Friday, May 22, 2009

Off of Tern & onto bigger things...

I just took a look back on my last blog entry in April... holy cow. Where has the time gone?

I arrived in Honolulu last night via the Oscar Elton Sette, NOAA Research Vessel extrordinaire. 2 1/2 days at sea was a little rough for me, ship virgin that I am. The last day was great though -- smooth waters, nice wind, and friendly company. Oh, and the spinner dolphins that leapt and jumped out to meet us right outside of Oahu -- an amazing sight.

I am sitting in my cousin's living room now, halfway wishing that Google had been kinder to me out at Tern and allowed me to log on as I pleased. In a way though, I'm glad I couldn't get on the internet as much. Instead of typing out stories of my times and struggling uploading pictures of my fun, I was out and about actually living it.

My last month at Tern was amazing. I've met so many awesome people that I never would have met otherwise. It's funny where and to whom life takes us. One of the first times Whitney and I had a talk, we were laying out right above the remains of East Beach. For some reason, Whitney brought up how she didn't want to know about her future from fortunetellers (random? yes, very much so), that she was loving going about her business, not knowing what was going to happen next. Surprise spices up life. I heartily agreed. If you had told me a year ago that I would've gone to this island state -- better yet, go to an even remoter island of this island state -- by myself, pretty much on a whim, I would've shot you a look that could've frozen hell over. God has been so good to me my entire life, and as I look back on these last 3 months of heat, sharks, and guano, it is so evident that He wants me to enjoy the surprises that He hands out. I've had the time of my life out there, and it was just what I needed at that particular time in my life when I didn't know what to do with myself. Tern provided a buffer between me and the real world for a few months, so I could think and get away from the maddening crowd.

People kept asking me "Are you sad about leaving?" I have to say yes and no. I (already) miss the island atmosphere, my friends, the refreshing untainted Pacific, and of course all those crazy birds. But as I was walking down the runway Tuesday morning (the day I left Tern), albatross chicks along the runway stood up one by one and flapped their clumsy, too-big-for-their-bodies wings, desperately hoping to get enough lift from the wind to go off to sea. These guys have been on the island their whole 5 - 6 month lives. They have thousands of miles of ocean to explore. They are ready to get off this island! And as corny as this sounds, I thought "If they're ready, I am too." I needed this time to reflect; now it's time to get back to the "real world" and keep living this glorious, unpredictable, scary life God has blessed me with. I have come off of Tern with a deeper appreciation for the environment, feeling closer to nature than I ever thought I could. I have made several great friends that I will be able to yell "booby!" with for years to come. I have seen things only "Planet Earth" could narrate properly for me. I appreciate the refreshing of a clementine orange and the crispness of fresh spinach. I loved my time out at Tern. Now it's time to come down from the mountain, so to speak, and live in the valley for awhile. Valleys are good too -- they make us stronger, and because of the struggle, they make us appreciate the mountain tops when we finally reach them.

"I now belong to a higher cult of mortals, for I have seen the albatross!" ~Robert Cushman Murphy

Photos later on. Time for a run around Honolulu.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Photos for April showers...

I tell you what, blogging has been a bit frustrating lately. Here are some pics I wanted to post in the last entry, but they didn't line up as prettily as they usually do.

Cute sooty - one in a million

Red-tailed tropicbird + chick

Stamping out cheeseweed, one weed at a time

Me, with a wedgie, ha ha

Bulwer's petrel

April showers...

I know that my postings have been sporadic lately. I have to admit that I've been a little lazy in getting to my blog, mostly because I've been so relaxed with the hot Hawaiian sun beating on me and the cool Pacific inviting me in for a refreshing dip. The times that I have tried to log on have been unsuccessful until now, 11:00 p.m. Hawaiian time on this cloudy, starless Wednesday night. Since I was actually allowed onto my blog, I will post a little something. Hopefully, this thing will work tonight.

The last 2 and a half weeks have been eventful... Tern Island style. What I mean by that is that most of what has been going on has been the same old, same old bird stuff, which nonetheless is exciting to me and the rest of the people on this little island.

I am in love with a new bird, even though the albatrosses will always be my first love. The Bulwer's petrel is a little black bird, almost a cross between a Tristram's storm-petrel and a Christmas shearwater. Bulwer's have the cutest little feet that look way too small for their bodies. Their call is unusual -- it's like a little dog "woof." No joke. Amongst all the screechings and cawings, to hear the "woof! woof! woof!" is a bit out of place.

We have been mark-recapturing wedge-tailed shearwaters for the last 3 weeks. When you go out wedgie catching, you have to wear thick leather gloves and long sleeves so that they can't easily bite you. And they try really hard to find a chink in the armor. The first night we were out catching, the one I was holding let his cute little head bob backwards onto my hand. How sweet! I thought. Dave quickly corrected me. "Um, he's trying to find a place to bite you." Those little guys bite pretty hard -- I got bit on the cheek last week. It's healing up fine, but still. Not the face!
We've been doing a ton of cheeseweeding and rock hauling the last couple of weeks. Specifically, we've been concentrating on clearing out the major rocks from Shell Beach so that sea turtles will have a smoother place to lay their eggs when the season comes (sometime in May). I tell you what, my skin is about as dark as I think God intended -- spending all day in the sun will do that I suppose.

I reached the 600 mark on my red-tailed tropicbird mark-recapture! I am very pleased! But I miss working with those birds. When you spend so much of your time catching, banding, observing, holding, interacting with the birds, it's hard not to get a little attached. I still see the tropicbirds on the island, and as I see them, I give a salute. They were fun to work with.

The sooty terns have landed in full force on the island. They are absolutely everywhere. On every square inch of open space the other birds have left available there is a sooty tern. Even under bushes, the poor tropicbirds have to sqwak just to get an offending sooty out of their personal space. When we do our plots or weed, the sooties peck at our toes and hands if we get too close. They hover right over the ground, like a living fog, screeching at their own kind, at other birds, at us. It's a little overwhelming. Today I was a little ways off the runway, in a little patch of grass not too populated by sooties. As soon as they started yelling at me, I almost teared up -- "I can't take this anymore today," I thought, and booked it out of there. Yes, a bird made me think twice about my plans, I admit it. But you would too if you got screeched at, stabbed, and bombarded by these little mites all day.

I love it here.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Finally! Back by popular demand...

A curious Black foot

Yeah, the last 2 weeks have been Google's fault. But we're back on schedule now. Ready to go.

I've had to scan through my travel journal to remember/ recollect what has happened these last two weeks, because, let me tell you, the days tend to run together here. So much happens that I want to talk about, but not all of it would be amusing to someone that's not me. It gets to be a process when choosing what to write about. So, here are the highlights from March 30 - April 13 on Tern Island, FFS.

March 30th was the day we said goodbye to Melinda and Josh as they boarded the Kahana bound for Honolulu. March 31st I saw my first masked booby chick. Not cute at all -- a skinny, naked, pink, bug-eyed mole rat looking thing (see photo below). April 1st I cooked my first loaf of sourdough bread! And it was actually good! I also saw my first whales that day. When Dave and Cindy saw the spouts they told the rest of us, and we rushed up to the roof and looked to the north. We strained our eyes for a bit, and then we saw the puffs of vaporized water shoot into the air. The spouts happened so fast, one right after the other. I didn't get my binoculars up in time to see the backs of the humpbacks that were traveling that day, or last Saturday when we saw even more spouts (Therese saw one of them breach before I got out there). Whales hold an aura of mystery for me -- these gigantic living monoliths lumbering out in the vastness of the sea. They are so big and yet rarely seen. I am so glad I got to see them show off a bit as they travel up to their summer homes.

Masked booby chicks - I told you...

The last two weeks, the albatross chicks are all of a sudden developing their adult feathers. From downy fluffy chicks to partially feathered chicks. My babies are growing so fast! I think we start banding them at the beginning of May, right before I leave. I'm excited to get to do that -- it'll be like finishing a project or seeing a kid off to college, sort of.

The white and dark brown feathers are showing through the down!

Now one of the highlights of my time here, thus far. Friday, April 3rd was hot and we were off a little early, so Adam, Whitney and I decide to jump off the dolphin into the crystal blue, cold water. Therese catches up with us, and although she doesn't want to get in the water, she decides to stand on the shore and watch the ocean. So Adam goes first and I watch him, trying to get up the courage to jump off the 9 foot tall platform. Then I see a couple of big silver fish dart from the shadows into the shallow water where Adam had just landed. I'm amused so I keep looking at them, and then I see 2 other shapes, that look a little bigger and a little like sharks. Because they were sharks. I start telling Adam to get out of the water and Therese says she sees something too. Adam gets out, the sharks swim towards where he had been and then swim out of sight. Uh yeah. I was freaked out. They weren't big (maybe 4 - 5 feet) but man, watching them swim was eerie. By then everyone is standing where I am and we are all scanning the water for those sharks. 20 minutes roll by and it's hot. That water looks good. No sharks. Yup, they're gone. So I jump in, Whitney and Adam right after. Therese is our lookout. All is right with the world. As I'm headed towards the exit point, Therese points nonchalantly "Oh, there's a shark. And another one." I jump out of that water so fast, and look back down to where Whitney's getting out, and see 3 slinky swimming sharks right underneath her. Adam is still in the water, cut off from land by water and sharks. The sharks swim out of sight and he takes his chance in getting out. As soon as he touches land, the sharks come back, searching for those 3 lovely pieces of meat they had just missed. That, my friends, is a true story. But it didn't stop me from jumping off the dolphin again on Saturday. This time the water was shark free -- we all made absolute sure of it this time.

The view while walking up the dolphin

April 8th I helped Cindy band Tristram's storm-petrels. These guys are the size of a man's fist, black, and with a relatively large holed tube on the tops of their beaks. During the day, the chicks stay in underground burrows, and the parents bring them food at night. We had to keep them shaded from the sun -- they literally never see the light of day. A Laysan wandered into the bunkhouse Saturday. His feet slap-slapped the ground as he explored the common room and took his time heading out the front door. Sunday was Easter (look up Titus 3:5 – 7) and Whitney and I cooked a marvelous Easter feast. Several of us also went snorkeling. I saw several Picasso triggerfish, or the Humuhumunukunukuapua’a (Hawaii’s state fish). Yeah, it’s a mouthful, but it is a beautiful fish.

Me with a Tristram's storm-petrel chick

The Laysan in the bunkhouse

So there you have it. The last 2 weeks summarized.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Lots of cheeseweed & photos

(A great sign & motto for our bathroom this week -- some major water work was done, and at times, it wasn't a very comfortable process)

It has been a nice, sort of easier week. We have been getting ready for the Kahana to come back by filling pallet tubs with trash, recyclables, old fire extinguishers, and marine debris. All of this, plus the contractors and Josh and Melinda, will be leaving tomorrow by 1800 hours. When we weren't putting bug fogger in the pallet tubs, or tying the lids down tight, we were weeding. We weeded a lot.

Grasshoppers and weeds -- we are on a standing order to rip them out and/or squash them to oblivion before they get on ships and planes and spread their kind to other islands, such as Midway. Did you know that grasshoppers are not native to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands? Neither did I, until we got strict orders "to kill them all." (Literally the words Pete AND Dave used.) Grasshoppers, as they are not an endemic species to the islands, can cause serious damage to the native plants, further affecting this very fragile ecosystem we (myself included) are trying to protect. Weeds are just as bad as the grasshoppers to these refuge managers. In fact, the first couple of weeks I was here, I was given a daily test -- Pete would point out a leafy green grasslike plant "Good or bad?" "Good?" I would say. "No, wrong. That's a good one right over there; this one is bad." And Pete would then demonstrate the proper technique of weeding the bad one. Just like the tropicbirds, weeds all pretty much look the same. Though I am getting rather good at identifying and pulling out cheeseweed. As I was weeding the other day, I happened upon one of the many evil grasshoppers. The grasshoppers here are huge, and very hard to kill. This one was no exception. I stepped on it, crunched it with my heel, and then finally got a rock to end its stubborn existence. I had another one in my room recently, probably trying to take it over just as its relatives want to take over the island. I had to jump up and down on it just to make a dent in one of its wings. Two less grasshoppers to infest the rest of the chain. Yes, I'm proud of my efforts to eradicate cheeseweed and grasshoppers, and I think I'm doing a pretty good job at it so far.

I have been snorkling a couple of solid times (meaning, around the north side of the island and not just splashing around learning). It is incredible what you can see underwater. Last week, we came across some sharks! I was deathly afraid when I found out I'd probably be bumping into sharks if I went snorkling, but they are not so bad up close (yeah, yeah, you were right Pete). These sharks are white tip reef sharks, and they're the "good guys" -- if you see these, that means there are no tiger sharks around (which is an awesome thing if you're snorkling). We also saw a spotted eagle ray swimming along. Today, we went by the turtle cleaning station. This is an underwater rock where sea turtles gather around so that small fish can clean them off. There were 3 swimming along on the way to the station, and at least 5 sea turtles hovering around the rock-- small ones jetting around, big ones taking it easy. I watched as one larger turtle floated down to the little group of hungry fish, waiting to clean all the algae and parasites off of him. Your perspective changes underwater. An expanse of blue all around, the sound of your breathing the only thing you hear (besides the occasional low flying bird), fish and sea creatures swimming lazily by without a care in the world... I love snorkling.

I don't really have pictures of us weeding and killing grasshoppers yet, and my underwater camera uses film, so those pics will have to wait. Below are some pics that I have taken this week, for the viewer's pleasure.
(Sooty terns -- the loudest birds on the planet, no doubt)

(Male Great Frigatebird on display)

(A Laysan baby in one of my plots)

(A smaller sea turtle floating along by the Coast Guard dump)

(A Laysan pair)

(Male masked booby on a nest)
(Chick on East Beach)

(World domination, courtesy of Mary G.)

Sunday, March 22, 2009

I've been here a month!

(Sunset on Tern)

I've been here a month last Friday. My how time flies.
(Spotted eagle rays off the Coast Guard dump)

R.I.P. Bilbo 3/17/09. Tuesday morning was a little rough for me -- the one bird that I've named died sometime between Monday afternoon and Tuesday when I checked the temperatures. He seemed to be doing fine -- and then he was dead. I will not name another bird while I'm here.

(I'll miss this little guy! Bye Bilbo!)

Another bird has been finding its way to Tern Island -- the Christmas shearwater. They are secretive birds, hiding in dense bushes with their mates, coming out in the early morning and at dusk. Once a week, Dave has been having us get started a little earlier than 8:30 a.m. (our regular starting time in the morning) to find these birds, check their bands, and mark them. It's really funny to watch 6 adults stalk these poor little birds. We walk around the island, slowly checking underneath all the bushes, using our chick sticks to poke away some of the branches so we can see clearer. Someone spots a shearwater and silently points down to where it's poked out. The rest of us slowly sneak up to the bush and surround it. Then selected people use their sticks to gently herd the little guy to a side of the bush that has a waiting pair of hands to scoop it up. Success! The bird is caught, taken care of, and painted. Hopefully, without a finger getting gnawed on.
(Melinda and Dave with a Christmas shearwater)

I've been having Jim and Cindy help me with the red-tailed tropicbird mark-recapture. They are both so nice to help me out! I only have 150ish birds to catch before I hit the 600 mark (the project states that we need to catch 600 birds, or stop the mark-recapture on May 15th, whichever comes first). I'm pumped!

(Cindy with a RTTR)

Wednesday we boated out to Trig Island, a little sand island that usually has albatross and masked booby nests. The day started out nice enough, but as soon as we got there, the sky dumped on us. It was cold and rainy the whole time we were out there. We got done with the count quickly though -- a storm had come up earlier in February and washed away the albatross nests, so there were only some albatross adults and masked booby nests. I saw a little monk seal when I was counting eggs. He looked up at us, and blubbered (imagine that word literally -- it is the only way I can think to describe how a seal moves on land) his way towards us. He slunk his little head down like he didn't care what was going on. But his curiosity got the better of him again, so he blubbered a little closer and watched us unashamedly. Cute little guy.
(Trig Island, looking towards Tern)

(The curious monk seal)

When we finally got back to Tern, the rain had hit there too. The runway was completely flooded and the albatross chicks looked like angry wet llamas. Yeah, I said llamas.
(See the llama-ness?)

Saturday, the Kahana came and brought 4 new bird volunteers and 2 maintenance men. The Kahana is a ship that delivers goods (and people!) up and down the Northwestern Hawaiian Island chain. When it stopped at Tern on Saturday, it anchored out a little ways from the island. The crew used a smaller boat to bring 4 loads of food, maintenance equipment, fuel, and people to the island. They put straps around the supplies, and that's where I came in. I used my little controller to lower a hook and chain. Jim B. used a rope to pull the hoist (which the hook and chain were connected to) towards the target load. I lowered the hook, the men hooked up the strap and load, and I raised the hook so that the load would clear the boat and the dock. Jim B. then used his rope to pull the hoist and load onto the dock, where Dave was ready with the tractor to haul the load away. It seems easy, but there was a lot of pressure! The hook mechanism is slow anyway, and if I wasn't on the ball, it would be slower, making the unloading go slower, making everything take longer... you get the picture. (Besides, my thumbs started hurting after awhile.) But it was really neat to be a part of the dock work. Even if I only pushed a button.
(The Kahana)

(Me, in my work clothes)

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Chicks & Boating

Thursday morning on Tern

The start of numero cuatro semana on Tern Island. Life's still plugging away here. There are chicks being born, grasshoppers to kill, seals to keep away from, and of course, birds to catch/ band.

I've talked a lot about the albatross chicks, but there are so many other fluffy chicks I've grown attached to. The tropicbird eggs are beginning to hatch -- we found about 5 chicks on the island last time we checked. I actually have a mom (or dad? They all look the same. I can't lie.) and a little chick in one of my albatross plots. When we first saw the little chick, the adult was gone, so Jim, Cindy, and I got a clear view of the little white puffball with big black eyes. The next day, when I actually had my camera, the parent was back, sitting right on top of its offspring and ready to bite my hand off as I stuck the camera into the bush to take a picture. I captured the precious moment of a really ill adult and just a touch of fluff underneath. Baby's first photo.

Can you kind of see the white chick fluff?

I've also been keeping an eye on a black noddy chick that has a home by the thermometer box. I've named him Bilbo and I see him every morning when I check the weather. He's very fluffy and very cute -- everything a little bird chick should be. I'm just glad he's still alive -- these black noddy chicks die so quickly. Wind can knock a noddy chick out of the nest quite easily. If the parents can't identify their chick on the ground, they leave it to starve to death. If you try to be nice and put it back in its nest, it better be the right nest -- if parents come back and find a stranger there, they'll peck it to death. Bilbo's lucky though -- he's in a conspicuous place, pretty shielded from the wind, with no other noddy nests around him, so there's no confusion as to where he belongs. I've become kind of attached to little Bilbo. It'll be a touch sad when he fledges and leaves the nest.

My little black noddy -- Bilbo

There are also the white tern chicks. These little guys look a lot like the tropicbird chicks, except the white tern chicks have much stronger feet/ claws to hold onto the rocks and window ledges their parents have chosen for a "nest." There is one that lives by the clothesline in the courtyard. Again, very fluffy and very cute. It's easy to get attached to the chicks you see most everyday!

White tern chick

Today, we went to La Perouse Pinnacle. I think I talked about it before, but here we go again! La Perouse Pinnacle (named for the Frenchman who discovered this atoll) is the very top of a volcano that formed the French Frigate Shoals. Although the rest of the volcano is under the sea now, this pinnacle still towers above the horizon, about 6 miles away from my bedroom on Tern Island. It looks like a Chinese junk floating darkly in the distance. Dave told us that we were going to try and boat out there, maybe snorkel, if the weather was nice. We almost didn't go -- La Perouse was invisible for several minutes, covered by the rain and clouds that were out there. When we could see La Perouse again, Jim, Cindy, Dave and I made our ways to the boathouse/ dock. Boating is a lot more work than I remembered from tootling around Guntersville Lake. One person lowered the hook that connected the boat to a chain that lifted it off its trailer, while the rest of us nudged the boat up and over the trailer and into the water. We rushed around tying the ropes to the little posts on the dock, but we had to tie them tightly so the boat wouldn't bounce around too much... Yeah, it was a lot more detailed than I remembered. Dave, Jim and I took the Boston Whaler. Not as impressive as it sounds. It's a very small "lake patrol" boat, with barely enough room for 3 people to stand. As Dave drove to La Perouse, Jim and I hung onto the handles on either side of the main control box, letting our legs bend with each wave so we wouldn't hyperextend our knees (Dave's words "to scare us now, so we'd have fun later."). Boy, did we get soaked on our way out there! The swells cut right into our boat as we sped along, drenching us with every bounce. It took about 30 minutes to get out there, but finally getting to see La Perouse up close was awesome. The sheer cliff rises high above the ocean, tiny birds flying around it, guano decorating its sides -- I half expected Dr. Frankenstein's castle to be up there somewhere. We drove all the way around it, looking for different bird species and admiring the forbidding magnitude of the rock. Snorkeling was forgotten as the swells were a little too choppy, so we made our bouncing, wet way home again. Thirty cold, damp minutes later, we were all eating chocolate chip/ peanut butter cookies courtesy of Jim B. (a maintenance volunteer who came out with Dave & Josh). I still have salt behind my ears from all the water that splashed on me from our little boat ride. Time for a shower.

I really did help!

Sunday, March 8, 2009

What's your favorite color blue?

Red-footed boobies on my morning seawall walk

I'm starting week 3 here on Tern. Last week was more of the same -- checking up on my albatross plots, poking birds with sticks to see if they have eggs or not (MIC - mean incubation count), and plenty of cleaning refrigerators (Chipping away at built up sheets of ice takes a whole afternoon! Who knew?).

One of the first things my dad asked me when I called today was "Did you make a chick throw up?" Now, how he knew to ask that, I'll never know -- it's got to be the lawyer in him. I admit that I had, indeed, done the thing that I've feared doing since I was schooled in albatross-isms the first full day I was here. I was feeling very brave on Thursday, and a little restless. The plane had come and gone that day, so Dave (manager on Tern) was showing the new guys around, and the rest of us didn't have too much to do. For me though, albatross chicks had to be banded -- they're getting bigger by the day and I have to change their small temporary bands for bigger temporary bands so they're not in any pain. I got Jim to help me out; so while Jim shielded my hand from the bird's beak with a clipboard, I slipped the old band off, and the new band on. This was working out ok -- the birds seemed mildly upset but they were doing relatively well. Then I came to BFAL nest #15. That little guy was restless too. He scurried around as best he could trying to get away from us, but crap! that guy looked like a small turkey! He had to be re-banded! While Jim readied his clipboard, I stepped on an abandoned, rotten albatross egg. Nothing, not even Mrs. Lisauckis' science experiments, could've prepared me for that horrible smell. I squatted down to band this chick and stuck my head right in the stink cloud that was hovering around its nest bowl. Yeah, I had to step back a few feet and regain my eyesight. I went back to the little guy one more time. By now, he was REALLY jumpy and nervous, ready and willing to bite my finger off. Jim tried to protect me, I tried to band his leg, and then the throw up came. And came. And came. Fish eggs, a squid, even smellier purplish fluid. I got the band on, stepped back again, trying not to throw up myself -- man, it was ripe at nest #15. I felt horrible too - that poor little chick might die because of me! Luckily, Melinda made me feel better -- apparently, studies have shown that one good puking won't necessarily cause death. And she said that she's seen smaller chicks puke up 2x as much as #15 did. Thanks Melinda! I've been by to check the little guy. He seems to be fine, but still perturbed to see me walk up. I don't blame him.
Plot #1 - they look like gophers huh?

There have been multiple rainbows the last few days. Not the tiny ones I used to love watching while the sprinkler was spraying water. The big kind, the Holy Grail of rainbows -- the full arch, stretched across the entire horizon as plain as day for several minutes. I'm going to have to splice together the complete rainbow from the pictures I took, but it was spectacular to watch. (Yes, I watched an inanimate object for several minutes -- don't judge!) The next day, there was another. And then the next day, another. I've also seen "moon dogs" (I hope that's the right term Pete!) -- a "rainbow" of the moon. It's a circle of hazy light, surrounding the moon like a halo. Wednesday night it was complete all the way around and bright as can be. Who would've thought that ice crystals frozen in the atmosphere could have such a beautiful effect? I like having all these rainbows pop up -- delicate reminders of God's promise.
Part of the rainbow on flight day

I also learned how to snorkle a bit. Boy, I made it as difficult as possible for Pete to teach me too -- my mask wouldn't fit right, I was using my hands to swim the only way I knew how (in snorkling, you don't always need to use your hands to swim -- especially while kicking around the baby way I was), struggling to breath when I went up for air (which I didn't need to do -- that's what that snorkle's there for -- I know this now), getting way too tired from kicking for 15 minutes. Snorkling's a zen thing. Deep breath in, deep breath out, kick a little, observe the pretty fish. Once I kind of got the swing of things, and started looking around, it was incredible. The fish are so colorful here -- and I didn't even see the really amazing ones! I also saw a sea turtle swim about 10 feet away from me. He was so graceful, didn't even look my way. Just carried on his underwater stroll right on past and into the deep. I can't wait to go underwater again -- even if the Pacific isn't the Gulf bathwater I so love.
Snorkling off East Beach

After we got done snorkling, Pete asked me what my favorite color blue was. I must've looked at him like he was crazy, because then he pointed at the water and asked again. I hadn't thought of that yet -- should have, but hadn't. So I looked at all the colors of blue that were shimmering in the ocean, making up the landscape in front of me. I've been busy the last few weeks, but it was good to pick my favorite color blue.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

I know it's late...

(Practicing banding on an albatross bone)

...but I took a nap this evening, so this blog got pushed back a bit.

This week was, of course, eventful -- mostly because I'm still learning my way around this place.

I'm still counting my albatrosses. This week I counted 73 total Laysan chicks and 111 Black-foot chicks in the plots I have to watch. The chicks are getting mighty big, but still staying pretty cute. They look like Weebles -- you know, those fat people-like toys, with small faces and useless legs. But these Weebles bite.
(A Laysan albatross chick)

I've gotten bit a couple of times, but it's still not too bad -- like a paper cut. Now that the chicks are getting a little older, the parents are leaving them alone for longer. They also don't feed them as often. When albatrosses get nervous or scared, they tend to throw up their meal. The chicks especially will do this, and when they do, they lose all of their nutrition for a couple of weeks. You don't want to make a chick throw up or it'll probably die of starvation. I've seen a couple of chicks in this predicament and it's not fun to watch. It's the way of nature though -- we can't do too much about it.

Pete added another bird to my repertoire -- the red-tailed tropicbird.

(A red-tailed tropicbird)

All of last week (and for the rest of my stint on Tern), I'm to go out every 2 - 4 days in certain areas on the island and catch as many tropicbirds as I can, read their bands (if they have one), put on new bands (if they don't have one), and mark their little heads with red fingernail polish so I don't recapture them on my next round. This is called the "mark-recapture method" and it represents the total population of tropicbirds in a given area by sampling a smaller area (I hope that made some sense!). I've been crawling under buildings and bushes to find these little guys. They squawk and bite a tad bit harder than the albatross chicks! It's easier to catch them if you throw a t-shirt over their heads -- they get disoriented and calm down (most of the time). Once they calm down, they're actually nice to hold, like a hamster or something small and soft like that.

(Trying not to let this guy go!)

(Under a building -- with a tropicbird!)

I don't want to brag, but I saved a green sea turtle this week. Tern Island is kept from washing away by a sea wall that the Navy/ Coast Guard built in the 40s. Now that the military isn't here to keep up the wall, it has gotten rusty and hole-y, and when the tides rise and waves crash, sea turtles and birds can get pushed through the holes and get stuck on the dry side of the wall -- not usually the side you want to be on, especially if you're a marine animal. So we all take turns getting up early to walk around the sea wall, making sure there are no trapped animals that need saving.
(The sea wall where I saved my turtle)

My first walk was Monday, Feb. 23. I was walking around the wall, drinking my coffee, minding my own business, when I see this turtle swimming around in a little pool. My heart was pumping, let me tell you. I put down my coffee, took a couple of pics, and then prepared to catch and release this "little" guy. Catching a sea turtle is harder than it looks -- these guys are super fast under water, and even though my guy had a few inches to swim in, he was scooting right along. I finally got him in a corner, so he had no way out but up on land. As he wallowed in the sand, I grabbed him up by the shell and hauled him up and over the wall. He jetted off toward the open ocean. Boy, that was a satisfying feeling watching that sea turtle go free -- yes, I'm officially Mary Gibson, turtle saver.
(My sea turtle -- I know, he looks like all the rest)

I've just finished "Cannery Row" by John Steinbeck. Great book. Great descriptions about people, about nature, about life. A theme I noticed in the book is that although something may seem beautiful, there's a rougher side to it, and vice versa. This harsh, almost deadly, reality makes the beauty that much more potent and life-giving. Take my albatross chicks for example. They're so fluffy and cute, but they can starve and die so quickly. The ones that make it though are absolutely worth the pruning. And that's enough philosophy for tonight.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Welcome to Tern Mary G

So, I made it! I landed on Tern Island, French Frigate Shoals, Northwestern Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge on Friday, Feb. 20, 2009. We had an uneventful flight -- the Pacific Ocean view was incredible though.

As the plane dropped us off, and as I saw it fly farther off into the distance, it hit me -- "I am in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with 4 other people. I will not see a plane/ ship for at least two weeks. I am stuck." That was a sinking feeling. Coupled with the lack of sleep, that first day was a blur. Pete (resident manager of Tern Island) showed Jim, Cindy, and I around and gave us a little overview of what to expect. (Jim & Cindy are a retired couple from Honolulu. Big volunteers around HI.) I found out we have to take turns cooking dinner. Yeah, I'm done for. We chose our rooms -- my room has an awesome view of La Perouse Pinnacle. And that night, I went to bed, all I could write in my journal was "What have I done?"

Next day was much, MUCH better though. I am so thankful to be here -- how many people even get to see this place? God is so evident here -- nature is always such a huge reminder to me of how He works and how big He is. I've seen Hawaiian monk seals and green sea turtles basking on the beaches here. The water glows a turquoise blue. And then, there are the birds. So now, I will talk about the birds of Tern Island.

The guy from The Notebook who said, "If you're a bird, I'm a bird" as he sappily looks at his girl has never been out here. There are literally thousands of birds here -- noisy, smelly, pooping birds. Here's a quick list of those birds: Laysan albatrosses, black-footed albatrosses, white terns, sooty terns, masked boobies, red-footed boobies, great frigatebirds, brown noddies, black noddies, red-tailed tropicbirds, Tristram's storm-petrel. (I will try to get photos of each species on here as I go.) The sounds and noises here can only be described as cacophony -- constant, incessant whistles and shrieks. The birds slack off a bit in the early morning hours, but the noise is everywhere. After only 2 days here, it has become background noise. I hear it but I'm used to it. Everyone told me the smell would be rough for a few days. Well, the way I describe it is that it smells like Gulf Shores. I love Gulf Shores, but I guess it would smell pretty bad to some people.

As for the volunteering aspect, we work 6 days a week, 8:30 - 4:30, with an hour break for lunch. Not too shabby. On top of that, I scooped up an opportunity to make $100/ month checking the weather every day for NOAA. It's not much, but every little bit helps! My job for the NFWS though will be to check on the albatross nests & chicks. I already have my favorite species -- the Laysan albatross. They're so big, but so gentle & sweet. The other person on this island -- Melinda -- is researching their foraging habits, and she has one albatross that she can preen. She says "You'll fall in love." I haven't quite gotten to that stage yet, but it's getting close. Even though these birds were overwhelming at first, they have such personality. These Laysans will just watch you and waddle on up to you. I actually got to hold an adult yesterday. I also got to band some chicks too -- they're so downy and soft, but they try so hard to be mean. Their bites will hurt much more in a couple of months, but for now, I just laugh at them.

I'm shooting for updating this blog on Sundays, around dinnertime for me, bedtime for my main people. I miss everyone. It'll be good times here though.

Our plane to Tern Island, about 5:30 A.M., Hawaiian time

The view from my room
A resting green sea turtle on Crab Beach

An albatross chick

A view of Tern Island