Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) on Middleton Island in 2013

2013 was the fifth year of the Middleton Island Tree Swallow (TRES) Project, after the first nest boxes were put up there and got occupied by swallows in 2009. More about the history of the TRES on Middleton Island and the earlier years of this project can be found in a previous blog post: http://www.middletonisland.blogspot.pt/2012/09/the-tree-swallows-tachycineta-bicolor.html
Last year I wrote a short story about the TRES on Middleton for the annual report of 'NESTKAST', a Dutch network of amateur and professional nest box researchers. It's written in Dutch and can be downloaded here: https://www.sovon.nl/nl/content/nestkast-jaarverslag-broedseizoen-2012

My expectations for this breeding season were not very high as, although the population has shown a gradual increase during the first four years, during the previous year (2012), due to poor weather conditions, only very few chicks fledged. This year again volunteers of the Institute for Seabird Research and Conservation (ISRC; formerly USGS) put effort in monitoring the nest boxes.

After receiving this year’s results I was quite surprised. Based on the data they gathered I suspect that no fewer than 10 boxes were occupied; double the number that was in use by swallows in 2012! Unfortunately, halfway the breeding season the attention of the volunteers decreased and not all boxes got monitored. I suspect that they were too busy with their seabird projects this year, and with an increasing number of TRES there will also be a lot more time and effort required for this project. Possibly because of this, the results that are shown below come with a number of question marks. (Strangely, I did not get a reply on further inquiries about the TRES work this year from any of them. And no photos from this breeding season either… (Alan, Erica and Lorraine??)).

Thankfully the volunteers still managed to band a total of 17 chicks from three boxes. Whether attempts of four other pairs resulted in ‘bandable’ young or not, remains unknown. Unfortunately also, this year by the end of the breeding season the nest boxes did not get cleaned and old nests were not inspected for any unhatched eggs or deceased chicks. Therefore it is difficult to say something about the TRES’ fledging and productivity for 2013. Unfortunate also because when nest boxes are not cleaned before the winter, the boxes' life expectancy gets several years shorter, which is my experience.

I suspect that many young will have fledged as the weather conditions during the end of June and early July were not too bad, although not perfect either (I recently found a new website with what seems to be a rather accurate (historical) weather report from Middleton: http://rp5.md/Weather_archive_in_Middleton_Island_%28airport%29). I will try to see if the nest boxes still can get inspected and cleaned before the winter (preferably) or before the new breeding season starts.

Recommendations for the following year(s)

With a continuously increasing number of TRES utilizing nest boxes out on Middleton Island, the project could be considered a success. However, still very little is known about the origin of the swallows that nest there. As part of this project  a total of 3 adult and 41 chicks have been banded there up till now (of which at least 7 chicks died before fledging), but no (or barely any) effort has been put in resighting these birds as possible nesters on Middleton. Therefore it remains unknown how the remote Middleton Island population is made up and what the true value of this project would be. A continuation of the banding effort is a must, but capturing and resighting breeding birds has become equally important.

Additionally, with a rapidly increasing number of occupied nest boxes out there, chances are that in the very near future the number of present boxes will become a limiting factor for the developing population. With 10 out of 17 boxes in use, the housing market for TRES still appears to be open. It can be expected, however, that some pairs will exclude birds from a neighboring box. This is visible on the map to some extent, as the swallows appear to have a preference to nest away from each other. It will probably be better not to wait until all of these 17 boxes in use (which I doubt will ever happen). Several additional nest boxes will have to be installed within the upcoming two years, I suspect.

To me it has become obvious that during the upcoming years this project deserves more attention, as well as effort being put into it. There might be a lot to learn from these little birds on Middleton Island.

Acknowledgements: I’d like to thank the ISRC volunteers for putting effort in monitoring the TRES population to the extent that they did, Kyle Elliot again for giving some valuable instructions at the start of the summer, and Scott Hatch (ISRC) for allowing the volunteers to be busy with something other than seabirds.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Soccer Ball Lost in Japan Tsunami Surfaces in Alaska

While roaming the beach on Alaska’s barren, largely uninhabited Middleton Island, radar station technician David Baxter noticed a soccer ball floating off the shore. But it wasn’t until he fished it out that Baxter realized how far the ball had traveled: some 3,000 miles, from its home in Japan, where a disastrous tsunami killed 19,000 people and poured the belongings of thousands of others into the ocean more than a year ago.

Although this news item originates from April this year, David Baxter recently informed me that a full documentary covering the story can now be watched here:  http://espn.go.com/video/clip?id=espn:8598087

Unfortunately I am not able to view it from this part of the world, so for the moment I’ll have to be satisfied with the trailer:

Ahhhh… beachcombing on Middleton Island… David informed me he will keep on going for another couple of years, in the hopes of finding that one glass float...

Thursday, December 13, 2012

A few photos from Clark Pearson’s 2012 summer visit to Middleton Island & the NALEMP.

Clark Pearson is a ‘Native American Lands Environmental Mitigation Project Manager’ for the Native Village of Eyak. I share with him a strong interest in Middleton Island’s history and we met before out on the island in the fall of 2009. The Native Village of Eyak is currently performing environmental investigations on Middleton Island and Clark’s most recent visit has been part of this investigation as well.

Alaska has been a mecca for military activity for over 100 years and many of the historical military sites, including those on Middleton Island, have been heavily polluted while in operation. An environmental assessment conducted on the island in 2009 revealed the presence of asbestos, diesel range contaminants, and lead. The Native American Lands Environmental Mitigation Program (NALEMP), overseen by the US Army Corps of Engineers and funds remediation activities for former military sites on Native American lands, allows Alaska Native and Native American tribes to investigate and remove hazardous materials from their land and provides valuable employment and skills training to tribal members.

More about the NALEMP and details for Middleton Island can be found here: http://www.eyakfish.com/nalemp.html

Clark just sent me a few of the photos he took during his most recent visit to Middleton during late August.

Clark Pearson standing in between the poles that once held the “Middleton Island blue fox farm” sign (or whatever is left of them). It would be great to get some proper GPS-coordinates of their locations, before they’re completely gone. I’m pretty sure the farmers housing was to the left of you, Clark, not the right..:-)

Try to find Clark, at the exact location of the former fox farmer’s housing. The extensive growth of fireweed is an indication for the soil disturbance at the site that occurred in the past.

One of my favorite parts of the island; the eastern lowlands. The wash of gravel and clay originates from a small water stream that eventually leads to the ocean. Just to the right of the photo this stream made a steep cut in the bedrock of the older and higher part of the island. This little canyon is called ‘the military dump’, as it was used as a dump site for a lot of material and pollutants in the past.

The NALEMP is also inspecting the environmental impacts resulting from this old fuel pipe line, which runs from the north end all the way to the former A.C.&W. station in the center of the island.

By late August 2012, and after a very successful breeding season I believe, the Kittiwakes were still occupying the former radar tower.

Clark at the gravel beach in the north end, used as the most regular barge landing site. At least some things haven’t changed…

Thanks Clark!