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Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Tern Island: Population 3

Okay, okay, you've probably all seen the sign before, especially if you've ever 'googled' us or even been to Tern Island yourself, but I couldn't resist. And true to Tern Island form, note the duct-tape signage updates made on recycled Rite-in-the-Rain paper. Next we'll have to update the airport section to say "temporarily closed due to budget cuts." But that's a whole other story...

Two things first off: a warm aloha from the new crew! Followed by a humble apology for keeping you faithful readers waiting so long for an update. As you may have gathered, things have gotten a lot quieter around here, both inside the barracks and out in the bird colonies. Paula left a few weeks ago to take some much deserved leave after an incredible 9-month tour of duty out here. If you've been following this blog you are well familiar with how much Paula and her volunteers have accomplished over the last year. Just the other week we bid farewell to the NMFS seal crew and every day we say goodbye to more and more birds as they fledge and head out to sea.

And then there were three...

I'm Meg, the new Assistant/Acting Manager until Paula returns in December and I'm out here with two fantastic volunteers: Erin Kawakami and Scott Sturdivant. We're continuing with all the bird surveys and reproductive monitoring that has gone on since this spring (and for the last several decades), but since fall is a relatively quiet period on Tern Island bird-wise, we're also seriously geeking out on plants and soils these days. Lack of shade and shrub habitat is a serious problem on Tern and we're working hard to find ways to propagate native plants out here and increase their survival in the field. And because we all know that the best time to plant a tree (or shrub in our case) was 20 years ago, we're also creating artificial shade and burrow structures, so the seabirds that depend on this habitat have a place to go in the meantime.

So here's us! Stay posted for another blog update soon.

From left to right: Erin, Scott, and Meg (and masked booby chick #151)

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Hatchlings and Christmas Chicks

The honu are hatching now!  Every morning we walk along the runway, to find Hawaiian green sea turtle hatchlings that have lost their way during the night.
Honu hatchling.  Photo by Mark Sullivan
Because Tern Island is basically a man-made island with a lot of vegetation, structures, and other things that turtles wouldn't normally encounter on a sandy island -- and that they don't run into on any of the other islands in the atoll -- we have to make sure those that get waylaid along the way have a chance to get back out at sea.  Right now we check every morning, and release those hatchlings back into the sea.  Only about one in a thousand will make it all the way to being an adult turtle, but we figure if we save 1,000 hatchlings, that's kind of like saving one adult turtle.

This fall, after most of the seabirds have left, the crew will be moving a 12" PVC pipe to the inland side of the beach.  The pipe acts as a fence for the hatchlings, so should help more of lost ones find their way back to the sea, rather than get lost in Tern's vegetation.  This should further help the honu towards recovery.
Honu hatchling ponders the great moana.  Photo by Mark "Sissy" Sullivan.
The Christmas Shearwater (Puffinus nativitatis) chicks are also growing!  Most of them have some feathers now.  They are funny looking chicks, with a big fat body and little tiny head.  The adults are all dark brown to black, with a tube-nose for getting rid of salt.  They're about as big as both of your hands cupped together.  They arrive at Tern in February, and lay their eggs in March.  Its difficult to get good photos of them because they roost and nest in very dark areas under leafy bushes, and leave the island soon after it gets light.  They are very skittish, and will fly away if you come near them.
Christmas in a bush.  Photo from FWS file.
Christmases breed on islands throughout the central and south Pacific, although we don't know very much about how many there are or how they are doing as a species.  Christmases need good shade for roosting and nesting (on Tern, they sleep and nest only under healthy leafy bushes), and have no defense against rats, cats or other predators.   Christmases also breed on some of the small offshore islands in the Main Hawaiian Islands - so we have to be sure to keep those areas rat-free!

Mostly we see Christmas Shearwaters in the early morning, when they come out from under shrubs to bask in the morning light.  Although Christmases are never very numerous in one location, they are social in the morning, and usually sit in couples, 3s or 4s together, preening in the morning light.  After they warm up, they take off for a day of fishing before returning in the evening.
Merry Christmas!  Christmas Shearwaters are very affectionate with each other, and usually spend the early morning hours basking in the sun and preening each other.  Photo from FWS files.
Christmases are one of my favorite birds because they are so gentle with each other, and quiet when you catch them.  Although they kind of howl at night like Wedge-tailed Shearwaters, they only howl once or twice, and then quiet down -- They don't go on and on for hours, like Wedgies do.  When you catch a Christmas (as for banding), they peep rather pitifully, but don't try to peck your eyes out or bite you, as many birds do.
Seal pup REALLY close up....  Photo by Mark Sullivan.
Traditional Hawaiian cultural practitioner Leighton Tseu has been working with the seal crew these last two weeks.  Uncle has shared lots of stories with us, and reminded us why we are out here.  We will be in his debt for a long, long time.  Thank you, Uncle Leighton!!!  We have very much enjoyed having you here.  The seal crew has taken down their camp, and are getting ready to leave the atoll sometime next week.
Gratuitously cute seal pup photo, by Guess Who.  (yes, Mark Sullivan)
Swan Lake with Net.  Ben Cook and Mark Sullivan provide interpretive marine debris dance.
I will be leaving Tern Island this week (very sadly for me).  The good news is that the new Assistant Manager, Meg Duhr Schultz, will be taking over.  She will supply you with lots of good stories and news about the birds, seals, and turtles until my return to Tern in December.   Meg, Erin and Scott will continue here until that time -- Be safe, Meg, Erin, and Scott, and great adventures!

Paula before departure....

After Departure.... The vessel Searcher, taking Paula away.... and Life in the Atoll continues.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

'Iolani School, Turtle Diggings and the Oscar Elton Sette

A busy couple of weeks!

We had a GREAT time skyping with JoAnn Stepien's class at 'Iolani School on O'ahu --  Thanks to 'Iolani School teacher JoAnn Stepien and FWS Volunteer Barb Mayer, joined by NOAA E&O Coordinator Wes Byers.  Take a look at pictures Wes put onto his Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument Facebook page.  And a most special thanks to the students!!!  'Iolani School's Marine Debris Awareness class welcomed us for a visit last week.  The visit included map study, dissection of albatross boluses, skyping with Tern volunteer Erin Kawakami, looking at marine debris collected off a turtle entrapped at French Frigate Shoals, and other activities.  
JoAnn Stepien's Marine Debris Awareness class at 'Iolani School on O'ahu, pays attention while FWS Tern Volunteer Barbar Mayer leads discussion on Tern Island.  Barbara brought albatross boluses, bones and eggs, as well as marine debris from entrapments, for the class to experience these firsthand.
Students skyped live with FWS Volunteer Erin Kawakami on Tern Island.    Erin is from the Big Island, and has wanted to visit the Northwestern islands her whole life.  One of these kids could be a volunteer, or perhaps the manager, not too long from now!!!
Our next big news at Kānemilohaʻi:  808 Nesting Honu on East Island alone!!!!  This has been a record breaking year, with more nesting turtles than ever recorded before -- the next best year was 589 nesting turtles.  
Honu 808!!!  This was the last of the nesting turtles identified by the turtle techs this field season.  If you look REALLY closely, you can see the '808' on her carapace, with a ying-yang for the '0'.  She is basking on Tern Island in this photo; you can see some turtle eggs she inadvertently dug up in the sand.  We'll expect another big nesting season in three or four years, with lower counts in between.
Balance in all things:  Unfortunately, with so many turtles digging, they have also dug up a large portion of the shrubs along the south side of  Tern Island.  This will probably speed up erosion along the south side, as well as eliminate a good deal of shrub habitat, of which we have none to spare.  (Note the boobies refusing to give up this bush!)  If the decision is ever made to permanently decommission the runway at Tern Island, we will plant shrubs in that area, providing a significant gain in shrub habitat.  Until then, we'll try to encourage both natural and propagated beach naupaka across the island.
More turtle digging means fewer Tristram's storm petrel burrows.  Turtle nest-building has removed a significant portion of the Tristram storm petrel area on Tern Island this year, moving all the way up into our reproductive monitoring plots.  We've been moving the nest boxes back onto solid ground several times this year, but the turtles keep digging further and further back, digging up burrows and tossing nesting boxes aside.  Tristram's usually return to the same burrow to nest; we hope to keep the pairs that were nesting in this area by increasing the number of artificial nest boxes.  Burrowing birds have a difficult time without shrubs to consolidate the soil, and protect the burrows from crushing by albatross, turtles, and humans.
As the turtle nesting season winds down, the turtle team wrapped up their field camp.  The whole gang pitched in to help them take down camp. They spent the next few days cleaning all the field gear, and packing it away for the next season.

The Amazing Summer Team at Tern gathers on the porch to show their muscle!  From top left to right:  Brendan Hurley,  Shawn Farry,  Ben Cook, Irene Nurzia Hamburg; second row:  Erin Kawakami, Scott Sturdivant, and Meg Duhr Shultz; bottom row:  Tyler Bogardus, Paula Hartzell, and Mark Sullivan.
The fall crew -- Scott Sturdivant, Erin Kawakami and Meg Duhr Schultz -- have started on their native plant propagation and planting projects, planning what they will be doing over the coming months.  So far they have created some additional catchment areas for fresh water for their plants, and outlined where they will be concentrating their efforts -- in addition to all of the regular bird monitoring they will be doing.  They've also been finding the first of the turtle hatchlings, and returning them to the sea.  (Some hatchlings get lost and confused in the vegetation.)  More from them in the coming months!

Above:  Erin Kawakami and Scott Sturdivant work on creating catchment for their native plant propagation projects. 
The summer crew splits up --  Erin, Meg and Scott (at right) get ready to say goodbye to Irene and Tyler (at left).  The crew arrived together in June.  While the turtle crew heads out until next year, the bird crew will stay on Tern until December.
Hugs goodbye.
One of the small boats off the NOAA Research Vessel Oscar Elton Sette arrives, bringing fuel for us to run our own boats.  Everything we use on Tern has to be delivered like this -- first on a large vessel from Honolulu, then on a tender from the ship to the island.  The Sette crew and scientists normally are performing marine research activities in the Monument; this time they are going up the Northwestern Island chain picking up the seal crews at the end of the field season.  The Sette will be back to Tern in a couple weeks to pick up our seal crew.  
Irene and Tyler leave with the NOAA Research Vessel Oscar Elton Sette crew.   They will ride up to Midway, and take a plane back to Honolulu.  Irene and Tyler worked some seriously long hours recording nesting sea turtles this year, and deserve such a great trip.  Thanks, crew!!!
So that's it for the news for now -- A hui hou, and see you next week! 

This week's gratuitous bird and sunset photos:
This is the life:  ʻĀ makaʻele (masked booby) chick relaxes on a coconut.  Masked boobies nest on open grounds, so do very well on all of the sandy islands in the atoll, as well as on Tern Island.  They have big fat wide feet, like people, for standing on the ground.
Gin Island spit.

Birds of Tern Island.
An ʻĀ wāwae (red-footed booby) chick.  This one has most of his feathers now -- although he retains his chick fuzz-hood.  Red-footed boobies nest in shrubs, and have red monkey-like hands (okay, feet really) which are agile and finger-like, for grasping branches.
La Perouse at sunset.

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