Los Farallones

Dispatches from Point Blue’s field station on the Farallon Islands National Wildlife Refuge

A Dependency on Glass

As some of you may or may not know, we seabird biologists here on SEFI tend to spend a lot of our time working in the various blinds around the island. For a quick description on the different blinds around the island, check out this blog post from 2007. What do we do in these blinds? Well, the majority of the time we are looking through binoculars or spotting scopes at a number of different Common Murre and Brandt’s Cormorants breeding subcolonies. We record individual attendance at nest sites, we assess nest condition (for the Cormorants; the Common Murres don’t have nests), we check to see if there are eggs or chicks present, and of course, we spend a long time trying to read the tiny metal and or plastic bands that are on the birds legs. Thankfully, all of this can be accomplished from the safety of a well secured small wooden box perched atop a precipice which ensures that we do not flush any of our feathered friends from their respective roosting spots. 
The view of Corm Blind from the water: our safely secured box on the cliffside. Photo RJ Roush.
How are we able to do all this from a far distance away? With the use of our trusty scopes and binoculars, of course! Well, I’m sure some of you are thinking, “So? What’s the big deal?” And herein lies my point du jour: we are in a great debt to those glass objects which allow us to visually cover great distances. We often fail to acknowledge this awesome tool we have; we take it for granted. Without the small piece of technology that is the lens—allowing us to magnify images 10-60x and beyond—reading bands on some of these species would be downright preposterous. 
An unusual upside-down view of West End from the lens of our spotting scope. Photo RJ Roush.
               As I sat up in the Corm Blind one chilly evening, I started mulling over a scenario in which we would have to read a metal band without the use of any kind of glass. First off, you would need to ditch the blind all together. The relative comfort that the blind offers is nice and all, but you can’t read a band with the naked eye from a few dozen meters out. This means you need to get close to the bird, very, very close. The numbers printed on the bands for the Brandt’s Cormorants are roughly size 22 font in a word document and the Common Murre numbers are closer to size 12.
               Our number one priority is to not disturb the birds while studying them. After all, what good is getting a read on a band if the individual wearing the band abandons it’s nest site? So, we need to get close enough to read the band number without flushing the bird. A simple concept, but these birds are very observant of their surroundings and are quick to fly off if they see or hear something unusual and an odd biologist walking into their colony would clearly count as something unusual. So, we turn to stealth. Not the ninja kind of stealth where you hide in the shadows—there aren’t many human sized places to hide—no, you will need to hide in plain sight of the birds. The easiest way I can think to do this is to move extraordinarily slowly. We’re talking molasses in the Arctic slow; glacially slow. I can picture it now. Crawling along on the lice-ridden (Cormorants are known to harbor countless lice in their nests), muddy ground for the better part of a day to read a few digits on a single band. You are the sea-soaked soil which the birds sit on; you are the Farallon Weed which covers the island; you are nothing more than a stone that happens to be on the move.
               Your normal field work clothes, though thoroughly covered in dirt and bird excrement, will simply not work, either. The birds will likely take notice of a strange humanoid shaped object advancing toward their home. The Brandt’s Cormorants are unlikely to let you join the party unless you are wearing the correct attire, so a disguise is of utmost importance. Now, I have thought about sewing together a cormorant suit for just such an occasion, but after further consideration, I decided that would be ridiculous. So, instead of a human-sized Cormorant, you will need to do more than just think you are the soil, vegetation and stones of the island, you will need to don them as a carefully crafted cloak to conceal your identity. In other words: camouflage.
So, how are we doing? Covered head-to-toe in Farallon Weed and soil and the like, crawling slower than slow towards a birds nest with the intent of reading the size 22 (hopefully) or size 12 font engraved on the metal band around it’s ankle over the course of hours or perhaps even days. Now that would be some serious dedication to the seabirds. I, for one, am wholly overwhelmed with gratitude for the fine glass that we utilize whilst on the job. As both a budding bird biologist and a photographer, I pay homage to the tools that I and my peers use on a daily basis on the island. 
A few of the “tools” that I use on a daily basis on SEFI. Look at all that glass! Photo RJ Roush.
These few items allow us to not only gather the all-important data which helps us better understand the organisms and the systems which they interact with, but it allows us to bring these creatures closer to us. It allows us to see them up close, to observe them, and when taking photos, to share their beauty with countless others.
Much thanks to you, glass.
Taking photos of wildlife at sunset. Photo credit to Emma Kelsey
words by RJ Roush