Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Egg Hunt -- Black Guillemots

Time is passing quickly on the island, and everyone is rushing to complete their research before we all head home.  Luckily, people are all willing to pitch in and help with collect data, especially if it involves a trip to the next island over and a hunt for black guillemot nests.

Black guillemots on Kent Island.
Guillemots (Cepphus grylle) are rather charming little seabirds, not too distantly related to puffins.  These little guys are black and white, with rather striking red feet and mouths (inside their beaks).  They forage along the shoreline, diving for up to two minutes at a time as they use their wings to push them through the water to hunt small fish and invertebrates.  Guillemots lay their eggs ashore, usually under boulders, but sometimes in piles of driftwood or simply in a crevice along the shore.  One of our students is studying the nesting behavior of these cute little birds, and last week a bunch of us went on an expedition to Sheep Island to search for eggs one afternoon.

Before we got started looking, Damon and I got a bit distracted.  A humpback whale washed up on the island last October, and I hadn't gotten a chance to see it yet.  This is a known humpback (they are identifiable from the markings on their tails, which are photographed and cataloged), who was called "Harmonic".  In the cool northern climate, it takes quite a while for a whale to decompose, so here he was more than half a year later, still looking quite intact, although some baleen had been washed further along shore.

Harmonic, decomposing on shore.  He's on his back with his ventral pleats visible in this photo.
A large section of baleen washed up in the bushes. The inside of the baleen, a rough hair-like tangle of keratin, can be seen here.  This is used to capture fish inside the mouth. 

Once we had a good look at the whale, we joined the students and got down to business.  Sheep Island's west side is boulder-strewn, so this was quite an Easter-egg hunt:

Ideal nesting habitat for black guillemots; loads of boulders to hide eggs under.

Any eggs under here?

What about here?

Success!  Two eggs sitting on the ground under this rock.

Collecting data after finding eggs.
Once we got into it, we found a bunch of nests -- too many to process in the time we had ashore.  The curse of success!
This egg was just sitting out in the open.  This is not a very good strategy -- crows and gulls love to eat eggs!

These two eggs (look carefully) were well hidden in a pile of rocks.

This little gal was sitting on her eggs, watching us with suspicion.

Another egg sitting out in the open.  Competition for nest sites must be keen, if some birds resort to this.

Close up of an egg that was preyed on.  The colors are amazing!

Hang on a second -- that's not a guillemot!  (We had to use caution to not step on hidden gull chicks.)

Damon getting the skiff, to take us back to Kent (and a hearty dinner!)

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