Monthly Archives: October 2014

Seabirds and Rats

With a dual interest in the seemingly distantly related fields of marine biology and ornithology, seabird ecology emerges as a definitive choice of study for me personally.  As the synthesis of my two favorite areas of science, it also has the potential to extend into other fascinating fields of study involving conservation biology, resources management, island ecology, biogeography, fisheries, oceanography, evolution, and behavioral ecology – all of which are topics of import on their own, but framed through the lens of seabird ecology, present expansive research opportunities.

rats' eye view of Witchcraft Point, Kiska Island, from the deck of the Tiglax

rats’ eye view of Witchcraft Point, Kiska Island, from the deck of the Tiglax

I find myself most engaged by topics that address the interplay between components of ecological systems. In many ecosystems, seabirds play a vital role of connecting the biomass of the oceans with those on land. They act as conduits of nutrient transport, therefore playing vital roles in the ecosystems they are part of. On many oceanic islands, terrestrial life would not be sustained without the activity of nesting seabirds. Since many oceanic islands (especially in the Pacific) are volcanic in origin, they were never close enough or connected to land masses from which mammals, crawling insects, reptiles, etc could colonize. This made them blank canvases for birds who could simply fly across vast watery moats – and in so many cases, avian life dominated many remote islands and through the raw power of evolution, adapted to fill a wide variety of niches. With the lack of land predators, there were many instances where birds simply lost their ability to fly. Of course, as humans came to dominate the planet and expand across it, many islands were discovered by sea-faring groups. This was unequivocally bad news for the islands’ bird species, especially those flightless ones. Many avian species were extirpated within a short period of time after human discovery, falling as easy prey. Another important issue that came later was the introduction of other species to islands – goats, pigs, cattle, cats, mice, and especially…rats. Invasive rats have been inadvertently introduced through human activities to about 90 percent of the world’s islands. This statistic is almost unbelievable. Even more scary is the result of these invasions: they are responsible for approximately 50% of all island bird and reptile extinctions. Thus it is not surprising that Norway rats present a serious and ongoing threat to seabirds in the Aleutian Islands. They have invaded entire islands, introduced through human shipping activities. Currently there are about a dozen islands where rat populations are established, and consequently bird populations on those islands have been decimated. The first invasion event in the Aleutians was likely a Japanese shipwreck in 1780, where everyone but the rats perished. Rats are especially harmful because they breed quickly, can eat pretty much anything, and do so opportunistically – including seabirds, their chicks, and their eggs. On many islands this was catastrophic, wiping out a significant portion of crevice- and burrow-nesting seabirds like auklets, storm-petrels, and puffins during their short summer breeding season. The worst thing the rats would do is not just killing to feed, but indiscriminately killing dozens of birds and eggs in one haul.

adult Least Auklets and eggs from a rat cache from Kiska Island (pic from Natl Geographic)

In fact, the group of Aleutian islands immediately to the east of Buldir are called the Rat Islands because of their overwhelming domination. Buldir itself has been kept rat-free thanks to its isolation and distance from any nearby islands where rats might colonize from. Buldir sits in the middle of a shipping lane between Russia and Asia. We would frequently see massive container ships pass by on the horizon. Just from the frequency of passes, the risk for rat invasion is relatively high. Weather in the Bering Sea is notoriously challenging, and an average of two ship incidents happen a year. Rats are certainly inhabitants on almost all of these vessels, and they know when to leave a sinking ship. Fish and Wildlife appropriately has a “rat spill” team that responds to sinking ships, attempting to prevent any swimming rats from reaching shore using floating barriers. The communities on the populated Pribilof islands of St. Paul and St. George proactively maintain an island defense network against rat invasion. The native Tribes offer rat prevention kits to fishing vessels that visit harbor, and local fish processing businesses are required to have rat prevention systems in place. Rat traps are deployed and maintained in harbors and dumps – and in over 15 years, they have caught 6 rats this way, meaning that there is indeed movement of rats from ships in harbor onto the islands.

A bit of good news: the Rat Islands have been the site of a successful rat eradication campaign that resulted in the declaration of one of the islands (now re-named Hawadax, Aleut for “those two over there”) completely rat-free in 2009. This was the result of a tremendous cooperative and costly effort between the US Fish and Wildlife, The Nature Conservancy, and Island Conservation. The entire island was basically heavily treated with poisoned rat bait…and it seemed to have worked.

Human effects, both direct and indirect, are having consequences on seabird populations around the world. Few people come into direct contact with seabirds, and yet through various activities (seafood consumption, plastic use/abuse, climate change, invasive/introduced plants and animals, pollution, oil spills), most species are suffering from consequences exerted by humanity.  Seabirds can seem to be so far removed from human activity that some people are baffled at even the idea of a “seabird”.

Buldir Island – Remote Field Camp Preparation

So, I will start from the beginning, going a little bit in depth in terms of the gear that I brought with me.

I love gear lists because not only do I find other peoples’ lists interesting, considering their own thought processes during prep, but incredibly useful in terms of considering what I might like/need to bring.

After applying, being interviewed, and finding out I was chosen to go on the expedition, I had a month and a half to get everything ready and in order.  I put a lot of thought into packing. It was really important to bring the right stuff because out there, there would be no supplementing gear if I needed more. I would only have what I brought with me, for two whole months in harsh conditions, and so I knew I would be better off (over) prepared.

Never having been to the Aleutians, and living in southern California, it was difficult to envision the precise gear I would need. I knew, however, that the short summer season climate there is consistently rainy, windy, cold, humid, and overcast, with temperatures ranging down into at least the 30s at night. I knew I would have to bring plenty of warm and waterproof clothes. Luckily, I still had a lot of my gear from Antarctica in good shape – in addition to all my camping/outdoors gear. Still, there were certain things I would need to get.

Another small thing to consider was the fact that there would be only hand-washing, and that due to the precipitation levels, I would need to be able to put that off as much as possible. Luckily, I have plenty of wool layers – a property of wool is that it does not harbor the bacteria that make for bad body odor smells – a truly wonderful property that was very much appreciated on Buldir.



  1. Ski Jacket – outermost layer that was primarily used while observing birds from the blind, to keep warm while sitting motionless for hours.
  2. Rain Jackets x 3
    1. Patagonia Triolet – this was a new purchase, and I justified an expensive GoreTex jacket knowing that it would serve me well far beyond Buldir. These are breathable, waterproof jackets you buy for life.
    2. Old TNF rain jacket – used for field work, I got this jacket irreparably filthy while wearing it daily for field work. It got covered in guano, paint, and mud, but performed great!
    3. Marmot Precip rain jacket – back up in case the others didn’t perform or were destroyed or ripped irreparably. I didn’t actually ever need to use it, but it was wise to bring along just in case.

      soaked outer layers on the hike to Spike Camp

      soaked outer layers on the hike to Spike Camp

  3. Ski Pants x 2
    1. Marmot GoreTex pants – I found these for a great deal and thought they would come in handy on the island. They were too nice to wear during field work, but they were a good pair to have for other activities. Durable, waterproof, breathable.
    2. Roxy ski pants – never used them and really didn’t need to bring them.
  4. Waterproof Pants Shell
    1. Patagonia Rain Shadow pants – these were awesome. I ended up using these on a daily basis and they were really great. Only a few rips after days spent rubbing up and scooting down and climbing over rough granite boulders on the talus (thanks, RipStop!).
    2. Sierra Designs Microlight pants – a super thin, lightweight packable waterproof layer. I would never wear these while working (they would rip on the granite in a heartbeat), but they were useful around camp on wet days.

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