Researchers study seabirds to help get big picture of marine ecosystem health

Watch a video of the field research conducted on tufted puffins at Chiniak Island.
Watch a slideshow featuring additional photos by Bob Hallinen. story photo
A tufted puffin comes in for a landing with a bill full of sand lance on Chiniak Island off Kodiak Island. University of Alaska Fairbanks researchers are studying the seabirds as part of a larger study that may result in an understanding of the decline of Steller sea lions and how commercial fisheries can stay in business. (Photo by Bob Hallinen / Anchorage Daily News) story photo
UAF graduate student Cory Williams measures the head of a tufted puffin on Chiniak Island as part of the research project. (Photo by Bob Hallinen / Anchorage Daily News) story photo
UAF graduate students Travis Cooper and Cory Williams spread a net over tufted puffin burrows on Chiniak Island to capture birds to examine. (Photo by Bob Hallinen / Anchorage Daily News) story photo
With its bill full of sand lance, an adult puffin heads back to its nest. Adult puffins feed their young as much forage fish as they can before feeding themselves. (Photo by Bob Hallinen / Anchorage Daily News) story photo
Young tufted puffins lack the distinguishing characteristics of adults including the tendency to bite. Researchers must be careful when handling adult birds because of their vicious bite. (Photo by Bob Hallinen / Anchorage Daily News) story photo
Cooper holds a tufted puffin egg that was pushed out of the burrow. Tufted puffins range from California, Japan and Alaska. (Photo by Bob Hallinen / Anchorage Daily News) story photo
(Photo by Bob Hallinen / Anchorage Daily News) story photo
A flock of tufted puffins float on the water off Chiniak Island near Kodiak Island. Puffins are pelagic birds, which means they spend much of their time in open ocean, returning to land only to nest.


Published: September 19, 2004

Last Modified: September 26, 2004 at 12:32 AM


CHINIAK ISLAND -- Rachael Orben cradled a very angry-looking tufted puffin, careful to keep its wings under control and its beak from her hands.

"They bite you and grab on and twist. It really hurts," she said in a gentle voice, seemingly unaffected by the gyrating bird in her lap.

As she slipped a black bag over the bird's head, it growled, sounding like a far-off chain saw. Then it seemed to settle down and accept its fate.

The fate of these birds is what brings Orben and a group of researchers to remote Chiniak Island off Kodiak's Cape Chiniak. University of Alaska Fairbanks marine biology graduate student Cory Williams has been working with assistant professor Loren Buck for three years studying these puffins in an effort to reach a larger conclusion about the health of the marine ecosystem. Their work could help explain why Steller sea lions are declining and how commercial fisheries could stay in business.

Seabirds, much like sea lions, are harbingers of even subtle changes in the environment. Such factors as the availability of food and water temperature affect reproduction.

However, seabirds are easier to locate and study than sea lions. Getting a sea lion onto a boat to be examined can take as long as a week, while seabirds can be captured daily.

Three species of birds are included in Buck's study -- black-legged kittiwakes, glaucous-winged gulls and tufted puffins.

Graduate student Williams is concentrating on the puffins, and that's why he too is seated next to Orben holding his own growling puffin.


You never expect a puffin to growl. Granted, these missile-shaped seabirds have intense, orange-ringed eyes and regal golden head-plumes, but their chunky orange bills and the way their wide, webbed feet flail when they're trying to fly defy their ruffian image.

But they are indeed feisty creatures, said Williams, who has scratches and nips all over his arms, compliments of irate puffins unhappy about being snatched from their hillside burrows.

Tufted puffins are pelagic birds, which means they spend much of their time in open ocean, returning to land only to nest. They range farther than other puffins, from California to Japan to far north Alaska, and they can handle the extreme temperature changes that come with such wanderings.

Adult puffins will feed their young as much forage fish as they can scoop up in their bills, yet forego such a lush diet themselves when they have their young to care for.

Williams held his puffin gingerly as he began a series of procedures that will help him reach conclusions in his research. The bird protested with an occasional growl, but didn't flinch when Williams pricked its rubbery-looking leg with a small needle to draw blood samples.

In the past, Buck said the only way to get some of the information needed on puffins -- such as eating habits -- was to shoot them, take them back to a laboratory and cut them open to see what was inside their stomachs. But new testing methods allow scientists to essentially "borrow" the birds for about an hour each, taking a few milligrams of adipose tissue that is later analyzed in what is called Quantitative Fatty Acid Signature Analysis -- or Q-FASA.

"A real benefit of Q-FASA is that it summarizes, or integrates, a month or so of diet for the individual, whereas stomach content analysis yields diet information for only the preceding several hours," Buck said.

Blood taken from the birds is used to extract corticosterone, a stress hormone that yields information on the birds energy and stress levels. All of the information ties back to a more global perspective, which Buck said he hopes will help answer the question of how changes in the environment affect the predator population.


It was not quite 11 a.m., and our skiff motored into a slightly protected cove at Chiniak Island, the largest of five tufted puffin rookeries in Chiniak Bay that Williams and his crew are monitoring. The water was particularly calm on the 40-minute trip out, Buck said. "It's not real fun coming out here when it's nasty out," he added. Buck maneuvered us close to shore where we deposited a day's worth of gear that we would later haul up a rock cliff, hanging onto a rope strung from the top of the island. Already, Williams, Orben and field technician Travis Cooper were at the top, setting up the syringes, tubes and other monitoring equipment they would need for their work.

As we reached the upper edges of the island, a distinct and not-so-pleasant guano scent filled the air, and white droppings lay in small piles at the mouths of what looked like the openings to a prairie dog colony. At first, there only seemed to be a handful of the holes, but as we walked to the grassy opening where Williams had set up the equipment, more and more holes appeared from under bushy outcroppings of grass, some of them separated from each other by only 10 inches of earth. Buck said there are about 10,000 breeding pairs of puffins at this location, although by this time of day, most of them were out at sea, diving for food for their young. The burrows are their homes.

Indeed, the birds were busy, and we watched them buzz overhead like small airplanes, their beaks full of small fish that they deposited into their burrows. Out and back they went, like bees attending a nest, and we watched and waited for a chance to capture one.

Cooper, gangly, soft-spoken with intense blue eyes, took on the role of puffin-hunter, watching intently as the birds returned to their nests. When he saw one, he would stealthily make his way to the burrow, fall to his side and reach inside, sometimes shoulder deep, to trap the bird. They don't like it, and often retreat even further into their nests, in which case Cooper used a small hockey-stick looking contraption to scoop them out from the depths.

Once a puffin is captured, the clock begins ticking. Blood samples must be taken within the first three minutes to accurately record the baseline levels of corticosterone. So, when Cooper successfully caught a puffin that had just returned to its burrow, he gingerly cradled the creature in his arms, trying to simultaneously avoid getting pinched by an angry beak and quickly run uphill over 50 yards of tussocky, unstable cliffside to the makeshift lab.

Cooper handed the bird to Orben, and after the first blood draw, she moved on to a routine examination of the bird. She pulled out a caliper to measure the beak size of her patient, then used a right-angle ruler to determine its wing length. The leg-size also was recorded, and then she turned the bird over to check for the presence of a brood patch, which is the remnants of worn-off down that indicates the bird indeed produced eggs.

"This is a part I don't like, "Orben said, turning her protesting bird to its side and feeling its belly region. "They don't like it either."

During the next 50 minutes, blood would be drawn at periodic intervals, and a small incision would be made to remove the pinhead-sized Q-FASA fat plug that, when analyzed tells the researchers what the birds have been eating.

The work looks tedious, and it is. A full day for Williams and his crew could begin as early as 6 a.m. and continue until dark, when they arrive back in Kodiak. Instead of going home, though, they often head out for a bite to eat, then go back to the Fishery Industrial Technology Center lab to run their day's samples. It can add up to a day that may not be finished until 2 a.m. and then begin again in just a few hours. Buck said it is not uncommon that Williams will camp at one of the nesting sites he is monitoring because it just makes sense to avoid all the time traveling by boat. There are other aspects to the research too, Buck said, including feeding a controlled diet to a population of chicks on one island -- work that must be done daily -- and monitoring feeding habits and diving practices of adult puffins. It's never-ending work that requires researchers to live by the feeding schedules of seabirds and the tides of the ocean.

"I used to monitor what they did pretty closely," Buck said of his staff, "but (Williams) is driven, and he works pretty much all the time."

Within a few minutes, Williams captured another puffin and began repeating the tests Orben had just completed. Side by side, the two worked, mindful of the birds' comfort, placing ice packs by their feet to keep them from overheating in their bags. When the series of tests were completed, Williams carried the birds as close to the cliff's edge as possible, letting them clumsily flop along on a downhill takeoff that led them back to the water.

"They get hot," Williams said. "The water cools them right back down."


Williams' project is funded, in part, by a long-term study called the Gulf Apex Predator-Prey study, or GAP, born in 1999 out of concern for the drop in Steller sea lion populations and how that decline has affected federal management of commercial fisheries. GAP, which has received approximately $1 million in federal funding for the past three years, is a four-pronged program that studies fish physiology, marine mammals, oceanography and seabirds.

There is a team of scientists heading each aspect of the study, each with their own graduate students and field staff to help collect and analyze data -- about 30 people at any given time.

An entire summer's worth of data on tufted puffins amounts to a fraction of the information being collected in the entire GAP study. Imagine a football field of paperwork: The puffin data might only make it to the 5-yard line. The research on the glaucous-winged gulls might take up another five yards; the kittiwakes, another five.

But that's what it takes to best understand the global significance of what is happening to sea lions, and ultimately the future of commercial fishing, in the Gulf of Alaska, Buck said. Rather than become immersed in just one aspect of the ocean's health, it is imperative to consider what is happening among all species.

Williams will spend the winter back in Fairbanks on campus compiling and analyzing his data. He will collect at least one more season's worth of information next summer before completing his doctorate. Chances are, Buck said, Williams' work will lead to more studies.

"The findings of his study will be the starting point for possibly a number of new graduate student projects," Buck said. "Research projects generally generate more questions than answers, so I anticipate the puffin portion of GAP-birds will continue as long as GAP continues."

Williams said he immerses himself in his work because he is interested in a global perspective and how his one small contribution could have an impact on a larger scale. Yet, as he holds a 15-day-old tufted puffin chick in his hand, or he sets up camp on an island cliff to spend the next few hours watching puffins do what they do, he has to admit, the working conditions are pretty incredible too.

"The puffin is a species that has not been studied a lot," he said. "And it was a good opportunity. I like what I do -- working with the different parts in putting it all together."

Daily News reporter Melissa DeVaughn can be reached at [email protected].