Researchers Track Boobies for Climate Change Data The wooded islands of the Palmyra Atoll support a variety of seabird colonies. Scientists track the birds to learn more about their feeding habits and how they might be reacting to changes in climate.

Researchers Track Boobies for Climate Change Data

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This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick in our studios at NPR West.


And I'm Madeleine Brand at the Qualcomm Stadium evacuation center in San Diego.

More coverage on the fires and an interview with Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff coming up. But first this.

CHADWICK: It's our series with National Geographic, Climate Connections. The coming changes could be the end of a site that's become important to study climate: a tiny tropical atoll in the middle of the Pacific.

Palmyra is like a tiny laboratory to study the natural world. It's almost in the center of the ocean. It's never really been inhabited. It's a haven for marine life and for Pacific birds.

(Soundbite of birds screeching)

CHADWICK: Palmyra still has small forests and hundreds of thousands of birds nest here. They're migratory throughout the Pacific, but they nest here. And that brings the researchers.

Mr. SCOTT SHAFFER (University of California, Santa Cruz): You see it, Hillary?

Ms. HILLARY YOUNG (Doctoral Student, Stanford University): Not yet.

CHADWICK: Scott Shaffer and Hillary Young are looking for a large bird with an inelegant name: the boobie.

Mr. SHAFFER: They're sort of awkward.

CHADWICK: Scott, an ornithologist from UC Santa Cruz.

Mr. SHAFFER: And they make these funny displays when they're displaying to their mate, and I think that sort of how they got their name, the boobie bird.

CHADWICK: He is after a particular boobie carrying a tiny GPS recorder, a satellite navigation unit, sort of like in a car, but this one weighs less than one ounce. Taped to bird tail-feathers, it can gather data that you just cannot get otherwise.

Ms. YOUNG: Where are they feeding and what they're feeding and how much they're bringing onto shore.

CHADWICK: Hillary Young is a grad student at Stanford.

Boobies make excellent GPS subjects. They are devoted to each other - male and female - one sits with the young, the other flies off for a day or so to hunt for fish or squid. But they always return to the nest. Stick a thousand dollars of electronics on a boobie, you know you can get it back. All you have to do is find the nest again and you can recapture that bird. Of course, nothing is really that easy.

Mr. SHAFFER: You're going to get birds defecating on you, regurgitating on you, lots of nasty smells sometimes, but that's the nature of the business.

CHADWICK: The boobies like the shore area on the west end of the atoll. It is a long hike at night; the puny light from our head lamps is swallowed by the rain. By the time we get there, it's raining harder.

Scott and Hillary put down a tarp and they sort through gear. From a branch a little above us, a boobie watches with cold disdain.

(Soundbite of bird screeching)

Mr. SHAFFER: What I'm trying to do now is just to make sure the noose is open.

CHADWICK: Scott is working one end of a lightweight telescoping fish rod that can extend almost 20 feet. Instead of a hook, it's got a monofilament snare.

Mr. SHAFFER: So it's really ideal for this kind of work because it's small, folds up light, and it's strong enough to hold these birds.

CHADWICK: Strong enough? They're birds, but big birds. Adult boobies are two and a half feet tall, they weigh a couple of pounds or more, and they are very territorial.

Scott raises the pole overhead, both arms. He peers up, gauging the reach. But in the night and the downpour, it's hard to see.

(Soundbite of rain)

Ms. YOUNG: We'll be trying to get that noose around the bird's neck and then he'll pull the bird off, up off the neck, on the ground, and the noose doesn't actually seem - it's a really light noose, it's got a really heavy fishing wire. It doesn't hurt them at all.

CHADWICK: The boobie doesn't look scared, it's more like annoyed. It could easily fly away. It doesn't. It will not leave the nest.

(Soundbite of bird screeching)

CHADWICK: Finally, Scott's got it, the line snug at the bird's neck. And now, well, he jigs up on the rod, but nothing. The boobie has its talons in a death grip on the branch. Again, harder, and again, the rod bows, boobie throat stretches like a cartoon. It is man against bird in the dark and the deluge. Until at last the boobie releases. In a moment, he's down.

Mr. SHAFFER: Okay. And now we'll just take him back and do a quick weigh on him and take the tag off.

CHADWICK: They are gentle with the bird now, calm and quick.

I saw you with those gloves on that bird...

Mr. SHAFFER: They got a pretty good...

CHADWICK: He glommed onto your thumb there.

Mr. SHAFFER: Yeah...

CHADWICK: And then you took your gloves off to remove the snare, and I thought to myself, he must get badly bitten very often.

Mr. SHAFFER: I haven't been bitten by these guys very bad, but I, other birds species, yeah, albatrosses and petrels. And they have a hooked bill, so they get you pretty good.

(Soundbite of bird screeching)

CHADWICK: They're done. They got the GPS back. They set the bird down on the sand at the shoreline. He waddles off a few feet in the shallows and stands glaring at us.

Mr. SHAFFER: Obviously they're a bit disoriented and...

CHADWICK: There he is, there he is, flapping to the nest, and you know that sounds good to me. It's 11:00 o'clock now, it's late. I begin leading producer Steve Proffitt on the long slosh back toward camp. And in the rain and the dark, I miss the trail.

STEVE PROFFITT: How about that swell Pacific atoll vacation across the...

CHADWICK: Ah, yeah. Hmmm.

Scott and Hillary stayed out hours longer, more nests, more tags to collect. On those tags is the data. Where do the birds go to feed? Where are their fish-crazed schooling around Palmyra? How far?

(Soundbite of bird screeching)

CHADWICK: Bird data, eco-data, it's all baseline data for now, describing this atoll unlike any other, a place to study climate change that may not survive climate change.

(Soundbite of bird screeching)

CHADWICK: The highest point of land on Palmyra is seven feet. The ocean doesn't have to rise much or the storms get a lot more powerful. It will be gone. And then what for the birds?

Mr. SHAFFER: If you look at where, traditionally, all these tropical seabirds are breeding, they're breeding in a lot of these very low-lying atolls, and as sea levels start to rise, the habitat is going to shrink.

CHADWICK: Scot Shaffer and Hillary Young, bird researchers working a rainy night on Palmyra Atoll in the middle of the deep Pacific.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: And there's video of the bird researchers plus lots of pictures of Palmyra at Try searching Palmyra, P-A-L-M-Y-R-A.

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