Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Ides of March

Harlequin Duck courtship flock (c) John Ashley
A courtship flock (6 males 1 female) of Harlequin Ducks flies over the Straights of Georgia in British Columbia
March, 44 B.C.

Roughly two thousand years ago, a soothsayer warned the Roman Emperor to beware the ides, or middle days, of March. While travelling to the Theatre of Pompey in mid-March, the soon-to-be-assassinated Julius Caesar joked that, "The ides of March have come," and the emperor was still very much alive. He dismissed the ominous warning. The soothsayer looked him in the eye and replied, "Aye, Caesar, but not gone."

March, 25 years ago.

In mid-March, the Exxon Valdez lay bleeding on Bligh Reef. The ship's radar had been disabled more than a year earlier, dismissed as unneeded and too expensive to repair. A disputed 11 or maybe 32 million gallons of poisonous crude oil slowly smothered 1,300 miles of wild Alaskan coastline and 11,000 square miles of Prince William Sound. Many of the local fishermen began a slow, painful trek towards bankruptcy, divorce, depression. The mayor of Cordova committed suicide. Soon, 22 orcas, 247 Bald Eagles, 2,800 sea otters and more than 250,000 seabirds would also pass.

March, 15 years ago.

Ten years after Valdez, I'm crouching over white-washed stones on a wilderness beach in Prince William Sound on a perfectly calm, blue-sky morning. Unusual weather for these parts. Prying at the wet rocks just above tide line, I'm looking for the greasy-blue sheen and gas-station stench that would allow me to damn an entire industry, again. But I don't find anything on the surface.

Aboard the Discovery in Prince William Sound
Nothing is where I expect it to be. No noticeable petrochemical residue or odor. But neither can I find any scampering crabs or little isopods or amphipods hiding in the rocks. I scan across what looks like a pretty little beach but, down on hands and knees, it appears to be perfectly sterile. I splash back into a Zodiac with four other biologists and motor back to the Discovery, our research ship and temporary home. Time to get back to work.

We didn't come all this way to go beach combing. We're spending a week here in the Sound catching seaducks in open waters - Surf Scoters mostly, but also Harlequin Ducks. Every evening, a lady bush pilot deftly drops her seaplane into the salty water and idles up alongside our ship. We pass the Scoters over to her in pet crates, on their way to research facilities at the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward and a date with a veterinarian. Some of them will soon carry transmitters that will feed Scoter migration secrets up to a satellite, then down to a cluttered computer screen back in Anchorage, manned by two USGS biologists. Good guys, the kind of people who want to do the right thing.

But for now, we're spending our nights tied off to the dock in Cordova harbor. Some evenings we walk uphill to the local pub for a greasy dinner and maybe a game of table-top hockey on a beautiful, sawdust-covered, maple table that runs almost the length of the bar. I'm afraid to try too hard against a big, burly local fellow. Who knows, he might be a depressed former fishermen. But to my amazement, he turns out to be surprisingly good-natured - and adaptable.

The researchers are flexible, too, and half of this crew is also monitoring these Harlequins. In the immediate aftermath of the spill, an estimated 1,044 to 1,838 Harlequin Ducks died in western Prince William Sound, coated in oil. Much of the oil would eventually pile up in the intertidal zone, where any surviving ducks would do most of their feeding - eating those crabs and critters that used to live there, and gorging on fish eggs that used to appear in spring.

Washed up herring in British Columbia
Every spring in Prince William Sound, and all up and down the north Pacific coast, the Harlequins congregate on localized herring spawns, eating fish eggs and putting on weight in preparation for migration and nesting. In this Sound, these herring used to account for half the annual commercial catch by Alaska fishermen. But while some of the larger fish species eventually rebounded, the small herring have never recovered.

Fortunately, the population of Harlequin Ducks in the western, oiled, half of Prince William Sound may have finally stabilized. But female survival is relatively low (compared to Harlequins in the un-oiled, eastern half), and there hasn't been any real population increase. There are places where Valdez oil still persists, hidden under six inches of intertidal sediments, and Harlequin Ducks continue to be exposed to the hydrocarbons through the food chain. Of course, pro-industry research claims otherwise. But according to my biologist friends - the ones actually out there on the Sound - oil exposure rates are slowly declining and the outlook for Harlequins here is "good." It's a start, anyway.

Herring roe at Cape Lazo (c) John Ashley
Herring roe on Cape Lazo, Hornby Island visible in the distant haze  
March, 2014.

Another beach, this one about 1,100 miles south and east. I've seen a lot of herring spawn over the years, but never like this pile. Squishing and squeaking under my boots is almost 12" of fish eggs piled up by the waves at Cape Lazo, a rocky point halfway up the east coast of Vancouver Island. But the spawn is two weeks old and this is just a small remnant.

Most of this 2014 spawn event took place further south, along select beaches of the two large islands that I can just see through the morning haze. I've been drawn to Denman and Hornby Islands since the early 1990's to watch Harlequins, who for countless generations have congregated to feed on this local herring spawn.

This is where most of our "Rocky Mountain Harlequins" live for the other 7-12 months each year. The Straights of Georgia (its official name) contains the protected waters between Vancouver Island and mainland British Columbia. Ducks from wintering areas northward and as far south as coastal Washington are drawn here each March, fattening up on fish eggs before flying eastward to nest on streams in British Columbia, Alberta and Montana.

For the past three summers, biologist friends in Glacier National Park have been catching and marking Harlequins with blue leg bands. Every band has a unique two-digit code, a way to identify and follow individual ducks over many years. When I was banding back in the 1990's, I managed to find more than a dozen of the banded Glacier Park Harlequins here on these islands during the herring spawn. I had high hopes for 2014.

But among tens of thousands of seabirds gathered for the spawn, I only found two blue-banded Harlequins. Unfortunately, they were both old guys from earlier projects. At the peak of the herring spawn, I couldn't find any of the 138 recently-banded Montana Harlequins. Where were they? I don't know. Did they come to feast on the spawn? Don't know for sure. Maybe I just missed them, but it appeared unlikely.

Harlequin Duck (c) John Ashley
Collecting a Harlequin back feather in Glacier Park
After we returned from the coast, I received another bit of confounding information. The Glacier researchers had clipped part of one small back feather from each Harlequin captured, and chemically analyzed these feathers for stress hormones. These were body feathers that were entirely grown on salt water, in the Straights of Georgia.

Four hundred miles east, on McDonald Creek, the female Harlequins that did not nest had, as a group, "significantly higher levels" of stress hormone (corticosterone) in their bloodstream during the 3-4 weeks that these feathers were grown, as compared to the nesting females.

In other words, it looks like something that is stressing Harlequins on their salt water wintering areas is also affecting their reproduction in the relative sanctuary of Glacier National Park - and possibly affecting Harlequin reproduction across Montana, Alberta and British Columbia.

These data are still being analyzed and will soon be reported to the rest of the world. For now, I can't help but think that it's an ominous sign. Could the source of stress be pollution, disturbance, food? I don't know. No one knows. I wonder about next March - and feel a knot twisting inside.

The work continues.

Harlequin Duck flock at Hornby Island (c) John Ashley
Harlequin Ducks await the falling tide to feed on herring spawn on exposed rocks. Hornby Island, March 2014.