Researchers in Palmyra Atoll catch birds and place GPS transmitters on them, allowing scientists to track the birds' movements. Credit: Video by Mark Shwartz, Stanford News Service/Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford
Palmyra Atoll, a lagoon surrounded by coral reefs in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, is a tiny isolated laboratory for studying the natural world — including various types of Pacific birds.
Bird and eco-data are baseline information that describes this unique, uninhabited area that is protected from humans. It is a place unlike any other to study climate change — and one that may not survive it.
Palmyra has small forests that are home to hundreds of thousands of birds. They're migratory throughout the Pacific, but they nest here. And that brings the researchers.
Among them are scientist Scott Shaffer, an ornithologist from University of California at Santa Cruz, and Stanford University doctoral student Hillary Young. They are looking for a large bird with an inelegant name: the boobie.
The researchers have outfitted a particular boobie with a tiny GPS recorder, a satellite navigation unit similar to the mapping systems in cars — but this one weighs less than one ounce. Taped to bird tail-feathers, the GPS gathers data that is difficult to get otherwise.
Boobies as Research Subjects
Boobies make excellent subjects. They are devoted to each other — of a male and female pair, one sits with the young and the other flies off for a day or so to hunt for fish or squid. But they always return to the nest.
Stick $1,000 of electronics on a boobie, and you know you can get it back. All researchers have to do is find the nest again and they can recapture that bird. Of course, nothing is really that easy, as Shaffer explains.
"You're going to get birds defecating on you; you're going to get birds regurgitating on you; lots of nasty smells sometimes. But that's the nature of the business," Shaffer says.
The boobies like the shore area on the west end of the atoll. It's a long hike to reach the nesting area, and the scientists often travel at night. On this particular trip out, the puny light from their head lamps is swallowed by the rain. By the time the research team arrives at the nest site, it's raining harder.
Shaffer puts down a tarp and sorts gear. A boobie watches with cold disdain from a branch above.
Shaffer works one end of a lightweight, telescoping fish rod that can extend almost 20 feet. Instead of a hook, it has a monofilament snare. Young explains that the noose is strong enough to hold the bird and lift it off the tree without hurting it.
Adult brown boobies are 2 1/2 feet tall and weigh a couple of pounds or more. They are very territorial.
It's Tough to Trap a Boobie
In an effort to capture the bird, Shaffer raises the pole overhead, using both arms. He peers up, gauging the reach. But it's hard to see because it's dark and rainy.
The boobie doesn't look scared, just annoyed. It could easily fly away, but it doesn't. It instinctively wants to protect its nest.
After the line is snug at the bird's neck, Shaffer pulls up on the rod, but nothing happens. The boobie's talons maintain a death grip on the branch. Eventually, the boobie surrenders and, in a moment, it is down.
The scientists are gentle with the bird, moving calmly and quickly. They weigh the boobie and attach the tag to its tail feathers. Shaffer has taken off his gloves, even though the bird has a sharp beak. But Shaffer says they don't really bite, not very hard, anyway.
"But other species, like albatrosses and petrels, have a hooked bill, so they get you pretty good," he says.
The researchers finish removing the GPS system. They set the bird down on sand at the shoreline. It waddles off a few feet in the shallows and stands glaring at us before flying to its nest.
Shaffer and Young continue their work, well into the early morning hours. They have more nests to reach — and more tags to collect. The data from the GPS tags, along with the samples they collect, will help answer their questions: Where do the birds go to feed? How far do they fly? What do they eat?
Rising Oceans Could Destroy Palmyra's Bird Population
The highest point of land on Palmyra is seven feet. The ocean doesn't have to rise very much to wash over it. And that will not be good for the birds.
"If you look at where all these tropical seabirds are breeding," Shaffer says, "it's on low-lying areas, atolls. And as sea levels start to rise, the habitats for these birds will shrink."