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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, June 2, 2006

Don't mess with this guy or you'd be screeching too

By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Science Writer

Fish and Wildlife Service technicians Duncan Wright, left, and Joshua Ruschhaupt attach leg bands to a Laysan albatross on Tern Island at French Frigate Shoals. The Laysan albatross population on 34-acre Tern Island is about 4,800, but there are 140,000 sooty terns.

JAN TENBRUGGENCATE | The Honolulu Advertiser

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A sooty tern from the nesting colony at French Frigate Shoals challenges a human intruder as technicians band chicks. Speaking of chicks, even the little screechers have formidable beaks and a nasty bite.

JAN TENBRUGGENCATE | The Honolulu Advertiser

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TERN ISLAND, French Frigate Shoals Banding albatross chicks in a colony of sooty terns must be among the noisiest and most dangerous of occupations.

"They draw blood," said Angela Anders, manager of the Fish and Wildlife Service station at Tern Island, where sooty terns are by far the most numerous of 16 species of sea birds that nest here.

Each year, Anders and her co-workers attempt to put leg bands on every single albatross chick on the island. When they started last week, they believed that more than 3,000 birds would need to be banded.

Albatross are selected for banding when they are about a month from fledging and the size of a healthy turkey. The technique is for one worker to hold their long, sharp beaks closed with a gloved hand and sweep up their bodies in a way that prevents their wings from flapping. The other worker applies two bands that will identify the bird to researchers.

That takes care of the albatross, but the maneuver leaves no hands to protect from the angry terns.

Sooty terns screech so loudly that U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service volunteer Duncan Wright wears earplugs when entering their colonies.

He and volunteer Joshua Ruschhaupt wear hats to protect their heads from the sharp black beaks of birds that rise up to attack intruders.

The volunteers also wear shoes, and they slide kneepads down around their ankles to protect them from the beaks of sooty terns that stay on the ground, attacking from below.

The birds have good reason to be protective. While the adults are as distinctive as pelicans in suits of jet black and blinding white, their eggs wear a speckled camouflage.

Chicks also wear a kind of earthy camouflage that lets them disappear underfoot. But it doesn't hide them from soaring great frigate birds that will swoop down and snatch up an unprotected chick, gulping it down without hesitation.

Of the roughly 200,000 birds that use Tern's 34 acres each year, 140,000 are sooty terns. There are fewer than 10,000 of any of the other species led by 4,800 Laysan albatross and 3,600 black-footed albatross.

As this is written, there are nine other people on the island. They include four Fish and Wildlife Service folks and five researchers on a NOAA Fisheries monk seal crew. Their team leader is Suzanne Canja.

Tern Island was once a sandbar a third its present size. It lies near the northern end of a 20-mile-long crescent of reef called French Frigate Shoals, named after the frigates of the explorer La Perouse, the Frenchman who sailed through the Pacific a few years after Capt. James Cook.

In World War II, the U.S. dredged up sediments and expanded Tern to make a 3,000-foot runway. Later it served as a Coast Guard navigation station, and the Fish and Wildlife Service took over a quarter-century ago.

The island has served as a base for all kinds of bird and marine- life surveys during those years, but its consistent mission has been the monitoring of the reproductive success of sea birds.

"We're mainly looking at population trends over time by doing nest counts each year," Anders said.

One result of that long period of research is the finding that there is nothing stable about nesting populations of sea birds; the numbers rise and fall dramatically from year to year.

"We see annual variation for all the species we monitor. We believe this is closely related to food availability," she said.

When the ocean's productivity is low, many chicks starve, presumably because parents can't find enough food to feed them.

Albatross have been tracked by satellite flying all the way to the West Coast in their search for food during some nesting seasons, returning after a couple of weeks to the same nest on the same isolated island they left.

Researchers on Tern who count the birds, and study them, weigh them and photograph them, must grow accustomed to the noise of these birds. There's no choice. It goes on day and night, a constant din of caws, whistles, moans, beak-slaps, chirps, growls and wails.

Reach Jan TenBruggencate at jant@honoluluadvertiser.com.