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.

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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.

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

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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.

Kisses (continuous biting) from a seabird

I thought you might enjoy seeing a Rhinoceros Auklet chick in action (one of my study species for my masters). Especially one that bites me a lot. This chick was nearing about a month old. I weighed and measured all of my selected nestlings every other day on the island and this is what a typical session looked like (albeit much shorter without the petting and chit-chat seen here). To answer a few of your questions...

Yes, I'm on a cliff face.

Yes, that is the gorgeous Pacific Ocean behind me just after sunrise.

No, the chick is not seizing for part of the video.

And yeah, I'm awkward. Old news.

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Bald Eagle: Dream Destroyer

I hate to break it to you friends, but that white-headed, dark bodied wing-ed warrior that you vow your patriotism to is not at all what you think she (or he) is. I've given the obsession over Bald Eagles much thought. I have seen them romanticized, the things of paintings and bronze sculptures. I have seen people tear up at rodeos as the image of an eagle is projected, soaring, on to the dirt of the arena. I saw a woman completely lose her cool as a child slowly bent to pick up an eagle feather on the grass. **First of all, let's make something clear. It IS illegal to keep feathers or other parts of Bald Eagles unless you are from a recognized Native American tribe as stated by the International Migratory Bird Treaty Act. But this is ME telling YOU to pick up the eagle feather and examine it. Do it. I am not denouncing the fact that the bird is a 14-pound killing machine on wings with talons long enough to puncture your vital organs. I am simply trying to shed light on his or her true nature.**

Bald Eagles rarely maintain the stark white head that is contrasted by a crisp and minute line into their dark brown bodies. There are several reasons for this. One of them is that they don't have the white head/dark body until they are, at the earliest, about 5 years old. There are many stages of juvenile plumage in these birds and all of them consist of some brown feathers on the head. Secondly, Bald Eagles are ruthless scavengers. If ever the term "beat a dead horse" were to manifest into life, it would come in the form of a Bald Eagle ripping the insides out of a weeks-old carcass with as much aggression and fervor as you can imagine. For every one of these beasts catching a fish out of a picturesque lake in mid-flight, there are an army of them eating roadkill.

So why do I bring this up at all? Why do I muddle that satisfying sigh you let out as you pass by your eagle mural above the hearth? Surprisingly enough, it's because I think the eagle a perfect metaphor for human liberty. In our most raw and unaltered form, we are powerful. Not because of the conquering olympic creatures we think ourselves to be but because we adapt. We live almost everywhere. We take shortcuts. We survive.

Protection Island was infested with Bald Eagles. I saw them every single day, waiting above auklet burrows for an adult to leave or a chick to wander too close to the edge. There were cameras set up all over the Rhinoceros Auklet colonies monitoring the damage that Black-tailed Deer were causing. As they graze, the deer often step through the roofs of the burrows and crush eggs or chicks. But over time I became convinced that the Bald Eagles were killing far more auklets than the deer were. Sometimes I would catch a glimpse of a pristine eagle and snap a few photos. Most times though, the white heads of the adult eagles were stained red with blood and the ground beneath them, a pile of carnage which I have heard called "feather bursts."

When I started seeing the eagles, I was excited and couldn't believe such a congregation of them existed on one tiny island. But as my field season progressed, I grew used to them. Protection Island is the only place in the world that I know of where people come to refer to eagles as pests. Innumerable nuisances dropped to the level of pigeons or fire ants. And really, they are just another bird. Almost all species of birds have a few places where they are the most abundant.

Now if that isn't a luke-warm homage to the national bird of the United States, I don't know what is. Only remember that my intention is not treason, it is simply truth. Now look at these eagles and think about your scope for beauty. No matter how "ugly" we may think the scavenger is, she is successful at staying alive and that, my friends, is beautiful.

These are my photos so please be kind.

This eagle is ~2 years old:

Here's a ~3-year old:

And a ~4-year old:

These Bald Eagles are waiting for an auklet snack from the burrows beneath them:

Had enough yet?

'Murica.

Grad School Updates

I didn't forget that I had a blog but I didn't exactly remember that I had one either. I just read my last post about studying Snowy Plovers and shorebirds and memories of Killdeer and blah blah blah. Great Scott are we ever in need of an update. EVERYTHING has changed. Except for the fact that I'm still studying birds and analyzing their vocalizations. I just wrote my first real research proposal. Or well, a draft of it. It was the longest 20-page word assemblage I have ever manifested into being. Because I'm that far along, I think it appropriate for an update of what I'm really doing. I have moved past the broad order of Charadriiformes (shorebirds) and honed in on the family Alcidae. This family includes puffins, auklets, murres, guillemots and other seabirds. There is an abundance of pelagic seabirds here in Newfoundland but I couldn't possibly do the easy thing and study birds here. I am traveling to Protection Island, Washington in that other large ocean across the way this summer to do my field term. I have further focused on two alcid species: the Rhinoceros Auklet and the Pigeon Guillemot (pronounced GILL-UH-MOT).

Here's the distinguished Rhino Auklet:

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The skinny on this species:

Rhinoceros Auklets are about a foot long and weigh roughly one pound. Both males and females have the characteristic "horn" on their bills which sheds off its outside covering once a year. They are nocturnal (which makes researching them interesting). Their culinary preferences include fish and crustaceans. They nest in burrows on grassy slopes and cliffs and only incubate one egg per year. The late stages of incubation up until the chick fledges is my time to shine. I will record the chick's vocalizations and take daily mass and length measurements. I have termed the Rhino Auklet chicks "puffles" and here's why:

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Nuff said.

The Pigeon Guillemot:

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And its chick:

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The Pigeon Guillemot is around the same size as the Rhinoceros Auklet. It is diurnal (sleeps at night, awake during the day). It also enjoys fish. It prefers crevices and burrows to nest in and lays 1-2 eggs per year.

I am doing a similar study with these guys. The reason that the two are a good comparison is because of where they occur on their family tree or phylogeny. The Rhinoceros Auklet, which is part of the puffin clade is more ancestral than the Pigeon Guillemot which means that the Pigeon Guillemot is essentially a newer species than the Rhino Auklet. Analyzing and comparing their calls says something about how speciation has affected the vocalizations in this lineage of birds. You see, alcids (or pelagic seabirds) don't learn their calls. They are born with every call they will ever need to know. This doesn't mean they make adult sounds when they are chicks, it just means that they are not learning from mom and dad nor are they learning other sounds such as the way a Northern Mockingbird can mimic other birds or parrots can learn our words. Because both of these species exhibit non-learned calls, we know that they are good indicators of phylogenetic signal, a physical character (the call in this case) that has evolved slowly enough to maintain the same state in closely related species.

So it's like any perfect relationship. The birds are different enough to stay interesting but similar enough to group together and compare.

I want to devote an entire blog to describing Protection Island because it is magnificent enough to deserve its own mention. I feel at least a bit better now that I have updated this blog though. And as usual, these pictures don't belong to me so kudos to the people who were cool enough to take them. Stay tuned, more exciting bird adventures to come...

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