Keywords: Species and food webs, Birds, Salish Sea, Marine birds, Monitoring, Aquatic reserves, Salish Sea Currents magazine

Where do Protection Island's rhinoceros auklets go to find their food? Scientists hope GPS tags will offer new insight into the bird's still mysterious foraging behavior. Biologist and science writer Eric Wagner reports from the field. 

Mid-June, two days after the summer solstice, and it is still more than an hour after sunset before the sky at last starts to deepen to black. Five of us are arrayed around a grassy swale near the top of the southeastern face of Protection Island. We have all our layers on and hunker down to keep out of the stiff wind that blows off the Strait of Juan de Fuca. We are waiting for the rhinoceros auklets to come back.

On a steep slope a short distance away, Scott Pearson and Tom Good, biologists with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and NOAA, respectively, have set small purse nets across the entrances of ten auklet burrows, each of which has a chick waiting deep inside. The plan—more of a hope, really—is that when the chicks’ parents return in an hour or so, bearing meals of small fish, they will entangle themselves in the nets. We will then fetch the auklets, disentangle them, tape small GPS tags to their backs, and release them and send them on their way.

Four people standing and crouching on a grassy slope with water in the background and mountains in the distance.]

Biologists Olivia Fross (University of Puget Sound), Tom Good (NOAA), Scott Pearson (Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife), and Amelia DuVall (University of Washington) place small purse nets across the entrances of auklet burrows to capture, tag, and release the birds in order to study their foraging habits. Mount Baker is seen in the distance. Photo: Eric Wagner

Rhinoceros auklets are medium-sized alcids. Unlike tufted puffins, a close relative, they are not especially gaudy, being primarily gray of feather. During the breeding season, though, both sexes grow long cream-colored plumes above their eyes and at their jowls (if a bird can be said to have jowls), along with a short keratinous horn at the base of their bill. But it is what the auklets do when away from prying human eyes that is of interest to us. No one has really looked in a concerted way at where the auklets from Protection Island forage.

This vital if outwardly straightforward question—how do rhinoceros auklets at their largest colony in the Pacific Northwest find enough to eat?—quickly splinters into twenty. As they fly out thirty or so miles each day, do the auklets consistently visit particular areas throughout the breeding season? Or do they range widely, sometimes going here, sometimes going there? What is it that defines their preferred foraging habitats? Banks? Submarine canyons? Other features? Do auklets avoid areas with high ship traffic? Do males and females forage together or apart? Do auklets go to the same places year after year, or do their preferred spots vary under different environmental conditions? And so on and on and on.

The tags we will use to try to answer all these questions are themselves a kind of white magic. They weigh a tad more than four grams, or 0.16 ounces, which is less than one percent of an adult auklet’s weight. Even though a tag is about as heavy as a damp tea bag, it can record an auklet’s location every fifteen minutes and is accurate to about five meters. And when a bird comes within half a mile of a base station the size of a box of Pop Tarts that we have attached to a wooden stake, the tags send all their data to it, so we can come download it later.  

A human hand holding a single dark -colored bird that has a rectangular device attached to its back

A small tag taped to the back of a rhinoceros auklet allows scientists to study their foraging habits. The device records the bird’s location every fifteen minutes and is accurate to about five meters. Photo: Eric Wagner

So yes: the tags are astonishing little gadgets. But there is still the matter of applying them, and no amount of weight-shaving or technical wizardry can spare the auklet that procedure.

We hear the auklets before we see them: the whirr of their quick wingbeats, the crisp chunk as they stall and drop unceremoniously into the tall dry grasses so they can scuttle to their burrows. After a few minutes Pearson and Olivia Fross, a student from the University of Puget Sound, go to check the nets, their headlamps playing over the swaying grasses.

Alas, all the nets are un-auklet-ed.

Back in the swale, we lie on our backs to stay out of view; thankfully the moon is a waning crescent. The auklets continue to whirr over our heads in a steady stream of small dark shapes. When ten minutes have passed, Pearson and Fross check the nets again: still no auklets. Ten minutes later: the same. Now the worm of anxiety starts to play in our guts. It becomes clear we have set the purse nets poorly, that rather than catching the auklets, we are merely tripping them up until they can shake themselves free and fly off.

I decide to take matters into my own hands, so to speak, leaving the swale and thrashing up the hillside to a cluster of burrows. I crouch behind a tuft of grass and wait. Less than two minutes later, I hear an auklet land near me. I turn on my headlamp and catch it in the bright beam. It freezes, startled, and I pounce, pinning it to the ground. It drops its bill load—one large Pacific herring and a couple of smaller Pacific sand lance—and tries to bite me, but I scoop it up and hold it against my jacket. “I got one!” I yell as I secure the auklet with one hand and with the other put its fish in a plastic bag for later analysis.

“Great!” says Pearson. I carry the auklet down and hand it off to him. He weighs and measures the bird and affixes a small steel band on its leg, so it can be identified in the extremely unlikely event that someone else sees it again in the years to come. When he finishes, he places the auklet in a blue cloth bag and passes it back to me and Amelia DuVall, a graduate student from the University of Washington. She and I are responsible for attaching the GPS tags.

I arrange myself and position the auklet in my lap. I keep the auklet’s head in the blue bag—this helps calm it, in theory—and hold its wings with my thumbs so its back faces out, while I press its feet against my palms so it can’t kick with its long, sharp claws.

DuVall goes about her business quickly, quietly. She works a wooden coffee stirrer stick under a swath of the auklet’s feathers, lifts them, slides a piece of black tape underneath, and presses the feathers down onto the tape. Moving down a half inch or so, she lifts another swath, slides in another piece of tape. When she has arranged four pieces of tape, she places the tag atop the feathers and wraps the ends of the tape strips around the tag, securing it to the auklet’s back before sealing the seams with glue and waiting for it to dry.

Throughout, the auklet is relatively quiet. I sit with it in my hands, feel its body swell with breath. This is the part of science about which I am most ambivalent. On the one hand I love holding this auklet. I love the intimacy of this encounter—the bird’s smallness and its fragility and its strength, the softness of its feathers that are still damp from the sea. I try to be mindful of what a privilege it is for me as a human to be able to do this: to come to a national wildlife refuge the public is otherwise forbidden from visiting, to handle this wonderful creature—one out of seventy thousand—and call it a job of a sort. But I don’t feel as good about depriving its chick of a meal; even as I know it is really one half of a meal, since the other parent will also deliver some fish tonight, and tomorrow normal service will resume from both parents.

“Okay, it’s ready,” DuVall says once the glue has dried.

I stand to release the auklet. It struggles and wrests its wing free and flaps frantically. While I try to get control of the wing, it chomps down on the middle finger of my left hand with all its might. Its bill is small but strong and has a slight hook at the end for holding slippery forage fish like herring or sand lance. It bites and shakes its head, tries for a better grip on my finger, bites again. It grinds its bill and fixes its eye on me as my blood trickles down. The act has an odd formality; although the auklet is desperate, it does not seem so. Watching it work, I think of a notary stamping a piece of paper, impressing its seal.

I carry the auklet to a vantage that opens out onto the strait far below. I make to release the auklet, but first it has to release me, and it seems reluctant to. Eventually it realizes that I have loosened my grip, and when it opens its bill I toss it into the air. It flaps off into the night. Behind me I hear Pearson say he’s about finished banding the next auklet. 

By 1:30 a.m. we have banded and tagged eight auklets, so we call it a night. My hands are stitched with bloody scratches and gouges—the evidence of auklet protestation. When we have packed up all our accoutrements, I squeeze out a dollop of hand sanitizer and rub it all over, wincing at the sharp sting. Although some people wear gloves when they tag birds, I choose not to. In part it is important to me to feel the bird as much as I can, so I can tell how it’s doing, like whether its feet are too hot, things like that. But I also think it is only fair to give the auklets a chance to have their say on the whole affair. I at least owe them that opportunity, scaring them as we do almost to death, even as we are trying to help them.

A version of this article first appeared in The Last Word On Nothing.

About the author: Eric Wagner writes about science and the environment from his home in Seattle, where he lives with his wife and daughter. His writing has appeared in Smithsonian, Orion, The Atlantic, and High Country News, among other places. He is the author of "Penguins in the Desert" and co-author of "Once and Future River: Reclaiming the Duwamish." His most recent book is "After the Blast: The Ecological recovery of Mount St. Helens," published in 2020 by University of Washington Press. He holds a Ph.D. in Biology from the University of Washington.

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