately. If you want more fur to go with all the feathers, let me know!

Baby owls...nuff said...

20130625-DSCN0691 I first discovered the three Great Horned Owl nestlings while taking a shortcut through the middle of the island. Before I used 2 cans of WD-40 to get the chain functioning on a rusty old Schwinn, I walked everywhere. I walked around the perimeter of the island. Around the water tower. Through the grassy plateau atop the island filled with Black-tailed Deer. The old roads (made before the island was a protected refuge) were embossed with the soles of my irrigation boots. I saw many species of birds in one tiny stand of trees at the heart of the island's plateau. A handful of different songbirds and probably a dozen Bald Eagles. And then one evening, this young lady.


And her gentleman caller.


It never stops being mind-blowing to see owls. During my undergrad at CSU, when I first took ornithology (which spurred my love...obsession...with birds) I was birding a local river and spotted a Great Horned Owl nestling hopping around in branches above me. I remember scanning the trees and finding both the nestling's parents looking directly at me. The thing about looking for owls is that they always find you way before you find them.

The three nestlings on Protection Island grew so accustomed to me watching them that they often fell asleep looking in another direction. But the male and female parents always kept a close eye on me. See the video below for the indifference of one of the nestlings.


In the few months that I lived on the island, I watched the downy little chicks go from puff balls to sleek, vole killing machines. I even saw one of them kill a large Glaucous-winged Gull and fly away over the trees with it. Sigh. They grow up so fast.