Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Fluffiness, Nearest-Neighbor Party, Bad French and Mounds of Data: All in a 17-hour Day's Work

Dave Bonter came out to the island yesterday, and his presence is already beginning to have magical effects. He went out to check nests with Michelle today, for he's going to take over for this weekend when Michelle's going home. They started at about 5 15, I was a slow poke an started at 5 30. It was a decent day, and I finished north island by breakfast.

Feeling rather good, I returned to the RIFS lab, deposited my helmet, jacket and tackle box, and went upstairs to grab a bowl of oatmeal where I encountered Dave talking to Kayla and gesticulating wildly at his phone. “Come over here!” he said as soon as he saw me.

Uh, oh, I thought. That smile, it's simply too wide.

“Did they hatch?! Oh my god, you're kidding!” I exclaimed. “They hatched and you didn't even call me?!”

Nope, he didn't. There on his nifty iPhone were pictures of two fluffy little Black Guillemot chicks that they'd found on their way to nest-checks in the morning, and they hadn't even bothered to inform me. Of course. The rest of the morning was spent in scornfully throwing dagger looks at Dave and Michelle every time they mentioned the chicks which, believe me, was often.

However, the cool part about the discovery, aside from the sheer awesomeness of the chicks, was that the chicks were from another nest, not the four-egged nest that we'd found a month ago but a neighboring nest that we had somehow completely overlooked! The four-egged nest hasn't hatched yet, but there's still hope, and it's good to know that there is more than one nest on the island, raising the possibility of there being even more than two! Time to perhaps re-embark on a guillemot nest hunt?

It got extremely hot after breakfast. Dave and Michelle still had to finish their nest-checks so they donned their helmets, drank plentiful water and headed out while I settled myself in the coolness of the RIFS lab and read a great paper on Black Guillemot egg fostering (Divoky and Harter 2010) where they describe a case of a pair of guillemots taking over the nest-cavity of another pair and kicking out the two eggs of the first pair but then, eventually, for some odd reason, gathering the eggs back into the nest-cavity and incubating them along with an egg of their own.

Two interesting results: 1) the egg of the usurpers didn't even hatch while the eggs of the previous owners did and 2) the eggs of the previous owners hatched ~28 days after the commencement of re-incubation. 28 days is the normal incubation period for Black Guillemots but the eggs had been left out in the cold for over 14 days! A case of suspension of development in extreme weather conditions? Perhaps. It gave me hope for the four-egged nest that has been due for a while now.

After lunch, it was data-entry time. Dave had sat down with us the yesterday and pointed out that there were a lot of nests where no chicks had been seen for over seven days, nests where the chicks were probably dead. Thus we needed to finish up the “Nest Summaries” on all such nests, filling out all the information – GPS references, number of eggs, number of chicks, egg measurements, cause of nest failure, habitat etc. – for each nest. It was a tedious task, not made any easier by the fact that we were very full and sleepy after lunch.

To make it more interesting, we decided to talk only in French. Data-entry usually involves one person reading something to the effect of “Nest 315, two chicks; Nest 8, no chicks...” from the field notebooks and the other person typing in the data. Today data-entry sounded more like “trois cent cinquante.. wait, no, quinze! Deux chicks!” (we didn't think to look up the French word for chicks beforehand) and we finally realized that it wasn't quite working when I came to the day's entry for 12H225, the birds at which nest have been affectionately named Grape Jelly and Toast by Michelle.

Deux cent... vingt-cinq! Oooh c'est Grape Jelly et Toast!” I exclaimed.

Michelle turned to me with a horrified look on her face and cried, “Wait, what?! Grape Jelly ate Toast?!!”

Needless to say, much time was wasted in paroxysms of laughter. But we refused to quit, powering through even the 280s and 290s, the horrid quatre-vingt series. Realization of the day: French numbers are especially hard because, as Michelle put it, “you have to add and multiply in the same sentence!”

Once we tired of data, because it never ended so the only way to end it was to tire of it, we headed out to have a “Nearest-neighbor Party” with Dave. One of the things that we measure on nests is the distance to the three nearest nests, a job that, ideally, requires three people: a note-taker, a one-end-of-tape-measure-over-nest-holder, and a running-around-with-other-end-of-tape-measure person. We needed to measure the nearest-neighbors for a bunch of new nests that we'd just started monitoring, so, taking advantage of Dave's presence, we dragged him out into the colonies, turning it into a party.

First stop: Black Guillemot nest. Finally, after a whole half-day of waiting and snarkily commenting on Dave and Michelle's exuberance, I got to reach my hand into the narrow rock fissure and pull out the most adorable baby bird I have ever seen.

It took me a solid minute or two to even find the tiny little thing. I was groping around under the rock going “Uh.. Dave.. I don't think they're here” when my fingers suddenly felt something warm, fuzzy and downy, and I let out a squeal of joy. “Ah, I think she found it, Michelle,” Dave remarked drily.

Me, poop-stained shirt, silly smile, adorable guillemot chick
The rest of nearest-neighbor party was, admittedly, not as fun and exciting, but at least we got things done. Plus, we saw a Red-breasted Nuthatch fly into the intertidal to, presumably, forage for insects which was pretty interesting since they tend to normally forage along tree branches.

As we were walking towards Transect 5, Michelle pointed out an awkward gangly-looking Black-backed chick that was just starting to lose its down and molt in its flight feathers. “Doesn't it look like an old man?” Dave asked, his tone dripping with sincerity. “... an old man crossed with a vulture!” I think it was at about that point that I began to feel at a loss for words.

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