Notes from Buldir (V – Last)

Hallo hallo,

We leave the island to sail back to Adak on the 11th of August, we now
have less a month on the island left. It’s been lovely, and but I
suppose one of my bigger regrets is not exploring more of the island
like the Scot who shakes his head in disappointment when he arrives
back and realises the other 5 of us have been sitting around the cabin
all day. But then, a freshly baked tray of cinnamon rolls does seem
more exciting than sweating into pre-sweated clothes clambering up a
hill for a beautiful view (also I’ll admit I do prefer the view of a
warm bustly cabin of merry folk and food). I’ll make it point to do a
little more hiking in the last 2 weeks where I’ll have a wee bit more
time after the Crested Auklet chicks have fledged. We actually have a
blog where they do a little one-liner of what we do everyday relayed
thru radio call. I believe the website is or some sort of iteration of that.
There is a photo of me in there holding a wee storm
  petrel chick from a couple of weeks before. 🙂

Scenery aside, the Crested Auklet chicks are growing big now. Jill and
I spend a good chunk of our days taking chicks out from their crevices
and weighing them. This is probably the highlight of the season. This
involves using a long wire shaped like a shepherd’s crook, except the
crook is really small. In fact it fits right above the knee of an
auklet. Then you kneel down besides a crevice, stick your face into a
small fist sized hole bordered with birdily fluids, peer in with a
torch, and try and locate the furry chick’n. Then with utmost stealth
you slowly slid in the wire, hook it right above the knee and gently
pull the screaming chick out, wings a flapping. I feel like I’ve
mentioned it before, but on the Farallones, we used to have a crevice
called the “I love biology” crevice, because to check it you creep
into a small alcove in dark cave, press your face on the muddy slick
pooey-ground and peer inside to see if the bird’s laid an egg, and the
utmost love for biology
 would compel anyone to partake in this. Well. This is every single
crevice on Buldir. Often I belly crawl into the famed cave called the
Stinky Panini. It’s basically a little space underneathe a gigantic
rocks, its dark, narrow and flat and smells to high heavens -hence the
name. I can only make it in on my elbows, and back out the same way. A
claustrophic’s nightmare. But it is home to a few brave auklets, and
it rests on braver field assistants to haul them out!

The last few days have been raining up a storm, and the Talus is a
fine stew of rain, mud, lichen, moss, faeces and throw up. You end a
chick-weighing day smelling like a sea monster’s armpit, and you pray
to high hell a tick hasn’t hopped into your hair, or a jumping bug in
your ear. But it’s all worth it, for even though they sometimes end up
covered in their own poo as you slid a small furry chick out, chances
are that he’s still fuzzy and downy, unbearably cute and as you press
him close to your face (still squealing) he emits a dreamy scent of
fresh tangerines.

Four more weeks till civilisation, till then!



Notes from Buldir (IV)

Hallo hallo once again,

It’s just been over a month since I set foot on this forsaken island.
Since you’ve last heard from me, I have finally had a shower, and even
washed my hair! Our shower basically consists of a solar shower, which
is a 5 gallon black bag you fill with water and allow the sun to heat
up. Unfortunately sun does not happen to be in Buldir’s dictionary, we
fill it with an equal mix of boiling and icy stream water. The bag has
a little rubber hose and a nozzle running down from it, and it is
hoisted up in our “shower house” by a rickety pulley and bucket
system. So you’re standing there in this small wooden structure (not
much different from the outhouse) shivering from the wind breezing in
through the cracks in the walls and you’re praying that the 5 gallon
bucket swinging precariously above your head is secured properly while
luke warm water trickles down. Despite that, probably one of the best
showers I’ve had! Admittedly, the fluffy white towel I used afterwards
turned a disconc
 erting shade of grey after I was done with it..

It’s now currently chick season, and all the little fluffernutters are
popping out of their shells. This also means that it’s time to collect
diet samples from the adults who diligently fly in everyday to feed
their chick. It’s really obvious when an adult auklet is bringing food
back. They store it in their gula(?) pouch in their neck, and makes
them look like they have sort of a goitre or tumourous lump which they
swallow nervously up and down when you’re in between them and their
crevice. The longer you stand there, their head bobbing gets a little
bit more frantic, and you can imagine them cursing you to go away
before they chunder EEEVERYWHERE. Which is what they do when you
startle them, BAARRGGGGGGH – throw up all their food. A volm-cano of
pink shrimpy krilly mess that we scoop with our fingers into tiny
glass jars, and no matter how much cucumber and melon soap you use,
will not remove the smell of fish from your fingers (or any other
clothing on you at that time.)

Things in the camp are great, almost everyone gets along with each
other. Evenings are mostly filled with camp banter, communal bitching,
and the odd episode of Family Guy which goes down a treat. (Speaking
of Family guy, I recently smacked my knee right into a rock, and it’s
fine little swollen and bruised, but it was a definitely a scene
straight out of show where I’m clutching my knee going “Oww… ssss…
aaaaah… owwwwwwww..” and cringing for five minutes. Rock rage!
*waves fist*) We’ve also had Orcas swim by twice, huge male’s with
their huge dorsal fins, some porpoises and the angular blow of sperm
whales in the distance. The scientific boat Tiglax also made an
unexpected stop by yesterday, and delivered us a new toilet seat
(useless, as had no cover) newspapers (!!) and a huge box of snow
crab. Crab cakes for dinner tonight with fresh bread. Possibly the
first fresh meal we’ll be having, as were are solidly into our
tinned-food stage now…

Well that’s all. Next two weeks is going to be busy as we’ll be
weighing chicks, a bit more night work. Hope all is well on your
front, miss you all.

Pip pip cheerio!

Notes from Buldir (III)

Hi all,

I’ve been on Buldir for exactly three weeks now, which means there’s
still 8 more to go. *eyes widen in horror*. But things are still the
same, the weather, the people, the birds, and my state of cleanliness.
Actually pardon me, my state of cleanliness has not stayed the same,
it has been slowly degenerating the last three weeks. Yes, I have not
taken a shower or washed my hair for three weeks now. However we have
a limited supply of wet wipes which serves as a quicky and dirty
shower at the end of the day. I’m not sure what to do about the hair
though, sticking your head into little mucky lichen-y and poo-y
crevices doesn’t do great things for it except turn it a lovely shade
of green/brown. Someone once told me before that if you didn’t wash
your hair it slowly learns to regulate and clean itself. As of now,
this theory has not been proven. My only comfort is everyone else in
camp is in similar dire showerless situations. We have a solar shower
contraption – but it is simpl
 y too cold to shower!

Recently we have been collecting geolocators back from Jill’s Crested
Auklets. These are little tracking devices that show where the birds
go during the winter. However to download the information, you’re
required to retrieve the geolocator back from the birds. This is
pretty risky, since you assume that the geolocators don’t kill the
bird, they return to the same crevice every year, or that they don’t
divorce their partners. (All of which, we don’t really know yet.) It’s
a little square about 1cm by 0.5cm that is tied onto the birds legs,
and it uses the length of day (it can detect when the sun rises or
sets) to determine where the bird is to a 200km accuracy every day for
about a year.

So this year we’ve been going back to each crevice and retrieving
them. We’ve got 7/31 so far. It’s tricky business because it’s been
said that if you touch a Crested Auklet during incubation, it abandons
it’s nest. And if you get the wrong bird, you have to go back at night
to get it’s mate, which ideally should be the one with the geolocator,
before it discovers it’s nest has been abandoned and then never come
back as well. So what this means is that we have to go out to the
talus at night till about 2am, poking around crevices trying to get
the bird. Jill uses a thin metal pole with a little curved hook on the
end, like a shepherd’s crook, to basically hook the bird by it’s leg
and drag it out it’s crevice kicking and screaming. It ain’t pretty.

This is all and well during the day when you can see where you’re
going, and hopping from one rock to another, up a 2-300m rocky slope.
However at night it’s a whole different matter, when you’re scrambling
around in your red-light head lamps, in the mist and rain. Your whole
body is tensed up, your nerves are shot by the end of the night!
Morever to make things more exciting, now and then you get
disorientated birds flying around and unsuspectingly whacking you in
the head. It’s like dodgeball in the dark. The easiest way to get down
the slope at night is to what the Fish and Wildlife fondly call “Anal
Ambling” (no, not a gay porno) but basically going down bum first.

Luckily, we realised that the birds were less likely to abandon the
nests as we’d once thought so now we go out during the day only. Phew!

On other things, during bad weather days the FWS crew have been doing
little construction projects around the camp. Building new boardwalks
etc. Sometimes I go out and help them, and to my great dismay, tools
are not created for small people to use. So I mainly provide a form of
entertainment as they watch me hammer and saw with two hands. “What
are we? In Santa’s workshop?” they ask. It takes me about 20 hits to
put a nail into a plank of wood, and about 5 minutes to saw an inch.

That is all for this week. Hope all is well! Miss you all.

Notes from Buldir (II)

Hello once again,

Here’s another I’m ALIVE! Update. I suspect that some of you may not
be getting this message, since gmail/hotmail seems to think satellite
email should go straight to your spam folder, which probably isn’t too
far off from what this is really.

Anyway, if I’ve not mentioned it before, did you know my is cold, wet
and windy. It’s usually about 5 degrees here most days. It’s windy and
there’s always a fog or a slight drizzle. It’s kind of like a colder
and wetter (poss) version of London. Every evening at 9pm we have
RADIOCALL! Where we check in with the HQ in Adak, where they give us
the weather. It’s almost always 20knots, NW, patchy fog, RAIN.
Sometimes the radiocall is conducted by the refuge manager, and he
likes to play a little music clip in the beginning with a dramatic
it brings you back to the .. 60’s? Where everyone’s huddled around the
radio in the evening for nightly entertainment. (Mostly we get
weather, and requested sports results and on Friday we get special
“News of the Weird.”) What is happening though in the world?!

The afternoons of mine are occupied by burrow productivity checks.
These are conducted every 4-7 days and it involves clambering around a
rocks and boulders and peering into crevices. More deets on that next
week. The highlight of yesterday’s burrow check though was when Jill
dropped her pencil into a crevice. It was down a hole, about 1m deep
and she couldn’t reach it. I, despite having shorter arms, felt that
my smaller stature would stack the odds in my favour since I could go
further into the hole. And so I did, diving down head first, and
finally grasping the pencil. However when I tried to get out, I
realised I was stuck. That is head facing downwards into a hole.

Rule: If you are crawling downwards into a hole. Do not proceed
further than your bum. For you will lack the muscle to pull yourself
up and will be left stranded with your two legs dangling in the air
and blood rushing to your head. You may also be at risk of losing your
beanie and be the laughing stock of small black seabirds. After about
5 minutes of hilarity ensuing, and my muscles if not strong enough to
pull me out, was definitely exhausted from the upside-down laughing,
Jill finally had to yank me back up, with various limbs. Arms (I had
one hand in, one hand out)? Legs? a la, Pulling out the Enormous
Turnip Fairytale -style before I tumbled out. Thank goodness there was
no need for me to starve myself for a few days before I could finally
get yanked out. chubbsies chubbsies.

That’s it for now. Am missing everyone loads! Remote island losing
novelty now. At least the crew is a good bunch. They did however make
me say over Radiocall that we found an “Oliental Gleenfinch” on the

Bye bye for now!


Hello from Buldir!

Hello all,
 Here’s greeting from Buldir, in the Bering Sea. Second last island on
the little tail off the west coast of Alaska. It is now raining and
freezing, and I spend most of the 2 days I was here shivering in my
booties. It was exactly what I signed up for, but I just found out
that my nylon rain jacket isn’t exactly waterproof, and that I went to
bed on a slightly damp pillow… on the bright side my sleeping bag is
warm and toasty, and I get a decent night’s sleep, lullabied by the
screechy storm petrels, and lulled unconscious by the carbon monoxide
fumes from the kerosene heater. Thankfully the Fish and Wildlife lads
have also built a new outhouse from scratch, that was much needed.

However, it is lovely to wake up and walk out of our weatherport (a
set up structure that’s like 8 x 20 feet half cylinder covered with a
tarp) and have a beautiful view of a snowcapped hills. I also made a
walk to the auklet blind yesterday, and it was slippery slidey!!! But
it was worth it. Going to spend a lot of that time in that shivery
blind, but the Crested Auklets are a charismatic and noisy bunch that
perch on top of boulders in small groups barking at each other. They
sound like small chihuahuas yapping away! They also fly around in
great numbers, like fish schools or fly swarms swirling diving and
dipping in the air. They are also almost always in groups with least
auklets which a tinier and slightly less silly looking.

Alright that’s it for now, I won’t be able to reply to each email
personally, but if you drop me an email I’ll respond in the next mass
group email out! Remember, no attachments, just text, and delete my
email if you can cos each bite downloaded takes up our sat phone
minutes. Muchos gracias. And yes mum and dad.. I’ll stay safe it’s
fine. I know. Miss you all.

Cold and wet.

Guest Starring Festivities

All work and no play make Will and Michelle a gruesomely grouchy twosome. Fortunately, the festive season brought a lovely respite to the daily grind with a spate of good weather, good food and good people.

I know I ought to be used to tropical Christmases, but the last couple of Christmas I’ve had were as traditionally north hemispheric as you could get. The chill of snow in the air, decorating christmas cookies, a plethora of presents beneathe a real pine tree, sipping eggnog by the fire with with a drowsy feline, the picture of contentment.

Despite the unanswered wish for snow, our busy workload and a decidedly unfestive crowd at the bunkhouse (“We don’t believe in commercialised christmas..”) we had a crackin’ Christmas morning. Will and I had sneakily bought each other gifts from the Tiri gift store and had them gift wrapped. Each present was opened with the maniacal enthusiasm of an underprivileged orphan on Chistmas morning to make up for the lack of spirit and atmosphere. It was a good haul of gifts that we spent awhile cooing over.

Stu – A painted tile is not “mega gay”.

There was however… a surprise gift from one of the supporters. Bob, an old guide who.. I’m a little hesitant to conclude, has a bit of a crush on me. At least all evidence points that way, when he gave me a bottle of wine for Christmas and a little card saying “from an Old admirer”. Shockingly, we found that the wine was clean and crisp and without a hint of Rohypnol in it. I suppose a friendly gesture could be misconstrued, but when I walked in two days ago and found a box of chocolates on my bed, and Will suggestively raising his eyebrows at me and pointing to Bob walking by in the distance…..

Will ate 80% of the chocolates under the excuse of “testing it for date rape drugs.”

The end of the year also brought guests from near and far. Starting with All American Abe, one of my seabid acoustic gurus who has had the misfortune of reading my thesis ..cringe. He brought along his countless field stories, jolly laughter and the priceless gift of WetWipes which harken to my nickname on the Farallones… (we had limited showers there.. go figure).

Abe had worked on Tiri six years ago and he left me with valuable advice as he lazily kicked his flippers on his back like and otter with our haul of 70 huge mussels sitting squarely on his chest. Go out and enjoy Tiri. It’s not the Hihis I’ll remember.. it’s times like these, clutching my bikini clad self, in a semi hypothermic state under the freezing rain picking mussels.. watching dolphins cruise by a sunset, lying on the hill at night in a haze and uncontrollably laughing at the winking city lights, the first furry cuddle of a grey faced petrel chick, belly crawling into a cave to find nesting penguins, its these memories I’ll keep. So stop with the kindle and go out to create Tirian adventures to remember.

This certainly isn’t a memory I’ll forget that easily.

As Abe left the island in a flurry of bear hugs, wise cracks and a good heap of New York Jewish Pride, Nic and Rob arrived just in time to celebrate New Year’s Eve on Tiri. Rob, our friendly Grey Faced Petrel researcher who Will and I randomly encountered when we were well past intoxicated in a bar near Goat Island. I heard a singsong Welsh voice exclaiming, “I am a seabird biologist” and whipped around instantly, honing in like a shark smelling blood only to find out this intrepid seabirder had been on our island every single Wednesday for the last six months, bouncing petrel babies on his lap. In was inevitable that Will would fall in love with this sheep shagging Terry Pratchett reading, Baldur’s Gate II playing, tea fanatic Welsh. A match made in heaven. I can only sit around in midgety indignance as they made fun of my height, my arse, my Asianess with the dry smug wittiness that only the British can muster.

Nic, a Kea conservation geneticist who I had befriended during the Con Bio conference in Auckland, came up from Dunedin to visit. I’m not sure how I convinced him to come, but it was probably best I didn’t mention that I assumed when he had written “Nestor” under a drawing of his study species, I thought it was a name of a famous parrot.. like Flipper the dolphin, Lassie the Collie or Shamu the Orca… as opposed to the latin name for Keas.

New Year’s Eve heralded an evening of gin and tonic by the beach and a swim with the lads, only to have the three pansies scamper out of the cold water. Will, whimpering about his frozen nipples, Nic despite his alpiniste heritage dashed off under the excuse of “taking a tuatara photo” and Rob set off the Richter scale with his shivers, while I with all my tropical upbringing, trailed behind, rolling my eyes in contempt at clearly what was the weaker sex.

The countdown was a relatively lowkey affair, drowsied with wine and mead. People soon trooped off to bed, but Nic and I wandered off for a futile kiwi hunt. We were instead pleasantly surprised by the ghostly bioluminscence that outlined each breaking wave as it crashed along Hobbs beach. We ran into the water after a quick “I’ll go if you go” negotiation.  We were completely enchanted, watching the phytoplankton twinkle between our fingers.



On Nests

I’ve never really had a chance to explain what I actually do on Tiri have I? By now you probably think I spend all my time fishing, stalking nature presenters and cuddling penguins. Far from it. There is absolutely nothing glamourous about field work. It’s about 95% sweat, dirt and poo and ..and 5% of exciting moments that make the other 95 worth all the effort.
I’ll gently ease you into the quotidian details of my life, and spare you the 5 minute spiel I have polished and perfected for the bunkhouse guests when asked the inevitable “So, you’re a researcher? What do you do?” question that never fails to arise during the course of a meal. I genuinely enjoy explaining what I do, but my level of sociality is inversely proportionate to my workload, up to a point where I now have seriously considered getting a T-shirt saying “Hi, I’m Michelle. I monitor the Hihi population on Tiri. Capisce? Yes I’ll be here for 5 months – you may now retrieve your jaw from the floor. And just because I know you’re wondering, I get my groceries fortnightly from the DoC supply boat… Can I have dinner now?” Will on the other hand just sacks off to the room and plays computer games. Smart fella.
Anyway – What does monitoring the Hihi population entail?
There are 180 Hihi nest boxes out on Tiritiri Matangi, usually about 2 boxes per Hihi territory. Hihis usually nest in cavities, but the forests on Tiri aren’t mature enought to have dead trees with holes in them, so we provide them with prime real estate.

A one room flat

I have to ensure I know which Hihi couple owns the territory and information about the breeding success of the pair. One of the key bits of information is to determine the date the first egg was laid. To do that, I routinely circuit through all the nest boxes, and when a nest is completely formed, I check the box daily until the eggs are all laid.
Here’s an inside view of a Hihi nest box. The architecturally talented female will build a base made of twigs to fill up the box, and right at the top a small little nest cup lined with soft fuzzy bits from the tree ferns. You can tell when a nest box is being used, because there’s usually a pile of sticks at the bottom of the box, where a bird during the building process, has clearly brought back a stick that just would not fit into the hole. (That’s what she said?)

Open House - Hihi Interior Designs.

Here are some of the nest cups I’ve collected:

Sorry Asians, you can't make soup out of these.

One assumes that all nests of a species look the same, but there exists differences within the Hihis themselves… and I find the variety of nests I find delightfully charming. Some are clearly OCD, crafting a well defined neat cup. Others will just dump a messy load of fluff in for maximum unruly comfort (which on some level, resembles my bed!), and those who are so artistically inclined, line their nests with feathers from other birds to brighten up their nook.

More on eggs next time..

And here’s a photo of resident Takahe family with their offspring as a feeble apology for lack of entertaining hijinks…