NOAA Teacher At Sea
Aboard Oscar Elton Sette
July 6 – August 2, 2017
Mission: HICEAS Cetacean Study
Geographic Area: French Frigate Shoals, Northwest Hawaiian Islands
Date: July 21, 2017
Weather Data from the Bridge:
Science and Personal Log
I’m putting both the science and personal log together this time around for a very special reason.
See, I have a confession to make. Many of my friends from home know this about me, but I have a secret I’ve kept under wraps for the vast majority of this trip, and it’s time to officially reveal it now, because it just seems to fit so well. Ready? True confessions from a Teacher At Sea:
I have an irrational fear of birds.
There. I said it. It stems from a wayward trip to London in the Study Abroad program and involves me, innocently consuming an over-priced deli sandwich on a bench outside of the Museum of Natural History when I was suddenly accosted by a one-footed pigeon who made away with my lunch – but not before attacking my face full-force with every wing, beak, and claw it had. My lunch then became a free sidewalk hoagie, available for all nearby pigeons (you know, like every pigeon from London to France) to feast upon as I sat helplessly watching the gnashing of beaks and flyings of feathers in a ruthless battle to the end for over-processed deli ham and havarti on rye. I was mortified. From that moment forth, I was certain every bird wanted a piece of my soul and I was darned if I was going to let them have it.
After many years of active bird-avoidance, my first Teacher At Sea experience allowed me to remove Puffin from the exhaustive list of these ruthless prehistoric killers. After all, Puffins are not much more than flying footballs, and generally only consume food of the underwater persuasion, so I felt relatively sheltered from their wrath. Plus they’re kind of cute. The following year, a Great Horned Owl met its demise by colliding face-first into one of our tall glass windows at the school. When the Biology teachers brought him inside, I felt oddly curious about this beast who hunts with stunning accuracy in the black of night, and yet couldn’t manage to drive himself around a window. I felt myself incongruously empathetic at the sight of him – he was such a majestic creature, his lifeless body frozen in time from the moment he met his untimely ending. I couldn’t help but wish him alive again; if not for his ability to hunt rodents, but simply because nothing that beautiful should have to meet its maker in such a ridiculous manner. And so, I cautiously removed Owls from the list, so long as I didn’t have to look much at their claws.
This has suited me well over the years – fear all birds except for Puffin and Owl, and as a side note Penguin, too, since they can’t do much damage without being able to fly and all. Plus, you know, Antarctica. But when I found out that the cetacean study also happened to have bird observers on the trip, I felt momentarily paralyzed by the whole ordeal. I had (incorrectly) assumed that we wouldn’t see birds on this trip. I mean, what kind of bird makes its way to the middle of the Pacific Ocean? Well, it turns out there are a lot that do, and it’s birders Dawn and Chris who are responsible for sighting and cataloging them alongside the efforts of the marine mammal observers. I promise I’ll come back to my story on bird fear, but for now, let’s take a look at how our birders do their job.
NOAA bird observer Dawn scans the horizon from her seat on the flying bridge
The birders follow a similar protocol to the marine mammal observers. Each birder takes a two-hour shift in a front seat on the flying bridge. While the marine mammal observers use big eyes to see out as far as they possibly can out onto the horizon, the birders only watch and catalog birds that come within 300m of the ship.
You can find the distance a bird is from the ship using a basic pencil with lines marked on the side. Each line is mathematically calculated using your height, the ship’s height, and the distance to the horizon.
How do they know how far away the 300m mark is? Over the years they just become great visual judges of the distance, but they also have a handy “range finder” that they use. The range finder is just a plain, unsharpened pencil with marks ticked off at 100m intervals. By holding the pencil up to the horizon and looking past it, they can easily find the distance the bird is from the ship. They divide this 300m range into “zones” – the 200-300m zone, the 100-200m zone, and the less than 100m zone from the bow of the ship. Anything further than 300m or outside of the zero to 90 degree field of vision can still be catalogued if it is an uncommon species, or a flock of birds. (More on flocks in a moment.)
They choose which side of the ship has the best visibility, either the port or starboard side, and like the mammal observers, birders take only the directional space from zero (directly in front of the ship) to 90 degrees on the side of their choosing. If the visibility switches in quality from one side to the other during a shift, he or she can change sides without issue.
A sooty tern soars high above the ship. We’ve seen many sooty terns this trip!
The bird team also records information such as wind speed and direction (with respect to the ship), the Beaufort Sea State, visibility, observation conditions, and the ship’s course. Observation conditions are a critical component of the birder’s tool bag. They mark the observation conditions on a five-point scale, with 1 being extremely bad conditions and 5 being very good conditions. What defines good conditions for a birder? The best way to make an observation about the conditions is to think about what size and species of smaller birds an observer might not be able to see in the outermost range. Therefore, the condition is based on species and distance from the ship. Some birds are larger than others, and could be easier to spot farther out from the ship. The smallest birds (like petrels) might not be observable in even slightly less than ideal conditions. Therefore, if a birder records that the conditions are not favorable for small birds at a distance of 200m (in other words, they wouldn’t be able to see a small bird 200m away), the data processing team can vary the density estimates for smaller birds when observers are in poor visibility.
White terns look like they belong on holiday cards! A new favorite of mine.
If a bird flies into the designated “zone”, the species is identified and recorded on a computer program that will place a time stamp on the GPS location of the sighting. These data are stored on the ship for review at a later time. Ever wonder where the maps of migration patterns for birds originate? It is from this collected data. Up until this point, I had always taken most of these kinds of maps for granted, never thinking that in order to figure out where a particular animal lives let alone its migratory pattern must come from someone actually going out and observing those animals in those particular areas.
An albatross glides behind the ship, looking for fish.
The birder will record other information about the bird sighting like age, sex (if able to identify by sight) and what the lil’ fella or gal is up to when observed. Birds on the open ocean do a lot more than just fly, and their behaviors are important to document for studies on bird behavior. There are 9 different codes for these behaviors, ranging from things like directional flight (think, it has a place to go and it’s trying to get there), sitting on the water, or “ship attracted.” There are certain species like juvenile Red-Footed and Brown boobies and Tropic Birds that are known to be “ship attracted.” In other words, it could be out flying along a particular path until it sees this super cool giant white thing floating on the water, and decides to go and check it out. This is how I wound up with that fun photo of the Booby on the bridge wing, and the other snapshot of the juvenile that hung out on the jackstaff for two full days. These birds would not normally have otherwise come into the range to be detected and recorded, so their density estimates can be skewed if they are counted the same way as all other birds.
This Brown Booby wants in on the food action near the ship. Boobies are ship attracted, and we’ve had a few hang out with us while they take a rest on the mast. This is not the exact booby that made me change my bird ways, but he’s a close cousin (at least genetically speaking) of the one who did.
Any groups of five or more birds within one “reticle” (a measuring tool on the glass of the big eyes seen when looking through them) can be flagged by the marine mammal observers for the birders. While many flocks are found miles away and might be difficult to see in the big eyes by species, the birders know the flight and feeding behaviors of the birds, and can usually identify the different species within the flock. They have a special designation in their computer program to catalog flocks and their behavior, as well.
I sat with Dawn on a few different occasions to learn how she quickly identifies and catalogs each bird species. At first, it seems like all the birds look fairly similar, but after a few hours of identification practice, I can’t imagine that any of them look the same. The first bird Dawn taught me to identify was a Wedge-Tailed White Shearwater, more affectionately known as a “Wedgie White.” To me, they were much more easily characterized by behavior than anything else. Shearwaters are called “Shearwaters” because they…you guessed it… shear the water! They are easy to spot as they glide effortlessly just above the water’s surface, almost dipping their wings in the cool blue Pacific.
I then continued my bird observation rotation learning all kinds of fun facts about common sea birds – how plumages change as different species grow, identifying characteristics (which I’m still trying to sort out because there are so many!), stories of how the birds got their names, migration patterns, population densities, breeding grounds, and what species we could expect to see as we approached different islands on the Northwest Hawaiian Island Chain. Dawn knows countless identifiers when it comes to birds, and if she can’t describe it exactly the way she wants to, she has multiple books with photos, drawings, and paragraphs of information cataloging the time the bird is born to every iteration of its markings and behaviors as it grows. To be a birder means having an astounding bank of knowledge to tap into as they have a limited time to spot and properly identify many species before they continue on their journey across the Pacific.
This Great Frigate Bird was flying about fifteen feet overhead, with a mast directly in front of him as he flew. He’s looking around for birds to steal food from. The Hawaiian term for Frigate Bird is ‘Iwa, meaning “thief.”
After two weeks of watching for birds with Dawn and Chris, I feel like I can properly identify a few different species – Wedgies, Frigate Birds (these are the klepto-parasite birds that steal other birds’ dinners), Tropic Birds, two types of Terns, and boobies, though I can only best ID boobies when they are not in flight. I find myself up on the flying bridge on independent observation rotations calling forward to the birder on rotation, “Was that a tern?” And now, my identifying skills have vastly improved over the last few days as I have engaged in the process of this very important data collection.
So, what has become of my irrational bird fear? Well, I have to be honest; much like Puffin and Owl, the Red-Footed Booby melted my heart. There he was, perched on the bridge’s shade railing, a lonely little fellow staring up at me with no reservation about my presence or expectation of a sandwich. There we were in the middle of a vast ocean, and he was all alone – simply looking for a place to rest his wings or search more earnestly for the hint of a delicious flying fish escaping the water. I spent a fair amount of time photographing the little guy, working with my new camera to find some fun angles and depth of field, and playing with the lighting. He was a willing and I daresay friendly participant in the whole process (in fact I wondered if he had seen a few episodes of America’s Next Top Model), and I felt myself softening my stance on placing the Red Footed Booby amongst the likes of attack pigeons. By the end of our encounter, I had mentally noted that the Booby should now be placed on the “safe bird” list.
As I’ve spent more time with Dawn and Chris and learned more about each species, seabirds have one by one slowly migrated over to the safe list – to the point now where there are just too many to recite and I feel it is time after fifteen years to do away with the whole of it entirely. As soon as I changed my perspective, the beauty of all of them have gradually emerged to the point where I can easily find something to appreciate (even admire) about each of the species we’ve seen. Terns fight fiercely into the wind as they fly, but when they can catch a thermal or pose for an on-land photograph for an ID book, look dainty and regal in their appearance – as if they should be a staple part of every holiday display. And baby Terns? Doc (our Medical Doctor on board) showed me a photo of a tern chick that followed him around Midway Island last year and the lil’ guy was so darn cute it could make you cry glitter tears. Today near French Frigate Shoals many of the species I’ve seen from afar came right up to the ship and glided effortlessly overhead, allowing me to observe them from a near perspective as they flew. (None of them pooped on me, so if they weren’t off the list by that point, that act of grace alone should have sealed their fate for the positive.) Frigate Birds can preen their feathers while they fly. Watching each species cast their wings once and glide on the air while looking all around themselves was oddly entertaining, certainly peculiar, but also impressive. I can’t walk on the ship looking anywhere besides exactly where I want to go and yet birds can fly five feet away from a mast and casually have a proper look about.
If this has taught me anything, it has shown me the truth in the statement that fear is just ignorance in disguise. When I accidentally gave my bird aversion away during our quick stop at French Frigate Shoals (more on this in an upcoming blog post) many of the scientists said, “I’d have never guessed you were scared of birds. How did you keep it secret?” The easy answer is “Teacher Game Face.” But, more deeply rooted in that is a respect and admiration for those who enjoy the things that I’m afraid of. Dawn and Chris have dedicated their entire careers to identifying and cataloging these creatures, and they are both so kind and respectable I find it hard to imagine that they would study anything unequal to the vast extent of their character. Thankfully I learned this early enough on in the trip that it was easy to trust their judgement when it comes to Procellariiformes. This experience is once-in-a-lifetime, and how short-sighted would I be to not want to explore every aspect of what goes on during this study because I’m a little (a lot) afraid?
In Colorado, before I ever left, I made a personal commitment to have a little chutzpah and learn what I can about the distant oceanic cousins of the sandwich thieves. And when it came to that commitment, it meant genuinely digging in to learn as much as I can, not just pretend digging in to learn at little. I figured if nothing else, simple repeated exposure in short bursts would be enough for me to neurolinguistically reprogram my way into bird world, and as it turns out, I didn’t even really need that. I just needed to open up my eyes a little and learn it in to appreciation. Learning from Dawn and Chris, who are both so emphatically enthusiastic about all things ornithology made me curious once again about these little beasts, who over the last two weeks have slowly transformed into beauties.
Sorry, pigeons. You’re still on the list.
What is to date the silliest question or statement Staci has asked/made during her TAS experience?
- In response to a rainy morning, “Yeah, when I woke up it sounded a little more ‘splashy’ than usual outside.”
- “So, if Killer Whales sound like this, then what whale talk was Dory trying to do in Finding Nemo?”
- “So, there is no such thing as a brown-footed booby?”
- After watching an endangered monk seal lounging on the sand, “I kind of wish I had that life.” (So…you want to be an endangered species? Facepalm.)
- All of the above
If you guessed e, we’re probably related.