Jessie Beck, a biologist with Oikonos Ecosystem Knowledge, is our captain on today’s inflatable boat commute to Año Nuevo Island.
Right now we’re loading the boat with food, fuel and sleeping bags. That’s because Jesse and three other biologists are spending the next two days studying the seabirds on Año Nuevo Island, which is otherwise closed to the public.
“Lets all get in our places, let’s pull it out,” Jessie yells. The rest of us assemble around the boat and haul it out until we’re waist deep the water. It’s windy, so the water is rough. One by one, we clamber into the rocking boat. Jessie pulls the cord on the wet engine, and after a few tries, it growls and turns over.
Jessie’s special project is conserving the rhinoceros auklet, a relative of the puffin. These birds dig burrows for their nests with their feet and a little horn on their bill, which is how they get their name. Año Nuevo Island is one of their few nesting places in the United States.
This conservation project is funded by money the government puts aside to fix ecological disasters caused by oil spills. In this case, the Luckenbach oil spill.
The Luckenbach is a ship that smashed into another vessel and sank in 1953 with nearly half a million gallons of fuel in the hull.
When the sunken hull rusted out in the 90s it started belching oil into the water. That killed a bunch of marine life, including almost 600 rhinoceros auklets—double the current population of Año Nuevo island.
Jessie guides the boat into a rocky inlet. “The beach is called landing cove and it’s where we land all of our boats,” she tells me.
An old sea lion with a cataract adjusts his bulk on a nearby rock, watching us bring supplies up the beach with his one good eye.
Jessie and her team come out here each week during the auklet breeding season. Before we climb up onto the island, Jessie gives me some safety protocol and a kind of warning:
“There’s going to be a lot of nesting gulls. Right now all their eggs are hatching into chicks and they're going to defend those chicks to the maximum by pecking us on the head, hitting us on the head, and pooping all over our jackets.”
That explains the raincoat they give me. We scramble up some rocks and a short ladder to get onto the island—it’s small, just a little bigger than Alcatraz. Unrelenting wind and a cacophony of bird cries hits us in full force. The rocky landscape is studded with nests. We could be on another planet.
On the island
“Take a handful of these, we’re gonna make a little path,” Ryan shouts over the wind, handing me some boards.
Ryan Carle manages the restoration project with Jessie. We’re deep in bird territory, so he’s building a path winding through fragile nests and scouting for vulnerable chicks. Western gulls nest on the ground above rhinoceros auklet burrows. They’re literally on top of each other and they don’t get along. Gulls sometimes eat auklets.
“This one right here is the mean one,” he cautions, pointing at one of the dozens of gulls wheeling above us. I don’t know which one he means until it whacks me in the head with a wing, then circles back to peck me in the back of the head.
Because of the wind, it takes both Ryan and I to wrestle the wood down into a walkway. Gusts keep picking up the plywood sheets and threatening to toss them into the nesting zones.
The paths we make will keep birds safe when researchers are walking around on the island in the dark. We’ll be mist netting: catching birds in big gauzy nets, kind of like tennis nets but harder to see.
“The mist nets are gonna go right here,” Ryan says, pointing to the bluffs on the edge of the island. “Here is gonna be one,” he points to the north, "and two going this way.”
There are a lot of different birds on the island: western gulls, cormorants, and smaller auklets, called Cassin’s auklets. We’ll be specifically looking at the rhinoceros auklets in the nets tonight.
“So the auklets are gonna be coming in at night with fish in their bills to feed their chicks. We wanna catch them as they’re coming in as a diet sample,” Ryan explains.
Rhinocerous auklets are some of the only birds that bring back whole fish, which is the gold standard of a seabird diet sample. This way scientists can tell exactly which species the birds are catching.
“Are we all ready?” Jessie yells into the wind. “I need someone to help me open the net!”
She laughs, reaching up towards a net that’s just out of her reach.
The mist nets bloom outwards on the wind and flutter. They’re almost invisible in the twilight. No wonder the birds fly into them: I can barely see them, and I know where to look.
“I’m going to need you at the banding station as soon as the first bird hits,” Ryan calls, rushing to make some last minute preparations.
It’s almost ten o’clock and pretty dark, but we see the first bird hit the net. It thrashes. Tenderly, a researcher pulls it out and brings him up to where Ryan and I are recording data.
“Bird, no fish,” she tells us breathlessly, holding the bird carefully against her chest, “Thorough check.” It’s easy to lose track of the fish in the dark, so researchers have to grope around in the dirt a bit to make sure they get all of them.
“Net three?” Ryan confirms. “Thank you.”
When we get a bird, we first check to see if it has a band. Then, we log the time we caught it, and whether or not it carried fish. Our data station is on high ground while the rest of the biologists wait under the nets on the edge of the bluffs. They’re lying on their stomachs on the cold dirt so they don’t scare the incoming birds.
The next bird doesn’t have a band, so Ryan gently wraps one around his leg.
“It’s a stainless steel band. I’m just closing it down with pliers…We put it on the right foot always.” He’s extremely focused. The trick, he tells me, is to tighten the band enough so that it doesn’t chafe and bother the bird, but not so tight that it might pinch.
Why we’re here
California is different from most other states in how it takes stock of ecological disasters like the Luckenbach spill. In this case, California is replacing not only the auklet mortalities, but total auklet years lost. What that means is when one bird dies, the ecosystem also loses the potential of the chicks that bird might have raised if it lived longer. There’s a lot of complicated math to project what the colony would have looked like if the disaster never happened. The amount of money the project gets depends on how much it costs in resources and man hours to get those years back.
When the oil started spilling in the 90s, only 19 chicks were surviving per year. Now the colony is so healthy that last season’s count was 96 new chicks—five times that.
“I’ll show you how to release them,” Ryan says, and puts a wild rhinoceros auklet in my hands. I hold it carefully, in the way Ryan taught me. He sets off quickly down a narrow path in almost total darkness. The gull cries are deafening and close—sharp squawks and menacing rattles. We stop on the point of some bluffs on the other side of the island, high above the water.
I cradle the auklet against my stomach, a small warmth against my larger one. The bluff is a maze of nests that drops off suddenly to the ocean below.
Thick, angry shadows of gulls swirl above, diving down to peck at my head. I crouch to release the small auklet.
He staggers towards the edge in the red light of my lamp, raises his wings, and seems to vanish into the shrieking black sky.