Beyond the Rock: Using Satellite Trackers to Study the Lives of Common Murres

By Stephanie Loredo, Seabird Oceanography Lab, OSU

Photo credit: Seabird Oceanography Lab

Common murres (Uria aalgee) are the most abundant seabird on the Oregon Coast. At least half of the population in the California Current Ecosystem breeds on the Oregon Coast (half a million seabirds). This makes them ecologically important consumers of forage fish, especially during the breeding season when they use state-waters.

While they spend most of their time at sea, murres must come to shore to breed. During this time, they are highly visible by humans as they breed in large masses on rocky islands. While they are not the most agile on land, due to their short and stubby legs, they are actually amazing divers. Their short flipper-like wings help them swim, and they typically reach depths of 30-60m to catch their prey.

Aside from their underwater aviation skills, they make great parents as well. Both parents will incubate and care for their chick – murres only lay one egg a year – until they fledge; once they leave the rock, male murres take full responsibility for their chicks while the moms go on vacation (they worked hard to lay the egg so they need some time to recuperate). After the breeding season, murres leave the rock in large quantities – this is often the last time humans will see them this year in large aggregations from shore.

Despite their omnipresence and importance as a marine predator in Oregon, there is still a lot we don’t know about murres. Where do murres go when they are not breeding? Do they migrate? Where do they feed during the breeding and non-breeding period? What habitat characteristics are associated with feeding areas? By answering these questions, we increase knowledge of murre ecology in Oregon. Moreover, a more comprehensive understanding of the year-round movements of murres aids marine spatial planners take more informed actions on the current decisions regarding offshore renewable energy development. This is what I hope to achieve through my Masters research project at OSU.

Most of what is known about the offshore distribution of murres in Oregon comes from vessel observations. However, vessel data only provide snapshots in time, and not a continuous picture of area-use. Within the Seabird Oceanography Lab (SOL), we are using individual satellite tracking devices to follow the movements of murres associated with the Yaquina Head colony, which is a prominent breeding colony in Oregon located near Newport.

A common murre displaying a satellite tag prior to release.

SOL was able to track 15 common murres associated with the Yaquina Head colony in 2015 and 2016.  These tags were deployed periodically throughout the breeding period and have been successful in tracking birds for up to three months. Thus far, we have tracking data ranging from May to December (only one bird tracked during December).

Tracking data from 2015 and 2016 of murres off the Yaquina Head colony provide an interesting comparison.  In both years, murres experienced warmer ocean conditions, high Bald eagle disturbance rates, and consequently high Western gull egg predation at the colony. Some data also indicate low prey availability.  The combination of all these factors is most likely the reason for the observed reproductive failure at the colony in both years. Tracking data showed that 13 of the 15 birds tagged dispersed from the colony earlier than expected. The maps below summarize the dispersal of birds by year and by time of deployment.

 

Each map (Left: 2015, Right: 2016) illustrates all birds that dispersed from the colony and did not engage in central-place foraging (feeding trips to and from the colony). Sample size: n2015=7, n2016_spring=1, n2016_summer=3.

Most birds made a northward movement and traveled as far north as British Columbia, Canada.  Along their movement north, they used inlets and bays, but one of the most prominent areas used was the Columbia River plume. Birds used the Columbia River mouth area during the summer and fall, with the most time spent there during the summer. Dispersal from the colony was not what we expected; we expected individuals to breed on colony and engage in central-place foraging  (feeding to and from the breeding site) nearshore until mid-August when they usually leave the rock. However, we are still interested in the habitat characteristics of feeding areas and the conditions that led to movement from one feeding area to the next.

Prior to examining habitat associations of murre feeding areas, we must first determine their behavior state at each point location derived from the satellite tags.  After data cleaning and filtering out erroneous locations, we applied a behavioral analysis (Residence in Space and Time method) to determine behaviors associated with each point location. This analysis has allowed us to distinguish between intensive foraging, transiting, and extensive foraging. Extensive foraging locations can be interpreted as a set of locations that are mostly spread out in space, where murres searched for prey. On the other hand, intensive foraging locations can be interpreted as a set of locations that are very close together in space where murres likely found prey, and thus spent more time.

We are finalizing the extraction of environmental data for each point location from satellite data. Once all data are extracted, we can begin analysis for determining what environmental conditions were sought during dispersal and what types of habitats are preferred. Some of the ocean conditions that will be examined are sea surface temperate, wind, upwelling index, and primary net productivity. Some other habitat descriptors we are interested in assessing are substrate, distance to river mouth, salinity, depth, distance to the 200-m isobath, and distance to shore. For now, exploration of data indicates differences in habitat associations by behavior and between seasons.

Sample size means everything in a study like this so I am happy to say that more data is yet to come: SOL plans to deploy 15 more tags during spring and summer of 2017. I am excited to see what the additional tagged murres will do, and whether they will follow a pattern similar to those tracked in 2015 and 2016. However this time around, we will deploy tags as late in the summer/early fall as we can, in hope of acquiring some novel winter data to fill this knowledge gap. If we are successful, we may finally have a better idea of what life is like for common murres during more of the year beyond the rock.

 

GEMM Lab 2016: A Year in the Life

By Dawn Barlow, MSc Student, Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Oregon State University

The year is rapidly coming to a close, and what a busy year it has been in the Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab! In 2016, our members have traveled to six continents for work (all seven if we can carry Rachael’s South African conference over from the end of 2015…), led field seasons in polar, temperate, and tropical waters, presented at international conferences, processed and analyzed data, and published results. Now winter finds us holed up in our offices in Newport, and various projects are ramping up and winding down. With all of the recent turmoil 2016 has brought, it is a nice to reflect on the good work that was accomplished over the last 12 months. In writing this, I am reminded of how grateful I am to work with this talented group of people!

The year started with a flurry of field activity from our southern hemisphere projects! Erin spent her second season on the Antarctic peninsula, where she contributed to the Palmer Station Long Term Ecological Research Project.

Erin collecting a crabeater seal scat sample.
Erin in action collecting a crabeater seal scat sample along the West Antarctic Peninsula.

 

Aerial image of the research vessel and a pair of blue whales during the 2016 New Zealand survey.
Aerial image of the research vessel and a pair of blue whales during the 2016 New Zealand survey.

The New Zealand blue whale project launched a comprehensive field effort in January and February, and it was a fruitful season to say the least. The team deployed hydrophones, collected tissue biopsy and fecal samples, and observed whales feeding, racing and nursing. The data collected by the blue whale team is currently being analyzed to aid in conservation efforts of these endangered animals living in the constant presence of the oil and gas industry.

Midway atoll is home to one of the largest albatross colony in the world, and Rachael visited during the winter breeding season. In addition to deploying tracking devices to study flight heights and potential conflict with wind energy development, she became acutely aware of the hazards facing these birds, including egg predation by mice and the consumption of plastic debris.

Laysan albatross equipped with a GPS data logger.
Laysan albatross equipped with a GPS data logger.
Fledgling from last year with a stomach full of plastic.
Fledgling from last year with a stomach full of plastic.

Early summertime brought red-legged kittiwakes to the remote Pribilof Islands in Alaska to nest, and Rachael met them there to study their physiology and behavior.

Rachael with a noosepole on St. George Island, Alaska
Rachael with a noosepole on St. George Island, Alaska
Solene with Dr. Claire Garrigue during fieldwork at the Chesterfield Reefs, New Caledonia.
Solene with Dr. Claire Garrigue during fieldwork at the Chesterfield Reefs, New Caledonia.

As the weather warmed for us in the northern hemisphere, Solene spent the austral winter with the humpback whales on their breeding grounds in New Caledonia. Her team traveled to the Chesterfield Reefs, where they collected tissue biopsy samples and photo-IDs, and recorded the whale’s songs. But Solene studies far more than just these whales! She is thoroughly examining every piece of environmental, physical, and oceanographic data she can get her hands on in an effort to build a thorough model of humpback whale distribution and habitat use.

A humpback whale in New Caledonia's South Lagoon.
A humpback whale in New Caledonia’s South Lagoon.

Summertime came to Oregon, and the gray whales returned to these coastal waters. Leigh, Leila, and Todd launched into fieldwork on the gray whale stress physiology project. The poop-scooping, drone-flying team has gotten a fair bit of press recently, follow this link to listen to more!

The overhead drone captures a pair of gray whales surfacing between kelp beds off Cape Blanco, Oregon, with the research vessel nearby. Take under NOAA/NMFS permit #16111 given to John Calambokidis.
The overhead drone captures a pair of gray whales surfacing between kelp beds off Cape Blanco, Oregon, with the research vessel nearby. Take under NOAA/NMFS permit #16111 given to John Calambokidis.

And while Leigh, Leila, and Todd followed the grays from the water, Florence and her team watched them from shore in Port Orford, tracking their movement and behavior. In an effort to gain a better understanding of the foraging ecology of these whales, Florence and crew also sampled their mysid prey from a trusty research kayak.

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Florence and the summer 2016 gray whale field team.
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Kelli Iddings sampling mysid near Port Orford.

With the influx of gray whales came an influx of new and visiting GEMM Lab members, as Florence’s team of interns joined for the summer season. I was lucky enough to join this group as the lab’s newest graduate student!

All summer 2016 GEMM Lab members.
All of the summer 2016 GEMM Lab members.

Our members have presented their work to audiences far and wide. This summer Leigh, Amanda, and Florence attended the International Marine Conservation Congress, and Amanda was awarded runner-up for the best student presentation award! Erin traveled to Malaysia for the Scientific Convention on Antarctic Research, and Rachael and Leigh presented at the International Albatross and Petrel Conference in Barcelona. With assistance from Florence and Amanda, Leigh led an offshore expedition on OSU’s research vessel R/V Oceanus to teach high school students and teachers about the marine environment.

Amanda with her award!
Amanda with her award!
Science Party musters in the dry lab for safety debrief aboard R/V Oceanus.
Science Party musters in the dry lab for safety debrief aboard R/V Oceanus.

Courtney fledged from the GEMM Lab nest before 2016 began, but the work she did while here was published in Marine Mammal Science this year. Congrats Courtney! And speaking of publications, additional congratulations to Solene for her publication in Marine Ecology Progress Series, Rachael for her four publications this year in PLOS ONE, Marine Ecology Progress Series, Marine Ornithology, and the Journal of Experimental Biology, and Leigh for her five publications this year in Polar Biology, Diversity and Distributions, Marine Ecology Progress Series, and Marine Mammal Science!

Wintertime in Newport has us tucked away indoors with our computers, cranking through analyses and writing, and dreaming about boats, islands, seabirds, and whales… Solene visited from the South Pacific this fall, and graced us with her presence and her coding expertise. It is a wonderful thing to have labmates to share ideas, frustrations, and accomplishments with.

No heat in the lab can't stop us from solving a coding problem together on a wintery evening!
Solving a coding problem together on a wintery evening.

As the year comes to a close, we have two newly-minted Masters of Science! Congratulations to Amanda and Erin on successfully defending their theses, and stay tuned for their upcoming publications!

Amanda's post-defense celebration!
Amanda’s post-defense celebration!
Erin's post-defense celebration!
Erin’s post-defense celebration!

We are looking forward to what 2017 brings for this team of marine megafauna enthusiasts. Happy holidays from the GEMM Lab!

Happy GEMM Lab members.
Happy GEMM Lab members, enjoying one another’s company and playing Evolution.

Oceanus Day Three: Dolphin Delights

by Florence Sullivan, MSc student

Our third day aboard the Oceanus began in the misty morning fog before the sun even rose. We took the first CTD cast of the day at 0630am because the physical properties of the water column do not change much with the arrival of daylight. Our ability to visually detect marine mammals, however, is vastly improved with a little sunlight, and we wanted to make the best use of our hours at sea possible.

Randall Munroe www.XKCD.com

Our focus on day three was the Astoria canyon – a submarine feature just off the Oregon and Washington coast. Our first oceanographic station was 40 miles offshore, and 1300 meters deep, while the second was 20 miles offshore and only 170 meters deep.  See the handy infographic below to get a perspective on what those depths mean in the grand scheme of things.  From an oceanographic perspective, the neatest finding of the day was our ability to detect the freshwater plume coming from the Columbia River at both those stations despite their distance from each other, and from shore! Water density is one of the key characteristics that oceanographers use to track parcels of water as they travel through the ocean conveyor belt. Certain bodies of water (like the Mediterranean Sea, or the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans) have distinct properties that allow us to recognize them easily. In this case, it was very exciting to “sea” the two-layer system we had gotten used to observing overlain with a freshwater lens of much lower salinity, higher temperature, and lower density. This combination of freshwater, saltwater, and intriguing bathymetric features can lead to interesting foraging opportunities for marine megafauna – so, what did we find out there?

Click through link for better resolution: Randall Munroe www.XKCD.com/1040/large

Morning conditions were almost perfect for marine mammal observations – glassy calm with low swell, good, high, cloud cover to minimize glare and allow us to catch the barest hint of a blow….. it should come as no surprise then, that the first sightings of the day were seabirds and tuna!

I didn't catch any photos of the Tuna, so here's some mola mola we spotted. photo credit: Florence Sullivan
I didn’t catch any photos of the tuna, so here’s some sunfish we spotted. photo credit: Florence Sullivan

One of the best things about being at sea is the ability to look out at the horizon and have nothing but water staring back at you. It really drives home all the old seafaring superstitions about sailing off the edge of the world.  This close to shore, and in such productive waters, it is rare to find yourself truly alone, so when we spot a fishing trawler, there’s already a space to note it in the data log.  Ships at sea often have “follower” birds – avians attracted by easy meals as food scraps are dumped overboard. Fishing boats usually attract a lot of birds as fish bycatch and processing leftovers are flushed from the deck.  The birders groan, because identification and counts of individuals get more and more complicated as we approach other vessels.  The most thrilling bird sighting of the day for me were the flocks of a couple hundred fork-tailed storm petrels.

Fork-tailed storm petrels
Fork-tailed storm petrels. photo credit: Florence Sullivan

I find it remarkable that such small birds are capable of spending 80% of their life on the open ocean, returning to land only to mate and raise a chick. Their nesting strategy is pretty fascinating too – in bad foraging years, the chick is capable of surviving for several days without food by going into a state of torpor. (This slows metabolism and reduces growth until an adult returns.)

Just because the bird observers were starting to feel slightly overwhelmed, doesn’t mean that the marine mammal observers stopped their own survey.  The effort soon paid off with shouts of “Wait! What are those splashes over there?!” That’s the signal for everyone to get their binoculars up, start counting individuals, and making note of identifying features like color, shape of dorsal fin, and swimming style so that we can make an accurate species ID. The first sighting, though common in the area, was a new species for me – Pacific white sided dolphins!

Pacific white sided dolphin
A Pacific white sided dolphin leaps into view. photo credit: Florence Sullivan. Taken under NMFS permit 16111 John Calambokidis

A pod of thirty or so came to ride our bow wake for a bit, which was a real treat. But wait, it got better! Shortly afterward, we spotted more activity off the starboard bow.  It was confusing at first because we could clearly see a lot of splashes indicating many individuals, but no one had glimpsed any fins to help us figure out the species. As the pod got closer, Leigh shouted “Lissodelphis! They’re lissodelphis!”  We couldn’t see any dorsal fins, because northern right whale dolphins haven’t got one! Then the fly bridge became absolute madness as we all attempted to count how many individuals were in the pod, as well as take pictures for photo ID. It got even more complicated when some more pacific white sided dolphins showed up to join in the bow-riding fun.

Northern right whale dolphins are hard to spot! photo credit: Florence Sullivan Taken under NMFS permit 16111 John Calambokidis
Northern right whale dolphins are hard to spot! photo credit: Florence Sullivan Taken under NMFS permit 16111 John Calambokidis

All told, our best estimates counted about 200 individuals around us in that moment. The dolphins tired of us soon, and things continued to calm down as we moved further away from the fishing vessels.  We had a final encounter with an enthusiastic young humpback who was breaching and tail-slapping all over the place before ending our survey and heading towards Astoria to make our dock time.

Humpback whale breach
Humpback whale breach. photo credit: Florence Sullivan. Taken under NMFS permit 16111 John Calambokidis

As a Washington native who has always been interested in a maritime career, I grew up on stories of The Graveyard of the Pacific, and how difficult the crossing of the Columbia River Bar can be. Many harbors have dedicated captains to guide large ships into the port docks.  Did you know the same is true of the Columbia River Bar?  Conditions change so rapidly here, the shifting sands of the river mouth make it necessary for large ships to receive a local guest pilot (often via helicopter) to guide them across.  The National Motor Lifeboat School trains its students at the mouth of the river because it provides some of “the harshest maritime weather conditions in the world”.  Suffice it to say, not only was I thrilled to be able to detect the Columbia River plume in our CTD profile, I was also supremely excited to finally sail across the bar.  While a tiny part of me had hoped for a slightly more arduous crossing (to live up to all the stories you know), I am happy to report that we had glorious, calm, sunny conditions, which allowed us all to thoroughly enjoy the view from the fly bridge.

Cape Disappointment Lighthouse at the Columbia River Bar.
Cape Disappointment Lighthouse at the Columbia River Bar.

Finally, we arrived in Astoria, loaded all our gear into the ship’s RHIB (Ridged Hulled Inflatable Boat), lowered it into the river, descended the rope ladder, got settled, and motored into port. We waved goodbye to the R/V Oceanus, and hope to conduct another STEM cruise aboard her again soon.

Now if the ground would stop rolling, that would be just swell.

Last but not least, here are the videos we promised you in Oceanus Day Two – the first video shows the humpback lunge feeding behavior, while the second shows tail slapping. Follow our youtube channel for more cool videos!

 

Oceanus Day Two: All the Albatrosses

By Amanda Holdman and Florence Sullivan

Today got off to a bright and early start. As soon as daylight permitted, we had spotters out on duty looking for more marine mammals. We began to survey at the north end of Heceta bank, where we again encountered many humpback whales lunge feeding. We broke transect, and got some great video footage of a pair them – so check our youtube channel next week – we’ll upload the video as soon as we get back to better internet (dial up takes some getting used to again – the whales don’t know about highspeed yet).

Humpbacks lunge feeding at surface. photo credit: Leigh Torres. Taken under NMFS permit 16111 John Calambokidis.
Humpbacks lunge feeding at surface. photo credit: Leigh Torres. Taken under NMFS permit 16111 John Calambokidis.

After working with the humpbacks to capture photo-id data for about an hour, we turned south, and ran parallel to Heceta bank until we reached the southern edge. Along the way, we counted 30 humpbacks, and many California gulls, marbled murrelets, pink footed shearwaters, and sooty shearwaters.

After lunch, we conducted a CTD cast to see how conditions might be different between the southern and northern edges of the bank. Surface temperatures increased from 12.09C to 13.2C while bottom temperatures decreased from 8.7C to 7.8C.  The northern station was a textbook perfect two layer system. It had a well mixed surface layer with a steep pycnocline separating it from the colder, saltier, denser, bottom layer. The southern station still had two layers, but the pycnocline (the depth where a rapid change in density occurs, which delineates the edges of water masses) was not as steep. We are interested in these discreet measurements of ocean conditions because areas of high primary productivity (the green chlorophyll-a line) are often re-occurring hot spots of food for many levels of the food chain. Since we can’t phone the whales and ask them where to meet up, we use clues like these to anticipate the best place to start looking.

Readout of the CTD cast. The left plot has temperature in blue, and salinity in green. The right plot has density in black, chlorophyll-a in green, and oxygen in blue. observe how different variables change with depth!
Readout of the CTD cast. The left plot has temperature in blue, and salinity in green. The right plot has density in black, chlorophyll-a in green, and oxygen in blue. observe how different variables change with depth (on the y-axes)!

We next turned west to transect the continental shelf break. Here, we were hoping to observe changes in species composition as waters got deeper, and habitat changed.  The shelf break is often known as an area of upwelling and increased primary productivity, which can lead to concentrations of marine predators taking advantage of aggregations of prey. As we moved further offshore, everyone was hoping for some sperm whales, or maybe some oceanic dolphin species, and if we’re really lucky, maybe a beaked whale or two.

Black footed Albatross with immature gulls. photo credit: Leigh Torres
Black footed Albatross with immature gulls. photo credit: Leigh Torres

Today our students learned the lesson of how difficult marine mammal observation can be when our target species spend the majority of their lives underwater – where we can’t see them. While there were a couple of hours of mammal empty water in there, observers were kept busy identifying long tailed- jaegers, cassin’s auklets, murrelets, petrels, shearwaters, fulmars, and so many black-footed albatrosses, that they almost became “normal”.  That being said, we did spot a fin whale, a few groups of Dall’s porpoise, and three pacific-white-sided dolphins.  Unexpectedly, we also saw an unidentified shark, and several sunfish (mola mola)!

Humpback whale profile. photo credit: Amanda Holdman. Taken under NMFS permit 16111 John Calambokidis.
Humpback whale profile – notice the hump before the dorsal fin. photo credit: Amanda Holdman. Taken under NMFS permit 16111 John Calambokidis.
Fin Whale profile. photo credit: Amanda Holdman. Taken under NMFS permit 16111 John Calambokidis.
Fin Whale profile – notice how long the back is before the fin, and how pointed the dorsal fin is compared to the humpback. photo credit: Amanda Holdman. Taken under NMFS permit 16111 John Calambokidis.

Last but not least, we engaged in a long standing oceanographic tradition, which is to draw on Styrofoam cups, and send them down to Davy Jone’s Locker attached to the CTD.  When you bring them back up, the pressure has caused them to shrink to a fraction of their original size, which is an excellent demonstration of the crushing power of pressure (and why its harder to build a submarine than a rocket).

Shrunken cups! The first row have been sent down to 1400m, while the back row are still full size!
Shrunken cups! The first row have been sent down to 1400m, while the back row are still full size!

Now, we are steaming north toward Astoria Canyon, where we hope to make some more sightings in the morning. Stand by for news from our final day at sea.

Fin Whale. photo credit Amanda Holdman. Taken under NMFS permit 16111 John Calambokidis.
Fin Whale. photo credit Amanda Holdman. Taken under NMFS permit 16111 John Calambokidis.
Dahl's Porpoise. photo credit: Florence Sullivan. Taken under NMFS permit 16111 John Calambokidis.
Dahl’s Porpoise. photo credit: Florence Sullivan. Taken under NMFS permit 16111 John Calambokidis.

R/V Oceanus Day One: Hungry Hungry Humpbacks

By Florence Sullivan and Amanda Holdman

The GEMM lab is adventuring out into the wild blue yonder of open ocean sampling and educational outreach! Leigh is the chief scientist onboard the R/V Oceanus for the next two days as we sail through Oregon waters in search of marine megafauna. Also onboard are four local teachers and five high school students who are learning the tricks of the trade. Amanda and I are here to help teach basic oceanography and distance sampling techniques to our enthusiastic students.

Science Party musters in the dry lab for safety debrief. photo credit: Florence Sullivan
Science Party musters in the dry lab for safety debrief. photo credit: Florence Sullivan

We started the morning with safety briefings, and headed out through the Newport breakwater, direction: Stonewall Bank.  Stonewall is a local bathymetric feature where upwelling often occurs, leading to a productive ecosystem for both predators and prey. Even though our main sampling effort will be offshore this trip, we didn’t even make out of the harbor before recording our first gray whale and California sea lion sightings.

California Sea Lions on the Newport buoy. Taken under NMFS permit 16111 John Calambokidis
California Sea Lions on the Newport buoy. Taken under NMFS permit 16111 John Calambokidis

Our students (and their teachers) are eager and quick to catch on as we teach them new methodologies. Amanda and I had prepared presentations about basic oceanographic and distance sampling methods, but really the best way to learn is to jump in and go. We’ve set up a rotation schedule, and everyone is taking turns scanning the ocean for critters, deploying and recovering the CTD, logging data, and catching plankton.

a small pod of Orca. Photo credit: Florence Sullivan. Taken under NMFS permit 16111 John Calambokidis
A small pod of Orca. Photo credit: Florence Sullivan. Taken under NMFS permit 16111 John Calambokidis

So far, we have spotted gray whales, sea lions, a pod of (lightning speed) killer whales, lots of seagulls, northern fulmars, sooty shearwaters, storm petrels, and cormorants, but today’s highlight has to the last sighting of ~42 humpback whales. We found them at the Northern edge of Heceta Bank – a large rocky reef which provides structural habitat for a wide variety of marine species. As we approached the area, we spotted one whale, and then another. At first, our spotters had no trouble inputting the data, getting photo-ID shots, and distinguishing one whale from the next, but as we continued, we were soon overwhelmed. With whale blows surrounding us on all sides, it was hard to know where to look first – here a surface lunge, there, a breach, a spout, a fluke, a flipper slap! The surface activity was so dense and enthralling, it took a few moments before realizing there were some sea lions in the feeding frenzy too!

Five humpback whales surface at once. photo credit: Leigh Torres. Taken under NMFS permit 16111 John Calambokidis
Five humpback whales surface at once. photo credit: Leigh Torres. Taken under NMFS permit 16111 John Calambokidis

We observed the group, and tried to document as many individuals as possible as the sunset faded into night. When poor visibility put a stop to the visuals, we hurried to do a plankton tow and CTD cast to find some environmental insights for such a gathering. The CTD revealed a stratified water column, with two distinct layers, and the plankton tow brought up lots of diatoms and krill. As one of the goals of this cruise is to explore how marine mammals vary with ocean gradients, this is a pretty cool way to start.

A humpback whale lunge feeds. Photo credit: Leigh Torres. Taken under NMFS permit 16111 John Calambokidis
A humpback whale lunge feeds. Photo credit: Leigh Torres. Taken under NMFS permit 16111 John Calambokidis

A long day observing has left us all exhausted, but not too tired to share our excitement. Stay tuned for more updates from the briny blue!

Follow this link for real time view of our beautiful ship! : http://webcam.oregonstate.edu/oceanus

Humpback flukes for photo ID. photo credit: Leigh Torres. Taken under NMFS permit 16111 John Calambokidis
Humpback flukes for photo ID. photo credit: Leigh Torres. Taken under NMFS permit 16111 John Calambokidis

New Zealand’s mega-fauna come to Newport, Oregon.

By Olivia Hamilton, PhD Candidate, University of Auckland, New Zealand.

The week leading up to my departure from New Zealand was an emotional rollercoaster. Excited, nervous, eager, reluctant… I did not feel like the fearless adventurer that I thought I was. D-day arrived and I said my final goodbyes to my boyfriend and mother at the departure gate. Off I went on my three-month research stint at the Hatfield Marine Science Center.

Some thirty hours later I touched down in Portland. I collected my bags and headed towards the public transport area at the airport. A young man greeted me, “Would you like to catch a taxi or a shuttle, ma’am?” “A taxi please! I have no idea where I am”, I responded. He nodded and smiled. I could see the confusion all over his face… My thick kiwi accent was going to make for some challenging conversations.

After a few days in Portland acclimatizing to the different way of life in Oregon, it was time to push on to Newport. I hit a stroke of luck and was able take the scenic route with one of the girls in the GEMM lab, Rachael Orben. With only one wrong turn we made it to the Oregon coast. I was instantly hit with a sense of familiarity. The rugged coastline and temperate coastal forest resembled that of the west coast of New Zealand. However, America was not shy in reminding me of where I was with its big cars, drive-through everything, and RVs larger than some small kiwi houses.

The Oregon Coast. Photo by Olivia Hamilton.
The Oregon Coast. Photo by Olivia Hamilton.

We arrived at Hatfield Marine Science Center: the place I was to call home for the next quarter of a year.

So, what am I doing here?

In short, I have come to do computer work on the other side of the world.

Dr. Leigh Torres is on my PhD committee and I am lucky enough to have been given the opportunity to come to Newport and analyze my data under her guidance.

My PhD has a broad interest in the spatial ecology of mega-fauna in the Hauraki Gulf, New Zealand. For my study, megafauna includes whales, dolphins, sharks, rays, and seabirds. The Hauraki Gulf is adjacent to Auckland, New Zealand’s most populated city and home to one of our largest commercial ports. The Hauraki Gulf is a highly productive area, providing an ideal habitat for a number of fish species, thus supporting a number of top marine predators. As with many coastal areas, anthropogenic activities have degraded the health of the Gulf’s ecosystem. Commercial and recreational fishing, run-off from surrounding urban and rural land, boat traffic, pollution, dredging, and aquaculture are some of the main activities that threaten the Gulf and the species that inhabit it. For instance, the Nationally Endangered Bryde’s whale is a year-round resident in the Hauraki Gulf and these whales spend much of their time close to the surface, making them highly vulnerable to injury or death from ship-strikes. In spite of these threats, the Gulf supports a number of top marine predators.  Therefore it is important that we uncover how these top predators are using the Gulf, in both space and time, to identify ecologically important parts of their habitat. Moreover, this study presents a unique opportunity to look at the relationships between top marine predators and their prey inhabiting a common area.

The Hauraki Gulf, New Zealand. The purple lines represent the track lines that aerial surveys were conducted along.

 

Common dolphins in the Hauraki Gulf. Photo by Olivia Hamilton
Common dolphins in the Hauraki Gulf. Photo by Olivia Hamilton

 

A Bryde’s whale, common dolphins, and some opportunistic seabirds foraging in the Hauraki Gulf. Photo by Isabella Tortora Brayda di Belvedere.
A Bryde’s whale, common dolphins, and some opportunistic seabirds foraging in the Hauraki Gulf. Photo by Isabella Tortora Brayda di Belvedere.

 

Australisian Gannets and shearwaters foraging on a bait ball in the Hauraki Gulf. Photo by Olivia Hamilton.
Australisian Gannets and shearwaters foraging on a bait ball in the Hauraki Gulf. Photo by Olivia Hamilton.

To collect the data needed to understand the spatial ecology of these megafauna, we conducted 22 aerial surveys over a year-long period along pre-determined track lines within the Hauraki Gulf. On each flight we had four observers that collected sightings data for cetaceans, sharks, predatory fish, prey balls, plankton, and other rare species such as manta ray. An experienced seabird observer joined us approximately once a month to identify seabirds. We collected environmental data for each sighting including Beaufort Sea State, glare, and water color.

The summary of our sightings show that common dolphins were indeed common, being the most frequent species we observed. The most frequently encountered sharks were bronze whalers, smooth hammerhead sharks, and blue sharks. Sightings of Bryde’s whales were lower than we had hoped, most likely an artifact of our survey design relative to their distribution patterns. In addition, we counted a cumulative total of 11,172 individual seabirds representing 16 species.

Summary of sightings of megafauna in the Hauraki Gulf.

Summary of sightings of megafauna in the Hauraki Gulf.My goal while here at OSU is to develop habitat models for the megafauna species to compare the drivers of their distribution patterns. But, at the moment I am in the less glamorous, but highly important, data processing and decision-making stage. I am grappling with questions like: What environmental variables affected our ability to detect which species on surveys? How do we account for this? Can we clump species that are functionally similar to increase our sample size? These questions are important to address in order to produce reliable results that reflect the megafauna species true distribution patterns.

Once these questions are addressed, we can get on to the fun stuff – the habitat modeling and interpretation of the results. I will hopefully be able to start addressing these questions soon: What environmental and biological variables are important predictors of habitat use for different taxa? Are there interactions (attraction or repulsion) between these top predators? What is driving these patterns? Predator avoidance? Competition? So many questions to ask! I am looking forward to answering these questions and reporting back.

North to the land of liquid sunshine and red-legged kittiwakes – Linking individual foraging behaviour and physiology to survival and reproductive output

My name is Rachael Orben and I am a postdoctoral scholar affiliated with both the Seabird Oceanography Lab and the GEMM Lab here at Hatfield Marine Science Center. I am writing this from Anchorage, Alaska where Abram (a Master’s student at San Jose State University) and I are just finishing gear gathering and shopping before flying on to St George Island to spend the end of May and June observing, tracking, and sampling red-legged kittiwakes.

This video is taken looking down to the beach from the top of High Bluffs, St George Island.  Turn up the volume!

Just a little bit of background

Red-legged kittiwakes are endemic to the Bering Sea and most of their population nests on the cliffs on St George Island. St George is one of the Pribilof Islands located in the southeastern Bering Sea and is home to over a million nesting seabirds including auklets, cormorants, kittiwakes, murres, and puffins.  The Pribilofs are also known for the large rookeries of Northern Fur Seals (http://www.afsc.noaa.gov/nmml/education/pinnipeds/northfs.php).  St. George has a small Aleut community (http://www.apiai.org/tribes/st-george/) so we will be living in town and commuting by ATV and foot to the bird cliffs.

 

Click on the link below – Can you spot the red-legged kittiwake?

SeabirdsofPribilofs

Photo credits: Caitlin Kroeger

 

We would like to know how individual foraging behaviour and physiology influence reproductive success and then how these might carry over to wintering behaviour.

 

Tracking: We will be using GPS dataloggers (10g) and geolocation/wet-dry dataloggers (1g) to track movements and foraging behaviour of red-legged kittiwakes during incubation and overwinter.

GPS
GPS Logger from Rachel’s Kittiwake study

 

 

Physiology: When we catch birds we will take physiological samples to measure individual stress levels, mercury loads, and body condition that we can link to foraging behaviour.

 

Observations: We will observe the birds that we track so that we know when eggs are laid, chicks hatch and fledge so that foraging and physiology can be connected to these measures of breeding success.  And next year we will return and resight these birds to measure survival.

 

This study is funded by the North Pacific Research Board (http://www.nprb.org/) with additional support from OceanClassrooms (http://oceanclassrooms.com/) for pre-breeding tracking.  I also have been writing short blogs about project with the Seabird Youth Network aimed for middle schoolers that you can check out here:  (http://seabirdyouth.org/category/kittiwake-behavior/)

 

Internet access will be intermittent on St George, but I hope to periodically post updates via Twitter @RachaelOrben (#OCGrants), Instagram @raorben, and the Seabird Youth Network Blog.

CliffsofStGeorge
Cliffs of St. George

 

Seabird Research on the Western Antarctic Peninsula

I’d venture to say that I’m not the first field biologist to stare into the distance past my computer for a long while before deciding that trying to describe the smell of a seabird colony in a blog was futile.

My name is Erin Pickett and I am a graduate student at OSU’s Marine Mammal Institute. I am affiliated with the Biotelemetry and Behavioral Ecology Laboratory, a sister-lab of GEMM, and am here to share my recent experience conducting field research in Antarctica.

I’ve recently returned from a field season at Palmer station on Anvers Island, along the Western Antarctic Peninsula. Throughout the month of January I was collecting data for my masters’ project, while partaking in an on-going study conducted by the Palmer Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) program. I was fortunate enough to join the seabird research team at Palmer, a group that has been monitoring the area’s breeding seabirds for over two decades. January is the team’s busiest Antarctic summer month as the seabirds are in the midst of their annual breeding season. Our primary focus was studying the foraging ecology and demography of Adelie penguins; however, we also monitored Chinstrap and Gentoo penguins, southern giant-petrels, brown and south polar skuas, and blue-eyed shags. Before I delve into a description of this research, I’ll tell you a bit more about what it’s like to work in Antarctica.

It became quickly apparent to me that working with a team of experienced field biologists who have spent a collective thirty or so seasons in Antarctica meant that I would be the only one distracted by the scenery. This situation was exacerbated by the fact that I had never witnessed snow falling before I had arrived in Antarctica. I tried to play it cool, but inevitably rolled down every snow-covered hill I came across, and I couldn’t help but stop and stare into the sky every time it snowed.

There might have been some misunderstanding when in an email to a friend I referred to the weather as balmy. By Antarctic standards this was true, the average daily temperature hovered around 35°F. By my Hawaii-born standards, it was only balmy once I donned three or four layers, slipped toe warmers in my boots, and sipped on hot coffee while I hiked up a hill. Still, I considered myself lucky to have escaped my first Oregon winter by travelling south.

At Palmer I quickly learned that birders don’t come in for lunch. I adjusted my rations accordingly, although I have to admit that my “emergency food” in my “emergency boat bag” got eaten despite the fact that no real (non-hunger related) emergencies occurred. Every day after packing lunch and suiting up, we would load a small zodiac with our gear and set off to work on the numerous islands surrounding the station where seabirds were nesting.

One of the main objectives of the Palmer LTER program is to research the effects of climate variability and change on the marine ecosystem surrounding Palmer station. As an apex predator, the Adelie penguin plays a focal role in this project by providing insight into ecosystem-wide changes in the marine environment and the surrounding coastal habitat. Over the last four decades, Adelie penguins on the Western Antarctic Peninsula have experienced a decline of over 85% of their population. During this same time period Gentoo and Chinstrap penguins, who were previously unknown in this area, established founder colonies and they have been increasing in number ever since.

These recent population trends have been alarming and have driven Palmer LTER research objectives aimed at understand the mechanisms behind these changes. The proximal cause behind these demographic shifts is a warming-induced loss of sea ice along the peninsula. Over the last 50 years, the average mid-winter temperature in this region has risen by 6°C (five times higher than rise of the average global temperature). By decreasing the extent, duration and concentration of winter sea-ice, this warming has altered marine primary productivity and transformed coastal habitat along the peninsula.

These transformations have caused the climate along the WAP to more closely resemble the warmer and moister sub-Antarctic, rather than the traditionally cold and arid Antarctic it once was. This has resulted in a southward expansion of the ranges of sub-polar, ice-avoiding species (e.g. the Gentoo penguin) and a contraction of the ranges of ice-obligate species (e.g. the Adelie penguin). The strong influence of sea ice on the ranges of these two species makes it difficult to determine whether sea ice driven marine variability has also influenced these trends. The life history of Antarctic krill, a primary prey item of both Adelie and Gentoo penguins, is intricately tied to the seasonality of sea ice. In regions north of Palmer, decreasing sea ice has resulted in declining krill stocks. In the future, trends at Palmer are predicted to mirror those seen in the northern WAP.

For my master’s research, I am working with the seabird biologists at Palmer station to gain a better understanding of how prey variability affects the foraging strategies of Gentoo and Adelie penguins in this area. Specifically, I will be investigating how the foraging behaviors of Adelie and Gentoo penguins change in relation to inter-annual krill recruitment variability. I will be utilizing a long time series of data collected at Palmer by outfitting Adelie and Gentoo penguins with satellite transmitters and time depth recorders. This data will allow me to describe the foraging behavior and effort expended by these penguins on the daily foraging trips they make to feed their chicks. Determining how each of these species responds to prey variability will help us better understand the current community structure of penguins at Palmer. This is important because it will leave us better informed to predict the effects of future ecosystem shifts on the reproductive success and geographic distributions of these two species.

I’m looking forward to sharing more of this research as time goes on. Until then, enjoy the photos!