I spent the summer of 2014 working on a tiny island at the boundary of the North Pacific and the Bering Sea. This island, Buldir, is one of about 300 in the Aleutian Island chain, which arcs out from mainland Alaska approximately 1,400 miles. Buldir itself is located in the far western portion of the island chain, making it one of the furthest away from the mainland, and also almost the most-western bit of the United States (Attu holds that distinction, three islands to the west). Buldir is closer to the Kamchatka Peninsula of Russia than it is to the United States. All in all, this was one of the most remote places on the planet, and I was incredibly lucky to have scored a position there for two months, along with six other young naturalists, monitoring the breeding seabird populations on the island. It was the experience of a lifetime.
Surrounded by the Pacific Ocean and the Bering Sea, Buldir is a true oceanic island in every sense of the word. It is home to hundreds of thousands of seabirds that come to the island to breed during the summer. In fact, Buldir is the most diverse seabird island in the world, acting as breeding grounds for 22 documented seabirds species. It is seabird heaven, the perfect place for someone like me – with my education in marine biology, experience in ornithology, and deep, abiding interest in the synthesis of the two in the form of SEABIRDS. And it was a transformative experience.
Buldir Island is part of the Aleutian Islands, all of which are protected and managed as part of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. The NWR itself comprises 4.9 million acres and includes such rugged and remote regions as the Aleutian islands, the Pribilof Islands, and the Chukchi sea islands. The Aleutian Islands unit is the largest in the Refuge, and most of it is Wilderness, and home to millions of breeding seabirds from 55 different species, every summer. The Refuge is also home to many marine mammals – sea otters, sea lions, seals, and cetaceans. US Fish & Wildlife manages the entire refuge and hires seasonal biologists to conduct seabird research and monitoring on several islands. Seabirds essentially serve as indicators for the overall health of the marine ecosystem, and monitoring them, their diet, productivity, and abundance gives a lot of information into ecosystem as a whole.
USFWS puts seasonal biology crews on several islands each summer, and during our daily and nightly radio call (for safety checks, progress reports, and news) with headquarters, we were able to follow along updates from Chowiet, Aiktak, and Ugamak. Gareloi also had a small crew from the Memorial University of Newfoundland this summer, but that island is not currently monitored by FWS biologists.
In fact, I was able to go to Buldir thanks in large part to the international cooperation between these two institutions, who have been working together for many years to study the seabirds of the Aleutians. I was hired on as field assistant by a MUN grad student who is preparing her thesis on the migration demographics of Crested Auklets nesting on Buldir and Gareloi. Memorial University relied on their long-standing relationship with FWS to be able to conduct research in the Aleutians, and in turn supplied FWS with some invaluable seabird data. It’s a symbiotic relationship that benefits everyone.
The Aleutian Islands themselves, long before being protected, were inhabited by exceptionally hardy humans as early as 9,000 years ago – these people possibly were remnant populations of some of the first human migrations to cross the Bering Land Bridge – the first humans moving across Asia and into the Americas. These Aleuts lived in their coastal villages, relying on the productive ocean for much of their food – hunting Steller’s sea lions, sea otters, and other marine mammals, as well as catching near-shore fish and seabirds (and especially their eggs in the summer). Sea-faring Russian explorers were the first to make contact with these communities around 1740, which sadly, also signaled the start of the decimation of Aleut culture – in part because the Russians captured Aleuts as slaves.
On Buldir Island, little is known about the community that lived there. Perhaps tribes only lived on the island over the mild and productive summer months, or maybe they endured through the harsh winters as well. There is a significant berm in Camp Valley behind which FWS has built their camp, and where we lived. At the beginning of the season, while the grasses were still dried up and ankle-high (pre-growing), we walked around looking at Aleut remains that are eroding out of this berm – which is actually most probably a midden (basically an ancient dumpyard) – bones of Stellar’s sea lions, harbor seals, seabirds, and even whales that were caught and consumed by the Aleut people (the whales were more likely beached animals, as Aleut boats were not designed for whaling or deep-sea faring).
In the picture above, taken from above Camp Valley (immediately after the M7.9 earthquake as we waited out a tsunami warning) – you can make out an elevated berm to the right of the creek and oceanside of the swerving path. That is the possible midden.
With archaeological excavation, surely plenty of other signs of human habitation would be found – pieces of tools, jewelry, etc. In 1991, a zooarchaeological study was conducted on Buldir Island. Two test pits yielded marine mammal, bird, and fish remains. The presence of alcids (seabirds), infant sea lions, and pelagic fish support the theory that the island was occupied during the summer months – alcids and young sea lions being found on the island only during the summer breeding months. These zooarchaeological studies are fascinating because they present us with a historical record of species over time. Essentially, these early humans were sampling from those species that were probably most abundant on the island. From studies conducted throughout the western and eastern Aleutians, populations of various species can be compared and evaluated. From the data, it is apparent that the western Aleuts relied more on sea lion meat in their diet, and the eastern Aleuts relied more on fish. On Buldir, it seems that the reliance on different species like short-tailed albatross, kittiwakes, least auklets, and murrelets changed over time. It’s really remarkable because these middens provide information that would be much harder to deduce otherwise – assuming that they were catching those species that were most abundant, and therefore more likely to be caught for consumption. Also…smaller species like the Whiskered Auklet were not caught so much as for meat, but for ornamentation for clothing. The question still remains as to what might constitute appropriate evidence for winter residence on Buldir.
Going into this, I knew that Buldir was to be the experience of a lifetime, and that it truly was – one where the remote nature of the island made it more inaccessible and isolated than McMurdo Station in Antarctica (where I worked for one month in 2010), and the rugged and at times uncomfortable conditions made the work that much more meaningful. We were all there for the birds, and with that came the rugged beauty, the removal from civilization, the physical exhaustion, sweat, blood, and tears of field work, the harsh weather and very nature of the island itself. Once we were dropped off by the US Fish & Wildlife Research Vessel, the Tiglax (pronounced “tek-lah”; Aleut for “eagle”) we would not see anyone else aside from our six other island-mates, for two months.
In a few posts, I will try to recount as best as I can our day-to-day activities, as well as some of the things I learned about biology and about myself, in the process.