Praia, Paradise, & Petrel Poop

We are excited to welcome Alyssa J. Sargent to the blog today. Alyssa is a PhD student at the University of Washington studying tropical hummingbird ecology. For more about Alyssa, see the end of this post.

When seabirds colonize a tiny island, they truly reign. Humans no longer have the last word on dominance—at best, we are tolerated from a safe distance; at worst, we are considered threats most sensibly handled by mobbing.

As tiny islands go, Praia Islet fits the bill: a mere 0.039 square miles, it is a snippet of the Azores, a Portuguese island chain in the middle of the Atlantic. What’s more, it is a hub of ornithological research, positively inundated by birds.

Praia Islet! Teeny-tiny.

During the day, the common tern is king. When I worked on Praia, there were certain sections of the island that our field crew dared not disturb, for fear of either reprisal or treading on a nest. If we waded through the waist-high grasses close to the tern colony, the birds rose into the air in a great white wave, circling overhead; their shrill, burry calls rang and rattled in our ears, and every few seconds a particularly brave or irritable tern would dive toward us, swooping inches from our heads. Their nests, which resembled flattened divots in the golden-green stems, were tightly-spaced—a crammed neighborhood for new families, with no vacancies. If we were lucky, we could catch a glimpse of a fluffy nestling or two, miniscule punks with spiky feathered heads. If we were unlucky, we got parting gifts—delivered directly onto our heads. And after speedily escorting us off the premises, several terns would trail us for a time, like a multi-bodied kite suspicious of our intentions.

From a respectful distance, we could observe the terns wheeling over the sapphire Atlantic, plunging into the water. They often emerged victorious, beak clamped down on a silvery fish; equally often, a rival would attempt to snatch the victor’s hard-earned spoils in midair. We would see these fish strewn across the well-worn trail, vestiges of past battles and unsuccessful thieveries.

When the sun began to drop, drenching the ocean creases in pink and lilac, a changing of the guard soon followed. The terns settled quietly into the grasses for the night, and a steady stream of newcomers arrived: burly shearwaters—Cory’s and little—and their much daintier relatives, Monteiro’s storm-petrels. Fresh from foraging expeditions, these birds trumpeted their arrival, until the darkening sky was awash with darting shadows and a cacophony of calls.

A little shearwater nestling! Pure fluff.
Sunset in the Azores.

Any one of these small storm-petrels could have traveled over 300 miles in one foraging trip. You’d expect them to collapse in exhaustion, but these birds meant business. They returned to land for all things breeding: to find a mate, choose a nest burrow, incubate their eggs, or feed their nestlings. Deep into the night, while the Milky Way glittered overhead and the moon bathed the island and surrounding waters in silver, their silhouettes darted erratically through the air like bats. Above the distant sound of the waves, we could hear them squeakily calling to one another.

The Monteiro’s storm-petrel is endemic to the Azores. This fact, combined with their mostly-uncharted foraging patterns, nocturnal habits, and affinity for nesting in burrows, makes them a tricky study subject. But what’s science without a challenge?

It was with the goal of cracking such mysteries that I joined a research team studying these petrels—which we affectionately dubbed “stormies”—in the Azores. We camped out on Praia, a scrap of land off the shore of Graciosa, one of the smaller islands in the chain. We were the sole inhabitants; the islet had a single, cramped building with no electricity or running water—and quite a few cracks in the roof, which the rain was fond of worrying its way through. Our bunkmates were omnipresent Madeiran wall lizards, which dispersed in a scrabbling frenzy when we passed them, and flies that hung sleepily in the air with no apparent destination. Occasionally a bemused shearwater would wander its way inside. Once a pair of enterprising terns, in the market for real estate, snuggled their nest among the shingles of our battered roof.

Pure fluff, miniaturized: a Monteiro’s storm-petrel nestling.

It was, as we put it, “rustic”. But this suited our purposes well. We had the run of the islet—that is, the sections not ruled by terns—and there were plenty of opportunities to study the stormies. Monteiro’s are handsome little seabirds, the dark gray of thunderclouds and smelling strangely of wax. In order to disentangle their enigmas, we used many instruments familiar to field ornithologists: mist nets to catch birds on the wing, bands to individuate each bird, camera traps nestled into burrows to see the petrels’ hidden activity, GPS tags to track their odysseys out to sea, and other tools like acoustic playback and diet analysis.

Measuring a little shearwater nestling to gauge how much it’s grown!

Of course, diet analysis is a euphemism for what, in the field, amounts to collecting bird poop. And oh, was there bird poop. That might not be the first thing that comes to mind when imagining these fluffy little birds, but it’s no small detail—it stippled the rocks in a layered mosaic and graffitied our clothes. Every time we handled a bird, we—and our trousers—were at risk.

Things weren’t glamorous, but Praia was its own sort of paradise. Yes, we were crammed into a building with three times as many people as rooms. Yes, we got mobbed by terns, and yes, we got pooped on. Habitually. As is always the case in the field, we hit snags. But there was unmistakable beauty in the windswept grasses tangled with wildflowers and the iridescent, crumpled ocean surface; there was the thrill of witnessing a mother and father stormy reunite at their burrow through the feed of a miniscule camera, and of cupping one of these small birds between our fingers—his powerful wings folded crisply against skin, his tiny heart playing a tangible staccato, and his dark eyes shining with intelligence. Finding magic in these moments is at the heart of fieldwork. That, and being okay with a little bird poop.

I’m a field ornithologist by trade. During my PhD, I intend to study tropical hummingbird ecology, and leverage advanced technology to answer previously inaccessible questions about these tiny gems. With this information, I hope to contribute to conservation efforts by increasing knowledge and fostering local engagement. I believe that sharing science with others is incredibly important, and that writing is a particularly effective medium to do so!  

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s