Prince Leopold Island, 2012, seabird monitoring

Bird biologists have been working on PLI since the 1970s, with thick-billed murres being the focus of much of the monitoring and research, although the other species are used in a number of studies. Here are a few of the things that biologists do while on PLI.

Plot monitoring: Much of the day on PLI, and many other seabird colonies, is spent trying to see what is underneath the birds. The timing of when eggs are laid, chicks hatch and then leave the nest is all important to understanding how successful the breeding season is for the birds, and in understanding what affects these components of breeding. We use blinds, like this new one built especially for a kittiwake plot, to view the birds without disturbing them. Blinds on PLI are also often more for keeping bird biologists out of the elements than actually keeping us out of sight.

Each day we sit in the blinds and try to figure our what is underneath each bird; egg, chick, nothing? Can you spot which kittiwake nests in the picture below have one chick, two chicks, and where one chick has been left to fend for it self (at least for a little while, don’t worry the parents did return). Over the course of the season average lay, hatch and fledge (when the chicks leave the nest) dates can be calculated and compared to other years to study how these may be changing over time. In general 2012 was a late year for the birds with the island being locked in ice until late July.

Daily counts: Each day between 5pm and 6pm there are designated plots of murres, kittiwakes and fulmars that get counted each day. This involves hiking along the cliffs to the designated areas and counting all the birds that are in the defined area each day. On nice days this task is also a pretty great way to walk home along the 1000 foot cliffs.

On not so nice days, the daily counts can mean quickly counting the birds through breaks in the fog, and sometimes the fog is so thick that at times the trails start to disappear, and sometimes it gets so bad that we have to abandon the counts.

This picture is the murre U plot on PLI, I count 74 is this plot, how many can you see?

Banding of birds: There has not been a lot of banding of birds on PLI over the years, but there are a number of banded thick-billed murres in the areas we monitor. You can’t quite make out the number in the photograph below, but in person with some patience and luck you can read the bird specific number from the metal band. By tracking these individual birds over time we have learned much about the thick-billed murre, including the fact that these small birds weighing in at just 1000 grams can live up to almost 30 years.

Banded birds also allow you to monitor if birds move between breeding sites, how many years a bird breeds, potentially which other birds they breed with, and through band returns by hunters where the birds overwinter. For the most part the breeding colonies are one of the few places where we can access and get information from seabirds. The other source of information is when hunters report the metal bands on the birds they have hunted, usually during the winter months, which give us more information about where these birds spend the winter.

Long range tracking of birds: Where we used to rely on band returns to see where birds went in the winter with tracking technology advancing so rapidly in the last decade bird researchers are now able to get devices small enough to put on birds all winter so we can see where they go. This year on PLI a number of geologgers were deployed on glaucous gulls. Below you can see the small black anklet on the gull which is a geologger device.  Using length of daylight it will track the gulls movement all winter and tell us where this gull travels to, information that previously was almost impossible to get for individuals. The trick is that we have to recapture this gull next year so that we can get that small device back and download all the data.  No small feat! So hopefully next year reserachers can get this little device back and be able to see where this gull  spends its time when it is not breeding on PLI.

To get an even better view of PLI you can check out this story by the CBC that followed Tony Gaston to PLI and Coats Island in 2007.

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