By Eric Wagner
December 1, 2017
To see the bird you have to know what to look for, so first its name and basic measurements:
Then a short description: “Uncommon or locally common on open ocean. Nests in colonies in burrows or deep crevices on islands. Nearly always solitary at sea. Feeds almost exclusively on small fish. Our largest auklet, but smaller than murres. Note relatively long, stout, yellowish bill; wedge-shaped head; and overall gray color with fairly extensive white belly.…”
Below the description are paintings of the auklet as a juvenile, a nonbreeding adult, and a breeding adult, when both sexes grow wispy, white plumes above their eyes and across their cheeks, and a stubby horn sprouts from their bill. These inspire the species’ common and scientific names, but they are mere seasonal ornaments. Grayness is what defines the auklet no matter its sex or age.
Beneath the paintings is a range map showing North America. Per the map’s color scheme, the auklet breeds from the Aleutian Islands down to lower California. During the winter months, it will move farther south, to Baja California. It is a year-round resident from central California up to British Columbia, and this includes the area around a rugged rock off the northern Washington coast called Destruction Island.
Destruction Island is one of a string of islands that make up the Quillayute Needles National Wildlife Refuge complex. While only three miles off the Olympic Peninsula, it is 17 miles southwest of the nearest marina in the small town of La Push. A trip by boat usually takes more than an hour, but can be quicker if the sea is ridiculously calm, as it is on this day in mid-July.
“We’re making great time,” Scott Pearson yells over the roar of twin outboard motors. “We almost never get conditions like this.” Pearson, a biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, is piloting his research boat, his hand resting on the wheel as we fly over flat water. He is in his mid-50s, with a short but thick thatch of salt-and-pepper hair and a prow of jaw. Standing next to him is Tom Good, a biologist from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Good is much like Pearson, except a little younger and a little taller, with a little less hair, and he wears glasses.
As seabird biologists, both Pearson and Good have a professional habit of noting almost every bird they pass. Most so far have been common murres, elegant and stately in their black-and-white plumage, but then Pearson gestures to his left. “There’s a rhino,” he says. In front of us, a dull gray bird is frantically paddling out of our path. When we close on it, it flicks its wings and dives, vanishing in a watery ruffle.
“Nice,” Good says.
Pearson and Good have studied the rhinoceros auklet since 2005. They are drawn to it in part for its role as a marine bellwether. Passing through the heart of its range is the California Current, a great conveyer of ocean water that runs more than 1,800 miles from British Columbia down to Baja California, and can extend more than 300 miles offshore. Oceanographers classify it as an eastern boundary current in that it is found at the eastern edge of a large ocean basin, in this case the North Pacific. Globally, eastern boundary currents are characterized by what is called coastal upwelling, in which seasonal winds haul cold, deep waters rich in organic nutrients to the surface during the spring and summer. The nutrients promote the growth of phytoplankton, which in turn form the basis of a diverse marine food web.
As a feature of the Pacific, the California Current supports such a teeming quantity of life that it has been called the American Serengeti. But the current, and the North Pacific more generally, have both been behaving strangely of late, with delays in upwelling, and warmer sea surface temperatures that have lasted longer than anyone could predict. What these changes mean for the marine ecosystem is unclear. Are they anomalous one-offs? A sign of things to come? This is what Pearson and Good hope to get from their look into the life of the rhinoceros auklet: a murky glimpse into an even murkier future.
“There’s Destruction,” Pearson says, and through the haze I see a slab of land emerge from the horizon. I had read earlier that its name comes from not one but two slaughters, when, in the late 1700s, Quinault Indians killed first a landing party of Spanish soldiers, and then a group of British sailors 12 years later. The Spanish named the island Isla de Dolores, or the Island of Sorrows; the British would adapt that to Destruction Island.
European colonizers may not have fared so well, at least initially, but auklets have thrived there, along with a variety of other marine birds flying about its airspace as we approach. For me, though, the island’s most notable feature is the lighthouse that towers from its northward bluffs. Built in 1888, it once guided sailors through these tricky shoals to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The US Coast Guard turned the light off for good in 2008, but that it is now dark changes neither the island’s function nor its significance: This is a place people look to to show them the way.
Pearson steers into a narrow cove, and he and Good secure the boat to the surrounding rocks. We offload gear and food and make camp on a small beach. Marine debris litters the cobble, tossed there by winter storms: foam floats, inflatable buoys, the odd packing crate. The tide is low, the rocks and their thick carpet of algae exposed.
“Want to see some auklets?” Pearson asks.
“Yes, please,” I say.
Pearson and Good make for the hill behind our tents. Destruction Island is not tall – perhaps 100 feet from the sea to its tabular top – but it is hard to get around. Its sides are abrupt and steep, and the dirt friable. Where there is grass, it is brown and dry and slick underfoot. The climb is slow, with some desperate graspings of willow limbs reluctant to hold my weight. But the slope is stippled with rhinoceros auklet burrows; more than six thousand pairs nest on the island as a whole. The entrances are small, perhaps a foot in diameter, but the burrows themselves might be up to six feet deep. Adults dig them with their bills and feet when they arrive in the spring, before females lay a single egg in early May.
Pearson picks his way up loose, yielding dirt, through what he calls the catacombs. “Be careful not to step above the entrances,” he says. “You don’t want to punch through.” He finds a burrow marked with a small metal tag, settles next to it, and puts on a visor connected to a long cable with an infrared camera at the end. He drapes a T-shirt over his head to block out the ambient light and snakes the cable down the burrow, as if giving the island a colonoscopy.
As he maneuvers the camera, he explains that auklet burrows have tricky layouts. They might twist and turn, or have more than one tunnel, forking to more than one possible nesting chamber. But he has been probing burrows for years, and has a feel for their topography. After a few minutes he has guided the camera to the correct chamber and can call out his codes: DC if there is a downy chick, PFC for a partially feathered chick, MFC for a mostly feathered chick. This being the third visit of the season, the chicks are older, and so mostly PFCs or MFCs.
I ask if the chicks are at risk of getting eaten, stashed in the earth as they are. “Not on Destruction,” Pearson says. “If the chicks die of anything, it will be starvation.” He probes one burrow, scrambles up the hill, probes another. “Ah, here’s a good one,” he says. “Want to take a look?” He hands me the visor. It takes a moment to make sense of what I see. The image is askew, branches and twigs occluding the right third of it. But behind the detritus is a soft, gray shape: a pile of down, out of which sticks a small black bill. The chick shifts and turns its head towards the camera, its eye flaring white in the infrared light.
“Does it know we’re looking at it?” I ask.
Pearson shakes his head. “It can hear something’s in the burrow but it can’t see the camera,” he says, and I am reminded that the chick hatched in darkness and so has known only darkness all its life, having never ventured outside.
The chick was alone because its parents were off at sea. Pumping their stubby wings, rhinoceros auklets can dive up to 200 feet deep for their food, but usually stay within 30 feet of the surface. They sometimes hunt in little groups, blowing bubbles around schools of forage fish to herd them into bait balls. Individuals then zip through to snap up prey. They return to their burrows at night, their catch borne crosswise in their bills.
That catch is what interests Good. It is a little after 9:30 p.m., and we are crouched on the hillside above camp, hidden among the willows. We wait for auklets, which are themselves waiting for the sky to darken so they can fly in without getting eaten by the island’s waiting bald eagles. When the auklets do come, Good and I will grab a few of their bill-loads so he can identify which fish the parents are bringing their offspring.
Auklets eat what the seas give them, and this can vary in space and time. The colony at Destruction Island, for example, subsists mostly on the northern anchovy. At Tatoosh, an island 50 miles to the north off the tip of the Olympic Peninsula, the diet is more flexible: Some years auklets will catch mostly sand lance, other years, anchovy. Seventy miles east of Tatoosh, at Protection Island, they reliably depend on sand lance. These differences reflect the surroundings: The California Current feeds Destruction birds, the Salish Sea feeds Protection birds, and Tatoosh birds, sitting between Destruction and Protection, get a little from both waters. But within that natural variability lurk subtle signs of larger upheavals. Last year, the colony at Protection Island, which is by far the largest of the three, fledged significantly fewer chicks than it does in an average year. Pearson, Good, and Peter Hodum, their colleague from the University of Puget Sound, found that while the auklets were bringing back more fish numerically, the total bill-loads weighed less. “These results,” they would write, “suggest a significant perturbation to the availability of forage fish in the region during the 2016 breeding season.”
The sky darkens. A few minutes later there is a heavy whirrrr of flapping overhead. “Here they come!” Pearson calls out from the beach below. “One just went right past you!” Another whirrrr, another, and one more, nearer this time. The auklets sound like tiny helicopters trying to land, although to say “land” might give them too much credit. Branches snap! as they slam into the shrubs and fight through them before tumbling to the ground.
Now I listen to the faint scritch as one climbs to its burrow. When the bird sounds close, I turn on my headlamp, catching it in the beam. It freezes at my feet, shocked and erect. Four fish dangle from its bill. Before it can react, I put my hand over its back and wings and pin it to the ground. It drops its fish so it can chomp on my thumb. The bite doesn’t hurt much, but then the auklet scratches me with its toe claws, and this is considerably more effective.
“Ow!” I cry, and yank my hand away. The auklet leaps at my headlamp, which it thinks is the moon, which means the safety of open sky. It smacks into my face instead, scrabbles over my back, and scampers away into the dark.
I shakily put all the fish in a plastic baggie: an anchovy, a couple of sand lance, and a larger fish that might be a juvenile salmon. Then I turn off my headlamp to wait for the next auklet.
A couple of hours later, Good and I have bagged the bill-loads from ten auklets. Back at my tent, I burrow into my sleeping bag. I had looked forward to falling asleep to the restful throb of the sea, but the auklets are not so accommodating. All night they thrash through the willows, or stand outside their burrows and call to one another. Their song, if that is the word I want, is a low, toneless moan that Pearson likens to a mooing cow: Waa-Waaaaaa-Waa. I lie awake for hours, alternately enraptured and annoyed by the ceaseless chorusing of besotted auklets.
Rhinoceros auklets don’t often come within sight of the mainland, but I had encountered one before I went to Destruction Island. It was less than a year ago, on a beach along Washington’s outer coast. I was walking late one afternoon when I saw, trussed in strands of seaweed, a bedraggled gray body. Closer, I could make out the withered white plumes across the brows and cheeks, the shriveled horn on the bill: a rhinoceros auklet.
I didn’t know so at the time, but the dead auklet was one of hundreds washing ashore in the area in 2016; thousands are estimated to have died by the end of the mortality event. Biologists are still puzzling out what happened, but they suspect a combination of starvation and illness is to blame, with food-stressed birds succumbing to a viral infection. “These things can be hard to get to the bottom of,” Pearson says. “Sometimes the ocean speaks with many voices.”
That die-off was just the latest in a series for seabirds over the past decade or more. In 2005, thousands of common murres and Brandt’s cormorants died along the west coast of North America, and other species experienced reproductive failure; biologists eventually learned that seasonal upwelling was delayed for months. In 2006, thousands of rhinoceros auklets starved and washed up on the Oregon coast. In 2010, a massive algal bloom off the Washington coast killed tens of thousands of scoters, a type of sea duck. Beginning in October of 2014, as many as 500,000 Cassin’s auklets died between central British Columbia and Monterey Bay, California, over the course of just a few months, representing up to 10 percent of the global population; they, too, had starved. The next year, common murres again died en masse, again all the way from California to the Alaskan coast, again of starvation.
Biologists have never seen such waves of death, with one about every six months since 2014, but these are superlative times for the North Pacific as a whole. Annual temperature anomalies, when sea surface temperatures are unusually high, have become more frequent; each year, it seems, threatens to be hotter than the last. The most spectacular instance came in 2013, when a huge mass of warm water appeared in the Gulf of Alaska, held in place by a persistent atmospheric high-pressure system. The mass would eventually spread to cover most of the west coast of North America. At its peak, it covered an area of more than 3.5 million square miles; an oceanographer at the University of Washington would dub it The Blob. In places, sea surface temperatures were nearly 7° Fahrenheit warmer than the average.
When water warms that much, marine productivity plummets. The forage fish that birds and other animals depend on are nowhere to be found. Whether such events are due solely to climate change, or fall along some extreme end of the continuum of natural variation, or result from some interplay between the two is not yet known, but for seabirds, the question seems largely academic. One of Pearson’s colleagues at the University of Washington recently looked at the relationship between large die-offs and sea surface temperatures. As one goes up, so does the other, almost in lockstep. “The relationship he’s finding is pretty tight,” Pearson says, “and it’s the auks and auklets that are taking it in the pants.”
Now, on Destruction Island, I think back to the dead auklet and its many, many dead conspecifics. They died in the middle of their range, where they live year-round. They stay here with an expectation of a reliable supply of food. It is a relationship biologically cultivated between bird and place over time. But in this the rhinoceros auklet marks the edge of one of many circles. The Pacific warms a degree or two or three, or stops circulating like it used to for a few months, or is otherwise affected in some way, and hundreds of thousands of animals die or are displaced.
I am lying on the beach outside my tent. It is after 9 p.m. on the night before we are to leave; Pearson and Good have already turned in. The sky is dim, but not yet dark enough for the auklets’ taste, so I wait for them.
The gulls wail, the sea pounds on Destruction. It strikes me that these are pleasant, familiar sounds in this increasingly unfamiliar world. Comforting truisms collapse: that the seas are productive; that the seas support life. These may still be accurate in a way, but not like they used to be. No one knows what to expect, other than that we will see things we have never seen before.
Then a whoosh, that whirring of wings: the first auklet. It is gone before I get a good look at it, a blurred shape too fast for my slow eyes, but I am ready for the second bird that flies in half a minute later, ready as it streaks in low and quick, too quick, it seems, to control its body, for it splays its webbed feet to steer and brake. It swoops upward a foot or two above the willows, and then stalls in the air and drops like a stone, and I hear its thrashing progress through the bushes.
Another auklet flies in, and another, and then another. They are coming steadily now, one by one, or sometimes in little groups of four or five. They zip over the rocks and water like little winged potatoes, trace tight curves, the air ripping across their bodies as they scatter towards this or that part of the hillside, where their chicks wait to be fed.
I work myself deeper into the rocks. The calls are starting: Waa-Waaaaaa-Waa. The sun is gone, the wind rises, the clouds gather. I can barely see now, and still the auklets hurtle in, whirl over my head, gray as the uncertain sea, as the still darkening sky.