Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) on Middleton Island in 2014

2014 was the sixth year of the Tree swallow (TRES) nest box project on the remote Middleton Island. The first nest boxes were put up there in 2009, allowing the projects' first two breeding pairs to nest there successfully that same year. Until 2013, the presence of 17 nest boxes resulted in an annually increasing number of breeding pairs. For the past four years the boxes were monitored by volunteer - and professional ornithologists from the I.S.R.C. (formerly USGS) who visited the island as part of the ongoing seabird research that takes place on the island. Initially I was concerned not receiving any TRES data for this year, as Middleton did not get visited by researchers during the summer months. Luckily, several different people visited the island in April and August and these were nice enough to pass by the boxes and inspect these thoroughly for their contents.

Prior to the swallow's arrival
The presence of people in April allowed for a box cleanup before the first swallows would show up (last year these had not been cleaned by the end of the breeding season). This not only gave interesting additional information about the 2013 breeding season, but would also provide the 2014-birds with clean boxes. On April 19 and 21, all boxes were emptied out and cleaned. Old nests were removed and photographed.

Old swallow nests from the 2013 season.

Together with the data collected in 2013, the data revealed that in that year a total of 12 boxes contained at least some nest material. Of these, 10 contained (beginnings of) nests, of which 7 contained eggs and 6-7 contained chicks (of which 22 got ringed last year, from 4 nests). No unhatched eggs or dead chicks were reported, making it seem likely that in 2013 a record number of up to 40 chicks fledged!

One of the old nests which resulted in fledged chicks.

Box 17 during the April cleanup. The thin metal pipe is to provide a perch to the swallows and prevent Bald Eagles using the boxes as a perch at the same time.

The nest boxes appeared to be still in good condition. I was informed box #1 was missing a nail, but no further problems were reported. It seems they survive Middleton’s harsh conditions quite well. After the cleanup in April the boxes were ready for the upcoming breeding season.

The 2014 breeding season...
Nobody would inspect the nest boxes during the breeding season this year, so all I could do was occasionally check the status of box # 7, the nest box facing the FAA weather camera. Based on the regular nest box visits made by a few swallows, it got occupied.

Thankfully, in August Middleton got visited again by seabird researchers. On August 12, Martha Hatch inspected and cleaned out all 17 boxes. Box #7 indeed contained a nest from which young fledged, but further results were rather surprising: only 6 boxes contained at least some nest material. Of these five contained (beginnings of) nests (not just a bit of nest material). Of these three had contained eggs and chicks. Although two unhatched eggs were found, no dead chicks were reported, so most of these will probably have fledged.

Based on this data, it can be concluded that in 2014 the TRES on Middleton Island had a poor breeding season. Their breeding population decreased for a first time, with at least 50% compared to the previous breeding season. In numbers, the 2014 population was similar to 2011. Exactly how many chicks fledged remains unknown.

A possible explanation for this year's poor breeding results was given by Scott Hatch, who commented: "Lots of cool, wet weather which probably kept the insect supply down". I took a brief look at the historical data collected by the island's weather station (see the link for this elsewhere on this page). Strangely, during the period of the TRES' arrival and establishment (10 - 25 may) and the period in which the first eggs are laid (26 may - 2 June, based on data gathered during previous years) the average daily temperatures were higher than during the record TRES year 2013. At the same time the amount of daily precipitation in this period was lower or equal to that 2013. Did in spring the climate really prevented more TRES to start up their breeding cycle on Middleton Island?

A bit of an odd figure: daily average temperatures and precipitation totals on Middleton Island in 2013 and 2014. The yellow line indicates the period of arrival. The green line indicates the period during which the first eggs are laid, based on data from 2009 -2013 (read from right to left).

Alexandra Rose operates a TRES-project at Long Lake, almost exactly 100 miles northeast of Middleton Island. In 2012 chick mortality was very high at Middleton due to poor weather conditions and this was also the case at Long Lake that year. Alexandra informed me that in 2014 her swallows had a pretty good year, as far as the weather goes. They had a pretty mild summer with no real severe cold snaps. The past several summers had been terrible in terms of overall box occupancy there, but 2014 turned out to be a good year for the swallows.

Unfortunately, climate conditions consists of many more parameters that could have influenced the swallows on Middleton, like wind or fog, which I did not look at (although all of these should have been recorded by the island's weather station). Conditions prior to the bird's arrival may also be important, as these will be crucial for the startup of insect activity on the island.

The direction of the wind may also be of influence, as this could determine how many swallows eventually end up on the island. Before this project started the number of TRES observed on the island annually during spring migration ranged from 0 - 8. Maybe the birds nesting on Middleton in 2014 were primarily the 'hard core' Middleton birds and no or hardly any 'floaters' found their way to the island? Were these swallows pushed more towards Long Lake this year?

The number of unhatched eggs that Martha found in the boxes in August (2 among 3 nests, more than usual) indicates that poor weather conditions could have affected the early stages of egg-laying and breeding, but would this have resulted in the establishment of fewer birds?

Besides climate, other factors such as winter mortality and predation could have been involved. High winter mortality, however, probably wouldn't allow for the high box occupancy recorded at Long Lake this summer. With the absence of ground predators and only an irregular occurrence of potential aerial predators (primarily Peregrine Falcons) in past years Middleton's swallow population has always been relatively free from predation. The fact that none of the nests found in August show clear signs of being aborted by the birds (the nests that were finished all resulted in fledged young) and the distribution of occupied boxes is similar to the first years of the project (they all used the central cluster of nest boxes and the one closest to this, the northern and southern nest box clusters were not used this year), however, indicates that predation probably was not an issue this year. I am very much getting the impression that in 2014 fewer birds found their way to Middleton Island, resulting in a smaller breeding population that year.

Unfortunately, without people present on the island, more constant ringing and ring-reading efforts, any questions will remain difficult to answer. I can only hope that during the upcoming breeding season the swallows get the attention they deserve.

For the last 4 years, field work for this project has all been conducted on voluntary basis, not by me, but by seabird researchers that visited the island. Many of them I don’t even know personally. I must thank them all for their efforts!!

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:
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:

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: 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:

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:

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!