Notes from the Field: Ross Island, Antarctica

By Suzanne Winquist

Have you ever wished you could see what the world was like before humans?

Living in a penguin colony in Antarctica as part of the Penguin Science team is the closest I have come to getting that experience. My first season “on ice” felt like stepping out of a time machine straight into this other, animal world.

A group of Adélies standing on the sea ice at the Cape Crozier colony. Ross Island, Antarctica.

Many seabird colonies buzz with activity in the breeding season, but an Adélie penguin colony has a unique bustle filled with outsized personalities and industrious swaggers. When you multiply this by 500,000 (roughly the breeding population of the Cape Crozier colony) it is easy to be swept up by the drama and dazzle of a big penguin city.

I’ve recently arrived back from my third season studying Adélie penguins for my graduate research with OSU’s Dugger and Seabird Oceanography Labs. I spent most of this past season at Cape Royds, a much smaller colony with ~4,000 breeding adults. Any Antarctic history buffs reading this might recognize this as the site where the explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton and his crew made their home during their 1907-1909 Nimrod Expedition.

Shackleton’s hut, built for his Nimrod expedition 1907-1909.

I felt a camaraderie with Sir Ernest Shackleton and his men each time I passed by their snug cabin on my short walk from camp to the penguin colony. Despite Shackleton’s crew being some of the earliest humans to set foot on Ross Island, our rustic camp life echoed the ways they lived – no running water, eating the same canned and dried foods, journaling about the same surreal landscape, and wearing enough wool to prompt thoughts of needing a personal flock of sheep. Unlike Shackleton and crew, I could pick up my satellite phone and call any corner of the planet. McMurdo Station, the US’s largest Antarctic science base, is now just a 20-minute helicopter ride away – assuming the weather is good.

My yellow Scott tent at Cape Royds. We sleep in these sturdy canvas tents and use a larger RAC tent for cooking, data management, and warming up by the propane heater. In the background is Mt. Erebus, a 12,448 ft active volcano. At 77° S, it is the southernmost active volcano in the world.
An Adélie penguin equipped with a video logger and dive tracking device ready to head out to sea.

Advances in technology in the past century mean it is much easier to explore and measure changes in this harsh and remote environment. The navigation, motion sensing, and image capture technology that has become small enough to fit in our pockets is, as it turns out, also small enough to be carried by a penguin.

For my research, I am using miniature video loggers and dive tracking devices to get a new perspective into how penguins use their underwater habitat. These devices are taped to the feathers of breeding birds for a single foraging trip, lasting from 1-5 days. These birds are recaptured when they return to their nest to feed their chicks and the devices and the data they carry are retrieved.

With the addition of this past season, our project will have foraging video from over 60 penguins collected across three years and at two different colonies. We have already learned a lot from these videos. We have observed penguins perusing the seafloor for amphipods, snatching up bioluminescent krill in the dark of their deeper dives, and encountering dense swarms of krill, fish, and squid in extremely shallow water when foraging along the underside of the ice. Now that I am back in our human world, I will combine all this video with diving and movement data to answer more specific questions about how penguins use sea ice while foraging, the number and types of prey they capture in different underwater habitats, and the energetic costs of different foraging strategies.

Penguins diving in a crack that formed in the sea ice near the Cape Royds colony, Dec 2023.
Penguins foraging together.
Penguin catching a fish.
A krill about to be captured.

Through changing climates and extractive fisheries, our human societies are increasingly connected to even the most remote corners of our planet, like the Ross Sea. It is too late to find out what this ocean looked like before the first whalers arrived. With the tools we have now, the penguins are able to aid us in exploring their underwater home, refining our understanding of what exists today so that we can be better advocates for the protections they will need to continue thriving in the future.

Adélies returning with full bellies from a foraging trip in the Ross Sea. Ross Island, Antarctica, Dec 2023

Yaquina Head Monitoring Update: the end of the 2023 season

As we’re enjoying the first major rains of the fall here on the Oregon Coast, we now have another year of Yaquina Head seabird monitoring in the books (and the latest one to date)!  We wrapped up our Yaquina Head field season on the morning of September 6th after the fledging or loss of the last murre chicks remaining in our plots. 

For the seabirds as a whole, it was certainly an odd year, but not necessarily a bad one. After a poor 2022 season, the pelagic and Brandt’s cormorants did very well at Yaquina Head, with most nests fledging multiple chicks. In contrast, initial prospects for successful murre reproduction seemed poor.  The eagles and attending secondary predators hammered the murres early on:  we documented nearly 22 hours of eagle-related disturbances, witnessing a minimum of six murre adults and 73 eggs consumed during this time.  Considering that we only monitored the Yaquina Head colony three mornings a week, the total number of eggs predated must have been exponentially higher.

Almost without warning, however, the eagles moved on and the persistent murres were ready to exploit this reprieve.  As mentioned in our last update (emailed 08/23/23), this summer we recorded the latest median murre hatch date since monitoring began at Yaquina Head.  One consequence of this is that by the time the eagles moved on, and eggs began to persist for longer than a day or two, most murres had already attempted to breed. It’s not likely that some murres even re-laid eggs, only to lose their egg to the gulls a second time!  Reproduction is costly for murres and by the time conditions were good, most individuals had already given up and decided to save their finite energy resources for overwinter survival and (hopefully) next year’s nesting attempt.

Unfortunately, we don’t have multiple, complete colony counts documenting the decline in breeding murre numbers throughout the season, but we can use photographs to get a rough, qualitative understanding of this decline in colony size.  Compare these photos:  both were taken during the middle of chick-rearing, one showing the “full” colony (circa 2017), while the other is from early August 2023.  By mid-summer, the number of murres raising chicks on Colony Rock this year was clearly just a fraction of what we once observed.

Two photos (2017 and 2023) show the disparity in numbers of breeding murres at Colony Rock. Although some murres may have migrated to other colonies (e.g., Pirate’s Cove) in recent years, we believe the main driver leading to a small mid summer colony size was heavy predation pressure leading to early nest loss.

It isn’t all doom and gloom, however.  Those murres that laid or re-laid eggs exceptionally late did have a reasonable chance of successfully incubating that egg until it hatched.  For example, only 1 out of 3 eggs laid during June survived the marauding eagles, gulls, and crows to successfully hatch.  In contrast, more than 2/3 of the eggs laid during July ended up hatching.  Once out of the egg, those chicks that did hatch this year did quite well.  By the time chicks hatched in late July/early August, the eagles had left the colony alone, and more than 80%* of all hatched chicks survived to fledge.

In sum, although the overall colony size was substantially smaller, and murre egg losses were high until late June, the Yaquina Head colony was able to successfully raise some chicks this year.

Part of this success is surely attributable to this summer’s favorable ocean conditions and prey resources.  Our team documented what murre chicks were feeding on by photographing adult murres bringing fish to the colony, and we also recorded the frequency with which these feeds occurred during three, all-day provisioning watches.  We observed murres feeding their chicks an average of 3-4 times per day, bringing in lots of smelt (Family Osmeridae), plus lesser numbers of herring or sardine (Family Clupeidae) and sandlance (Family Ammodytidae).  These are all relatively nutritious prey items that enabled the surviving murre chicks to grow quickly and to eventually head to sea with their fathers by the beginning of September.

Many (~80%) of the murres that managed to hatch chicks were able to find enough fish to
successfully raise their chick until fledging.

2023 was certainly a roller coaster for the Yaquina Head murres, but the birds displayed incredible persistence.  We witnessed heavy predation pressure early on that threatened to lead to another year of complete reproductive failure (like 2022), but the murres displayed great flexibility and managed to lay eggs and raise chicks later than we’ve ever before documented.  In spite of all the diverse challenges seabirds face worldwide, their remarkable adaptability continues to give us hope.

Thank you all for the support and continued interest in the Yaquina Head Seabird Monitoring Program.  A huge thanks to our hard-working interns this year (Jacque, Neci, and Ricardo) and all the other people who made this work possible.  We hope to see you all out at the lighthouse next May!

*please note that exact values may change slightly pending further data proofing and processing

Yaquina Head Seabird Monitoring: Mid-Summer 2023

Hello Everybody!

My name is Ricardo Rodriguez, I am the Education and Outreach intern at Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area through Environment for the Americas. I recently graduated from the University of California, Merced with a Bachelor’s degree in Biological Sciences. I am assisting Oregon State University’s Seabird Oceanography Lab’s research efforts to monitor the reproductive success of the Common Murres (Uria aalge), Brandt’s Cormorants (Urile penicillatus), and Pelagic Cormorants (Urile pelagicus). I have experience conducting avian point count surveys of urban songbirds in Northeast Los Angeles as a Community Climate Action Corps Fellow, but this my first taste of bird monitoring and nest tracking in my early career. I am very grateful for this opportunity to contribute to this long-term monitoring effort.

Per usual, the Common Murres have had a rocky season on Colony Rock. There were many eggs that were eaten or dropped by Western Gulls (Larus occidentalis) when the voracious Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) would hunt for Murres. It has been very unfortunate seeing broken Murre eggs along Yaquina Head. Between the first monitored murre egg (June 12th) and our last recorded eagle disturbance (July 17th), we recorded more than 1.1 eagle disturbances per hour of observation and directly witnessed 73 eggs consumed by eagles and gulls during these events.  Eagle disturbances and predation of the Murres has have slowed down significantly since the middle of July, thankfully, thus allowing Murres to incubate any eggs that have not been destroyed .

Following disturbances from Bald Eagles, Western Gulls swoop in to feast on unprotected murre eggs. Photo credit: Ricardo Rodriguez.

Both adults of a Common Murre breeding pair incubate the egg. The incubation period can take anywhere from 28 to 37 days.  The first Murre chick was observed on July 19, 2023 on Seal Rock and this year is likely the latest median hatch date we’ve ever recorded (peak hatch this year was between July 28th and August 7th).  2018 was the previous record for latest median hatch date (~July 15th) at Yaquina Head, so the delay caused by predator disturbance this year was quite significant. As many as 26 Murre chicks have been recorded in our monitoring plots at Colony Rock alone, and we are hopeful to see many more on the other offshore islands that we have been observing.

Better late than never! Median hatch date for murre chicks is the latest we’ve ever recorded at Yaquina Head. Photo credit: Will Kennerley.

Adult Murres have been observed and photographed to bring their chicks lots of Smelt (Osmeridae) and Herring (Clupeidae ). We’ve also conducted our first of multiple dawn-to-dusk provisioning watches by which we estimate the rate at which adult murres provision their chicks.  We hope to fit in two more of these watches before weekly until more chicks fledge.  Some chicks have already fledged and their calls can sometimes be heard from the headland.  I have worked at Yaquina Head since the beginning of April; I have clearly seen less and less Murres attending the colony compared to the amount back in May.

Oregon State University PhD student Suzanne Winquist records a murre feeding its chick during one of our dawn to dusk provisioning watches. Photo credit: Will Kennerley.

We are nearing the end of our Pelagic and Brandt’s Cormorant monitoring efforts at Yaquina Head Following a total of 55 nests across the two species, we estimated that Pelagic and Brandt’s Cormorants fledged an average of 2.8 and 2.4 chicks per nest, respectively.  All in all, we estimated that more than 80% of all cormorant chicks that hatched eventually went on to fledge, among the highest we’ve recorded in the 16 years we’ve been monitoring cormorant productivity.  

It has been an absolute pleasure working with an amazing team of researchers.  Come visit us out at Yaquina Head!

— Ricky, Neci, Jacque, Mariam, and Will

Yaquina Head Seabird Monitoring: 2023 Early Season Update

By Will Kennerley, Faculty Research Assistant

It’s once again summer on the Oregon Coast and that means the seabirds are back at Yaquina Head.  My name is Will Kennerley and I’m the newest faculty research assistant in the Seabird Oceanography Lab. Part of my work will include leading the monitoring fieldwork at Yaquina Head this year.  I spent the previous six summers working with seabirds in the Gulf of Maine, including two seasons of fieldwork for my Master’s, which I completed here at OSU in May.  I’m looking forward to applying this experience to Oregon’s large and diverse seabird populations.

Monitoring work at Yaquina Head began towards the end of May with the confirmation that Brandt’s and Pelagic Cormorants were both breeding here this year.  Pelagic Cormorants failed to breed successfully in 2022, so we were anxious to see how they would perform.  Much to our relief, at least 70 Pelagic Cormorant nests have been documented in Smuggler’s Cove, alone, and most have healthy clutches of four eggs. 

Our very first Pelagic Cormorant chick was observed on June 23rd and we’re hopeful that there will soon be many more!  As for Brandt’s Cormorants, we recorded our first chick back on June 16th and most Brandt’s nests so far have at least one hatched chick, with even more on the way!  It seems that the cormorants are off to a good start this year.

Most Pelagic Cormorants remain on eggs at the Smuggler’s Cove subcolony at Yaquina Head.  The first chicks for this species were noted in late June and many Pelagic Cormorant chicks will likely be hatching out over the next week.

In typical fashion, the situation for the Common Murres is a little less rosy.  Starting in the middle of June, murre eggs appeared in a slow trickle that was easily consumed by Western Gulls during the frequent eagle disturbances.  There were a couple troubling weeks in which our monitoring team would observe new nests in our monitoring plots during each visit without any of these eggs ever surviving until the following check, just two or three days later. 

This situation has improved somewhat during the last week, thankfully, and eggs are being laid in greater numbers; hopefully this bump in egg-laying can overwhelm the marauding gulls and allow some eggs to survive and develop.  Overall, I suspect murre productivity will be poor at Colony Rock, where I’ve seen as many six different Bald Eagles roosting at a time, but some of the smaller rocks around Yaquina Head provide better cover for the murres and have thus far avoided most of the disturbances and depredation.  Although the season is advancing rapidly, there’s still some time for murres to be at least somewhat successful – I’m not ready to be pessimistic just yet! If the murres do succeed in hatching some chicks, this year’s median chick hatch date will likely be the latest ever recorded at Yaquina Head.

The complex topography of “Stegosaurus” and the other smaller subcolonies at Yaquina Head may provide sufficient cover from aerial predators for at least a small number of murres to breed successfully.

This year we are also systematically monitoring breeding murres and cormorants at Pirate Cove in the town of Depoe Bay.  We’re employing the same protocols as at Yaquina Head, just with slightly less frequent visits.  While the situation at these two colonies is broadly similar, we’ve documented fewer eagle disturbances per hour of observation at Pirate Cove than at Yaquina Head so far.  Because of this, a small number of murre eggs have now been incubated for at least two weeks and I am hoping that murres at this colony will successfully produce at least a few chicks.

Also of note this year is the consistent Tufted Puffin sightings that we’ve had at Yaquina Head!  As many as three individuals have been observed at once, and we’ve seen the birds circle the murre colony numerous times over the course of some mornings.  One Tufted Puffin even landed on the backside of Colony Rock, where puffins once bred.  While there haven’t been any signs of a nesting attempt, our hopes are high for continued puffin activity throughout this season and next.

If you’re around at Yaquina Head in the mornings, come introduce yourself!  I’m typically joined by a great team comprised of Jacque (REU intern), Neci (Doris Duke scholar), and Ricardo (Environment for the Americas BLM/YHONA intern) and we’d be happy to say hello.

A Bald Eagle seizes an adult Common Murre at Pirate Cove.  This disturbance caused the rest of the colony to flee, leaving the eggs vulnerable to predation by Western Gulls (note the gull with its mouth full, just to the right of the eagle).

Linking Rivers to the Sea(birds): Initial Surveys of River Otter Predation on Leach’s Storm-Petrels

By Eleanor Gnam, Seasonal Field Technician

The southern Oregon coast, between Port Orford to the north and Brookings to the south, hosts the largest colonies of Leach’s Storm-Petrels (Hydrobates leucorhous) in the lower-48. Goat Island, half a mile offshore from Harris Beach State Park, is estimated to host more than 100,000 of these small, dusky-colored seabirds. But looking at the island from the shore, you might never know that they’re there.

Leach’s Storm-Petrels

One of Goat Island’s many Leach’s Storm-Petrels.

Leach’s Storm-Petrels, which top out at just under 50 grams at the heaviest, return to their colonies only at night, and nest in underground burrows hidden beneath mats of long grass. Beachgoers who are in the know might be made aware of the colony from the distinctive, musky odor that petrels are famous for—which is strong enough to waft ashore—but otherwise, the colony is practically invisible from more than a few inches above the ground.

LHSPs feed on zooplankton and other planktonic creatures far out to sea, and only return to their colonies under the cover of darkness. During the breeding season, members of breeding pairs will take turns incubating their single egg or chick in the burrow, sometimes remaining underground for four or five days, while the other member of the pair forages. This cryptic, nocturnal behavior likely provides protection against diurnal avian predators. Southern Oregon’s LHSP colonies are close enough to shore, however, that nocturnal mammalian predators can pose a threat.

Project Goals

In collaboration with the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, Luke Stuntz (MSc student, Seabird Oceanography Lab) and I (Eleanor Gnam, seasonal field tech) are investigating the impact of mammalian predators (mainly North American River Otters Lontra canadensis) on southern Oregon’s Leach’s Storm-Petrels.

We’re seeking to understand how, where, when, and to what extent these predators use petrels as a food source—knowledge that will help inform potential predator management in the future. River otters tend to operate either in loose social groups of unrelated males or in family units of a mother and her cubs. We’re hoping that our research will help us understand the social organizations of the river otters that are using these islands, as well.

Field Work (May-June)

Luke began fieldwork for this project in May, with trips to our focal islands to survey for predator sign and set up motion-activated game cameras.  Two of the four islands showed definite signs of predator activity (trampling, scat, and prey remains). Cameras on Goat Island quickly revealed activity from multiple social groups of river otters, including a pair of adults and a female with cubs. Because river otters commute between these islands and the mainland, surveys along the coastline are also important for monitoring their activity.

Luke’s initial surveys in May and early June revealed quite a bit of predator activity along the beaches and creeks near these colonies. River otters tend to deposit scat in shared, regularly-used locations called latrines, which aid territory marking and scent-based communication between individuals. They also need to return to freshwater sources frequently, especially after swimming in the ocean, both to drink and to groom their fur. The scat found in the latrines near our focal islands definitely contained digested storm-petrel remains—obvious from the distinct odor.

On June 15th, we moved into OSU’s Port Orford Field Station to commence full-time fieldwork on the project. Our first step was to revisit the coastline sites near our colony islands and to check out some new sites with the potential to be good river otter habitat. We were surprised by how little fresh river otter activity we found at some of our sites that were very active in May and early June. We’re also seeing them on our game cameras less often than before.

We found evidence of recent activity in several new locations, though, and we continue to see a lot of activity on the beach closest to Goat Island. This raises questions about how frequent and how seasonal these island-going behaviors might be. We’re also starting to wonder about the impact of Route 101 and its associated culverts on river otters’ use of coastal streams. Continuing predator sign surveys throughout the summer, both along the coast and on our colony islands, will help fill in our picture of this predator-prey dynamic and will help us understand how much of a problem it might be for these seabird colonies. We’re planning to expand our predator sign surveys up some of the larger creeks and rivers in the area, as well, using an inflatable sea kayak.

Photographing tufted puffins with bill loads at Haystack Rock

By Sam Eberhard

The tufted puffins of Oregon are spread thin among the grassy-topped rock formations that are suitable locations for their burrows. Tufted puffin populations have plunged from above 5000 breeding birds to an estimated 500 breeding birds in 2021 (USFWS coast-wide survey). Understanding this drastic decline, and what prey are currently supporting the population, is imperative for the conservation of these unique alcids. Noah Dolinajec (OSU, FWCS PSMFWA graduate student) is aiming to provide the first comprehensive diet information on the composition of the bill loads from tufted puffins in Oregon. This information will help managers place tufted puffins into the context of the marine food webs they depend on.

A tufted puffin with a bill load of larval fishes near Haystack Rock, Oregon

Bill load studies often involve netting of birds as they return to their burrows, but while that may work for other locations, it would be hard to accomplish on the small and rugged off-shore sea stacks on the Oregon coast.  Another less invasive option is photographing the bill loads of puffins – if there is an easily accessible location where birds can be observed.

In the summer of 2021, Noah spent days on Cannon Beach photographing bill loads of the breeding common murres and tufted puffins of Haystack Rock trialling the approach. It seemed promising, but a 300mm lens wasn’t enough. But, it was enough to plan for a second tufted puffin photography season at this iconic tourist destination.

This summer I (Sam Eberhard) was tasked with taking over the job of photographing bill loads at Haystack Rock. We got a modern mirrorless camera with great autofocus and paired it with some big glass (a 200-600mm zoom with a 1.4x teleconverter). As someone with both a passion for bird research and wildlife photography, I was hopeful that I could capture clear pictures of a large number of tufted puffin bill loads. 

My first days at Haystack Rock I got a feel for how frequently the puffins would arrive with fish for their newly hatched chicks, and how to reliably pick them out of the nearly constant stream of common murres. This knowledge became something that I would often end up sharing with the many tourists on the beach who also were excited to spot tufted puffins.

Low tides allowed me to get closer to the 235 foot tall rock, but these low tides didn’t always coincide with the morning, which was when the puffins were most active and the light was best. I didn’t anticipate that I would be using my waders at Haystack, but they proved to be quite helpful in making the uncooperative tides manageable. 

This year the tufted puffins attending the rock were in lower numbers than last year, a year that was by no means puffin-filled itself. My time on the beach was spent standing around and waiting for a black football furiously beating its wings to appear. Sometimes it would take up to an hour between puffin arrivals. That said, some days were relatively packed with puffin bill loads. My sixth day on the beach yielded 22 photos of tufted puffins with fish.

Some days seemed to have a combination of factors that aligned to lead to numerous bill loads, while many days the opposite seemed to occur. Of the 32 mornings on the beach I spent this summer, 13 days I photographed 1 or 0 puffins with fish. Two good mornings and a healthy collection average ones allowed me to assemble a data set of 139 bill load pictures this summer. Considering the puffin numbers this year, I think this result is encouraging for continuing this type of data collection. 

I am incredibly happy that I was able to spend my summer on such an incredible project. I was able to combine two of my passions and contribute to the understanding of a very special species. It’s hard to imagine a better summer than that. 

This project was funded by the Oregon Wildlife Foundation, Friends of Haystack Rock, and the OSU Marine Studies Initiative.

Notes from the Field: Columbia River Estuary, Oregon, USA


In early July, the Cormorant Oceanography Project seabird team, myself (Alexa Piggott), Adam Peck-Richardson, and Rachael Orben, traveled to the Columbia River Estuary, at the border of Oregon and Washington, to capture and tag adult Brandt’s cormorants. Our goal was to test the performance our latest GPS/GSM biologging tags made by Ornitela.

Brandt’s cormorants’ nest, roost, and forage near the mouth of the Columbia River. We were specifically targeting cormorants roosting on estuary channel markers, as these can be relatively easy locations to catch birds during the day. Over two days, we successfully deployed 6 biologging tags. Preliminary data, shows the cormorants moving and foraging near the mouth of the estuary and spending time at Cape Disappointment, WA.

We also spotted one of our newly tagged birds on the second day, resting on pilings with other cormorants and close to actively foraging Brandt’s and double-crested cormorants.

These tagged cormorants will collect detailed location and movement data, along with high quality profiles of water temperature, bottom soundings, surface currents (based on bird drift), and IMU data used to recover wave statistics. The data collected by these cormorants will be used to estimate bathymetry and circulation in the estuary and help calibrate and improve nearshore modeling.

Visualizations of these and previous tag deployments on cormorants in the Columbia River can be found on the Animal Telemetry network’s data portal.

The Cormorant Oceanography project is based at Oregon State University and funded by the Office of Naval Research.

The Astoira-Megler bridge and view towards the mouth of the Columbia River Estuary

Yaquina Head Seabird Monitoring: July 2022 Update

By Yaya Callahan, NSF REU INTERN

Hello everyone!

The Seabird Oceanography Lab is almost midway through the field season here at Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area. The murres have not been able to incubate eggs this year and we are expecting a year of no reproductive success. We are continuing our monitoring effort and are anticipating starting diet photography efforts soon at the small colony located in Depoe Bay. 

When observation began in late May at Yaquina Head, we saw the murres repeatedly flushed from the main nesting site Colony Rock by eagles. Often two sub adult and two adult eagles would also flush Lion’s Head, Seal, and Stegosaurus Rock, and the murres would not return to these areas as quickly. By June, later then we expected, murres began to settle and we spotted birds with eggs on Colony Rock. Although the majority of Colony Rock was covered with birds, two locations at the eastern side closest to eagle’s roost remained unoccupied. 

About a week later the avian predator disturbances spiked again. The first one that led to considerable undoing of nesting progress was on June 13th, when three separate groups of turkey vultures flushed murres from the colony. Only one of these groups of vultures was accompanied by bald eagles. These disturbances allowed western gulls to opportunistically take over 30 murre eggs – even dropping some on the ground around the lighthouse. The gull flock continued to grow as on the 17th, we estimated over 50 gulls flying overhead. From then on – apart from the chaotic observation day on June 22nd — it only took one disturbance each observation period for the murres to be completely cleared off. Each time their numbers on colony rock dwindled. When they were present on the rock many were standing and not in their nesting position.

In early July we typically have murre chicks, but this year Colony Rock has been devoid of adult murres and eggs for over a week now. Murres are continuing to raft in the water nearby the colony. There have been some murres attending Stegosaurus Rock and South Headland however they aren’t nesting. Normally, eagle disturbances decline through June, but this year they have been continuing. Additionally, winter conditions persisted through May and upwelling was delayed until June. This likely contributed to the inability of the murres to settle and incubate eggs. Upwelling brings cold nutrient-rich water to the surface that fuels primary productivity and the forage fish murres depend on. Upwelling typically initiates in mid-April prior to when murres lay their eggs. 

A subadult bald eagle attacking a murre adult on Colony Rock.
Photo: Sofia Franco Cruz

Unfortunately, the number of nesting Brandt’s and Pelagic cormorants are low this year. Eagles do not disturb them like they do the murres though many gulls roost on Flat Rock where the Brandt’s are nesting. Flat Rock has quite the dynamic rise and fall in nests; On July 6th we had spotted 35 nests. On June 29th we realized that almost half of these had been abandoned – mostly on the Western and top half of the rock. We are currently following 17 active Brandt’s nests. Additionally, we have two Pelagic cormorant nests on Stegosaurus Rock and we are following 15 Pelagic cormorant nests on South Headland. 

The rocks at Yaquina Head, Oregon.

On the bright side there are three healthy looking chicks on South Headland and we are expecting more on Flat Rock. We’ll make sure to monitor these chicks and keep an eye out for murres though. 

See you again for our next update in August!

Brandt’s cormorants feeding a chick on South Headland (July 8th). Photo: Yaya Callahan

Notes from the Field: Hawar Islands, Bahrain

By Adam Peck-Richardson

The Cormorant Oceanography Project made its first visit to the Hawar Islands, in the northern Arabian Gulf, in early December 2021. Myself (Adam Peck-Richardson) and collaborator Dr. Sabir Bin Muzaffar (United Arab Emirates University) spent four days visiting the Socotra cormorant colony at Rubd Al Shariqiya, a 1.5 km wide desert island surrounded by expansive shallow seagrass beds (and the world’s largest dugong aggregation). Unfortunately, the timing of our visit was later than originally planned and most of the cormorant chicks (10s of thousands) were very large and very mobile. This made it difficult to capture and tag adults at nests, but we were able to deploy four tags and gained valuable insights for further tagging work in 2022.

Two adult Socotra cormorants attend their nests at the Hawar Islands colony as large juvenile cormorants mass in distance (photo: Adam Peck-Richardson).

Data from the four tags immediately began streaming back to us (data are transmitted through cell phone network connections) and we are using this preliminary deployment to further improve tag design and performance. These GPS/GSM biologging tags, made by Ornitela (Vilnius, Lithuania), collect location and movement data and take detailed water temperature and depth measurements when the cormorants dive. Meanwhile, our oceanographer teammates at Oregon State University, led by Dr. Doruk Ardağ, have been spinning up a model of water temperature and circulation in the Arabian Gulf. The oceanographic data collected by cormorants are now being used to help calibrate and improve these complex regional models.

In 2022, we are planning to deploy additional oceanographic tags on Socotra cormorants at several colony sites throughout the region. These deployments will provide valuable data on population movements of Socotra cormorants and improve oceanographic modelling in the Arabian Gulf.

Juvenile Socotra cormorants gather and wait for adults to return from foraging in the northern Arabian Gulf (photo: Adam Peck-Richardson).

The Cormorant Oceanography project is based at Oregon State University and funded by the Office of Naval Research. Our work in Bahrain is made possible by logistical support from Dr. Abdulqader Khamis (University of Barcelona) and Dr. Humood Nasser (University of Bahrain), and administrative support from H. E. Sh. Ebrahim Alkhalifa and Rawan Suleiman (UNESCO – Arab Regional Centre for World Heritage). Local travel and logistics were coordinated with Sam Rowley and Nick Green (BBC – Natural History Unit) who are scouting for an upcoming project, Asia. Check out the brief clip below, from BBC’s Planet Earth, for an overview of how the Hawar Socotra cormorant colony fits into the Arabian Gulf’s desert-marine ecosystem.

Notes from the Field: Midway Atoll (Pihemanu)

By Scott Shaffer

This was the rainiest and windiest conditions we’ve experienced at Midway over the years. Despite the weather, the albatross field crew of myself (Scott Shaffer), Henri Weimerskirch, Sarah Youngren, and Dan Rapp deployed nearly 80 data logging devices on Laysan and black-footed albatrosses over two weeks during the last half of January 2022. Our primary goal was to record albatross and fishing vessel interactions using GPS loggers enabled with radar detection sensors.

A Laysan albatross pair. The bird on the right is carrying at GPS data logger enabled with marine radar detection. The tags are taped to the feathers with a water-proof tape and are easily removed when the bird is recaptured.

Preliminary data show one Laysan albatross passing within range (but not interacting) of a fishing vessel upon its return to Midway after 10 days at sea. Stay tuned for more updates as we start analyzing the rest of the dataset. We plan to cross-reference the vessel detections with the AIS dataset amassed by Global Fishing Watch to better understand when and where albatrosses are encountering fishing vessels.

Sunset on Midway Atoll (Pihemanu).

A few images from Midway in January. We were incredibly lucky to be able to get a field team out to the island!

This project is funded by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (PI – R.A. Orben) to support the mission of conserving natural resources of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, Northwest Hawaiian Islands. Photos were taken under permit: PMNM-2021-012. All field personnel were vaccinated against covid-19 and underwent a period of quarantine on arrival to Midway.