A Riot of Nesting Seabirds
In the series premier, BirdNote takes you to a summer home for seabirds — a place where kittiwakes, murres, auklets, and puffins gather by the thousands. Gerrit Vyn, a conservation media producer, describes the scene as "a cauldron of raucous bird sound." Scientists and Aleut locals share how the birds are faring in a changing climate, and we explore the importance of seabirds in island traditions.
Ari Daniel: Hey there, I’m Ari Daniel. And this is Threatened, a new show from BirdNote about answering the call to protect the birds and places we love. In this first episode, we visit a summer home -- for seabirds. A place where kittiwakes, murres, auklets, and puffins gather by the thousands. We’re going to talk with the people who study those birds, learn about how the seabirds are faring in a warming world, and their prominence in local traditions. Let’s get started.
Zoom too far out on the map, and you’ll miss them. A couple crumbs in the southeast Bering Sea, about 200 miles north of the Aleutian chain of Alaska. The Pribilof Islands. We’re heading for the largest one — St. Paul, about half the size of Baltimore. There’s one school where every kid on the island goes, a post office, a bar, a church, and on the southern peninsula, just outside of town, there’s a place known by the locals as the Reef.
Destiny Kushin: It’s green. The grass is definitely green. It’s overcast, no real sun. Kind of breezy. Water’s looking all right. I don’t know how to describe water.
Ari Daniel: On this cool summer afternoon, it’s basically silver water and cloud as far as the eye can see. And 16-year-old Destiny Kushin is wearing a black sweater, nestled in the grass at the top of a sheer 35, 40-foot rocky cliff…
Destiny Kushin: Just a drop, basically.
Zee Melovidov: I’m Destiny’s grandma. “Kooka” means “grandma” in Aleut. Born and raised here. And we’re sitting up on the cliff where the birds are.
Destiny Kushin: Yeah, birds are flying everywhere.
Zee Melovidov: You hear them chirping down there at the bottom. <sound of chirping>
Ari Daniel: Zinaida Melovidov — or Zee for short — is zipped into her pink and gray windbreaker. She’s referring to a riot of nesting seabirds clinging to the smallest of ledges along the cliff face. Red-legged and black-legged kittiwakes, cormorants, fulmars, and of course the murres — clean-cut birds with white breasts and bellies, and black heads, beaks, and backs. The murres pack themselves tightly on the cliff, nesting wingtip to wingtip. Destiny’s uncle, Ivan Melovidov, is also here.
Ivan Melovidov: You can smell the urine from the birds.
Destiny Kushin: It kind of stinks.
Ivan Melovidov: When they go fly out to get food, so they leave their eggs on there and they shit on them so that way they stay warm.
Destiny Kushin: Sorry.
Ivan Melovidov: Sorry, poop!
Ari Daniel: Talk like you want to talk, that’s fine.
Destiny Kushin: Doesn’t have a filter, yeah...
Ari Daniel: Ivan plays a special role on the island of St. Paul. Come mid-summer, he finds murre eggs tucked into the cliff face, and collects them the traditional way.
Destiny Kushin: My uncle goes down the cliff.
Ivan Melovidov: Yeah, when I go down, I have a line tied to me around my waist just wrapped once.
Ari Daniel: So it’s essentially just like a belt?
Ivan Melovidov: Yeah, pretty much.
Zee Melovidov: Like he’s working on a roof or something. Hanging like a monkey.
Ivan Melovidov: Spiderman! Yep, if you let go of that line, you turn upside down and you’re messed up.
Ari Daniel: That line is threaded through a metal ring secured to the top of the cliff. Several people hold on, anchoring the rope. Ivan’s brother, Anthony Kushin, is one of them.
Anthony Kushin: I am on the front edge of the cliff, listening for my brother’s command. And when I hear it, I tell about five to six other guys to pull or let line out.
Ari Daniel: So Ivan’s gotta call out really loud?
Anthony Kushin: He’s gotta call out really loud over the birds chirping and the waves crashing on the rocks.
Ivan Melovidov: When you go down the cliff, it’s warm, it’s hot cause there’s no wind down there. And that’s good for the birds and for their eggs.
Zee Melovidov: They’re doubled in size compared to store-bought eggs. They’re pretty colors, green with black specks.
Ari Daniel: Like mint chip ice cream.
Zee Melovidov: Right now, I think I have three murre eggs in my refrigerator. They’re still good. It looks more healthier than the ones we get from the store. These ones here, we get it right off the cliffs. They’re nice and fresh, clean.
Destiny Kushin: Yeah, I recently tried one raw this year and it was actually pretty good. I’ve made French toast, basically just baking. Anything that would need eggs you can substitute.
Zee Melovidov: I make apple fritters. You can use them to bake cakes. They made the best, fluffiest cakes.
Ari Daniel: And to collect these tasty eggs here on the cliff, Ivan’s job is something of an obstacle course. While rappelling down the cliff face, he has to dodge fulmars — gray and white seabirds known for projecting foul-smelling stomach oil at would-be predators with remarkable accuracy.
Ivan Melovidov: You gotta watch out for that. And I get a lot of it on my boots. You get that in your face, it’ll blind you.
Ari Daniel: Then there’s the danger of bits of the cliff giving way.
Ivan Melovidov: It’s real scary because we lost a lot of footage where the cliffs caved in.
Ari Daniel: Once Ivan’s in position, he maximizes how many eggs he can collect by running along the cliff face.
Ivan Melovidov: Instead of just going in one little spot and then you gotta hoist me up, let me down, hoist me up. But if I run along the cliff, I can collect the eggs and then can get a wider area. Just run and then grab an egg and then I’ll swing back again and brace myself. Put it in the bag and then run again and go get another egg.
Ari Daniel: Ivan tucks the eggs into a pouch stuffed with soft grasses and wildflowers.
Zee Melovidov: Yellow daisies, buttercups. They look like big sunflowers.
Ivan Melovidov: Once I get my pouch filled up as much as I could, or cleared the area out, I tell them ‘hoist me up’ and I just walk up the cliff.
Ari Daniel: Wow. How old were you when you learned how to do this?
Ivan Melovidov: Thirteen, less. Something like that. I was scared when I first went down. I wouldn’t let go of the line. And they’d pull me back up. And I was scared. I only have two, three eggs. Now I swing around and have fun down there.
Ari Daniel: This past summer, with just a few rappels, Ivan’s haul was about a hundred eggs. Which he and his family then distributed to anyone who asked for one.
Ivan Melovidov: Yup, it goes out to anybody on the island. I don’t care if I get any or not. We split it up.
Ari Daniel: His brother Anthony says this is a sustainable harvest.
Anthony Kushin: You only go out once and you pick from one area one time. So we only get the first batch. That way we have our returning birds for next year to do it as well.
Ari Daniel: No one’s examined the long-term survival impact of the harvest on the murres. These birds can re-lay a second egg if they lose their first. But that requires additional energy, and it lengthens the breeding season. Still, the tradition dates back more than two centuries. In the 1700s, the Aleut, or Unangan, ancestors of Destiny, Ivan, Anthony, and Zee were brought here by the Russians from the Aleutian Islands, against their will, and forced to hunt for fur seals. When a settlement was built in 1820, they were permanently uprooted from their home islands. Over time, they found ways to adapt to remote island life, including collecting and eating murre eggs. And it’s important to Zee and the others to continue this practice summer after summer.
Zee Melovidov: We learned lot of subsistence stuff from our parents and grandparents. They’re the ones that taught us how to go out and collect these murre eggs.
Ari Daniel: Not quite 50 miles south of where Zee and her family are standing is the slightly smaller island of St. George — another hunk of black volcanic rock covered in lush grass, moss, and wildflower blooms. There’s minimal human settlement here, and the cliffs tower a thousand feet above the churning sea.
Gerrit Vyn: There’s a place on St. George Island called the High Bluffs, which is kind of the epicenter of where the red legged kittiwakes and the murres all nest.
Ari Daniel: Gerrit is a conservation media producer with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
Gerrit Vyn: You have to hike for about two miles kinda going along this long, gradual uphill into the fog and clouds. And all of a sudden, you get to the place where the land just falls away and you edge nearer and nearer to the edge of this cliff. And you look down and it’s just like this cauldron of raucous bird sound and swirling murres and kittiwakes by the thousands, with thousands of nests of these cliff-nesting birds. And it just looks like a giant beehive. There’s close to two million birds nesting on St. George Island. There are very few places left in the world where you can experience that raw power and energy.
Ari Daniel: Similar to St. Paul, the island of St. George is kind of a who’s who of seabirds.
Gerrit Vyn: Common murres and thick-billed murres, which both nest on the island, are superficially similar to penguins. They stand upright on land. They have vocalizations that are loud and trumpeting. But they’re very uncomfortable and awkward on land. They spend almost their entire life at sea. They will fly out hundreds of miles into the ocean where fish are abundant. And some of these birds dive hundreds of feet below the surface. So on these sheerest of cliff faces, there’s lots of fractures and cracks and little ledges and little nooks and crannies. And they’ll sit and hatch this fuzzy, gray chick. The adults may go 200 miles away to collect fish and come back, flying in, finding their nest immediately, landing on the ledge and then regurgitating or carrying in their beak a bunch of small fish or squid, which they give to the chick until it’s ready to glide out and join the adults on the ocean. And then they’re pretty much swimming until they’re powerful enough to start hunting on their own, to fly, to migrate, and to move with the adults.
Kittiwakes, too, nest on these sheer cliffs, but they build a nest out of seaweed and grasses and things they’ve collected.
Ari Daniel: Kittiwakes defend their nests with a lot of vigor and noise.
Gerrit Vyn: Then you have the smallest bird on the island, which is the least auklet. It’s a very cool-looking little bird, black and white markings and a funky little red bill. They nest in these really dense colonies in these crevices in the earth, but they travel in these great flocks and they go out and they feed mostly on the surface on things like krill.
And then you’ve got other birds like the red-faced cormorant, which is endemic to the Bering Sea region. It’s a tall bird with a long neck, a red patch of bare facial skin. And they’re more nearshore fishers, which also specialize in fish.
Of course, you also have puffins, which are these black and white for the most part birds with very colorful big beaks. And one bird, the tufted puffin, has big long yellow feather streamers on its head, almost clown-like in appearance. And then horned puffins with a red and yellow beak and bright, red feet.
Ari Daniel: Every summer, this tremendous, diverse parade of seabirds flocks from across the North Pacific and Bering Sea, converging on the Pribilof Island oasis for two reasons — food and safety.
Gerrit Vyn: There’s an explosion of marine life and all these birds feed on that marine life and nest on these remote islands. It’s so safe from most predators and there’s so much food there that that’s the place on earth that’s best for them to raise their young. It’s basically the only time during the year where they really spend any time near land. Most of the time they’re far out in the open ocean, no land in sight.
Ari Daniel: Just bobbing at sea, in large flocks. When Gerrit Vyn first traveled to St. George in 2014, that’s when he witnessed those two million nesting seabirds, give or take an auklet. But when he returned the following year, the scene was startlingly different.
Gerrit Vyn: We’d walk along some of these cliff faces and they were just vacant, nothing there. It was just devoid of life, devoid of birds, or birds hanging out with no eggs. Just didn’t have the energy to breed. So from one year to the next and to basically see empty cliffs, it was just a drastic change.
Ari Daniel: Back on the island of St. Paul, Zee, Ivan, and Anthony have noticed similar shifts in the birds.
Zee Melovidov: They’re declining.
Ivan Melovidov: Yeah, big time. It changed quite a bit.
Anthony Kushin: There is a decline in red-legged kittiwakes here.
Ivan Melovidov: There was a lot of murres, but no eggs. And they were all pretty much skinny, so yeah, they’re probably not eating right.
Zee Melovidov: Change!
Ari Daniel: What do people think is the reason behind the changes you were just mentioning?
Zee Melovidov: Climate change. Seems like the world is turning upside down. And here we live on a remote island, we’re out in the middle of the Bering Sea. Just you look at the map, you look down the Aleutian chain, and we’re right there in the middle of the ocean. Two specks, and we’re getting warmer.
Ari Daniel: Remote, and yet connected to the rest of what’s going on.
Zee Melovidov: Yeah.
Ari Daniel: For decades, the temperature of the Bering Sea varied from year to year. One year it might be cold, the next it’d be warm, etc. But beginning in 2000, things switched, and the Bering Sea entered into these temperature stanzas. Several years in a row of warm conditions, followed by multiple cold years. Marc Romano is a wildlife biologist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and he works for the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge.
Marc Romano: Starting in 2014, the Bering Sea entered another warm stanza. And has produced the warmest temperatures on record and the most prolonged warm temperatures on record for the Bering Sea.
Ari Daniel: Historically, the Pribilof Islands have been at the southern edge of the advance of Arctic sea ice in the wintertime. And the sea ice — its extent and duration — influences the food chain in the Bering Sea that the seabirds rely on to breed.
Marc Romano: So in effect, the birds are tied to the sea ice. During this most recent warm stanza, the extent of sea ice in the Bering Sea has been quite limited, and in the extreme, we’ve had years where almost no sea ice made it into the southeast Bering Sea where the Pribilof islands are, which 20 years ago would have been unprecedented.
Zee Melovidov: Yeah, years ago, this island would be surrounded with ice pack. It’d be ice all around the island, all plugged. Nothing could come in. You never see the big ice packs anymore.
Anthony Kushin: It was about 2012, that’s when the ice pack came down, it’s the last time I seen it. Where the whole island was encapsulated in the ice pack.
Ivan Melovidov: We used to walk out on the ice to go hunting, quarter mile, half a mile out.
Ari Daniel: Now, the loss of ice more generally is contributing to a decline in polar bears in the Arctic and rising sea levels globally. But the impact that warming conditions and melting sea ice are having on the seabirds, says Marc Romano, is also severe.
Marc Romano: We are seeing seabird die-offs in numbers that have not been observed in previous years. It seems like every year, we’re responding to a different die-off of a different species.
Ari Daniel: There’s a worrying precedent for what’s happening on the Pribilofs. For a couple years starting in 2014, a warm mass of water formed in the eastern Pacific that was centered in the Gulf of Alaska.
Marc Romano: Termed the blob.
Ari Daniel: And the blob decimated the ranks of the common murres.
Marc Romano: It’s estimated that over 1 million common murres died between early 2015 and early 2016. Seabird die-offs are not an uncommon event, but die-offs of this magnitude are very, very rare. The same thing is true in the Pribilof Islands. In 2016, we had complete reproductive failure of kittiwakes and murres on both islands. That’s never happened where both completely failed in the same year. So it’s troubling. It certainly is troubling. <pause>
What really fascinates me about these birds is their ability to survive and to thrive in a very unforgiving environment. It’s that resilience that I think will serve them best in these changing times. However, my fear is that the changes to the environment will become so profound that the mechanism that the birds have to weather these changing conditions will be overwhelmed.
Ari Daniel: Romano says some of the birds may end up benefiting from the warming conditions. Some may migrate farther north where things are cooler and prey’s more abundant. In other words, similar to the Aleut ancestors more than two centuries ago, seabirds may be forced to relocate and adapt. In this case, due to climate change. But not all birds will be able to find a way out, and their numbers will continue to plummet.
Romano says there isn’t much else from a management perspective that can be done to boost their numbers. The seabirds are already protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Most of their colonies, including the ones on the Pribilof Islands, are located on protected land. Regulations on the fisheries and innovations in fishing gear have reduced accidental deaths of seabirds substantially. So slowing or reversing current climate trends appears to be our best hope.
This whole wait-and-see situation is difficult for Gerrit Vyn to witness.
Gerrit Vyn: You’re balancing being in the presence of something that moves you deeply with these feelings that it’s disappearing. You imagine, how can this huge ocean not feed all the birds that nest here? It’s a desert beneath the surface. And we see those changes more easily when we look at birds and bird populations. They’re visible, they’re things we can go and count.
Chauncey Demientieff: We’d take weight samples, we’d measure their beaks, bills, their feet, and their wings.
Ari Daniel: Chauncey Demientieff is in the 12th grade at the school on St. Paul. He’s been fascinated by seabirds for as long as he can remember — their diet, their musculature. He used to join his grandfather when he’d hunt the kittiwakes for food. But since the age of 9 or 10, he’s been working with live birds, helping Fish and Wildlife researchers collect data on the murres, puffins, cormorants, fulmars, auklets, and kittiwakes that gather on the little island.
Chauncey Demientieff: We were basically seeing the health of the populations, how good the seabirds were doing. They’re really important to knowing how healthy our ocean around us is.
Ari Daniel: Of course, Chauncey’s also learned some more practical things, too.
Chauncey Demientieff: I learned real quick that puffins bite real hard. I learned that parakeet auklets smell like oranges, like citrus-y.
Ari Daniel: Chauncey’s involvement in seabird science began as an offshoot of Seabird Camp.
Chauncey Demientieff: It was designed for children in grade school to learn more about seabirds. We do a lot of field trips, we do a lot of artwork, we do a lot of games.
Ari Daniel: And his role has evolved — from camper to teacher.
Chauncey Demientieff: Last year, I taught my first class about the traditional names of the birds. And I also did a class about feathers. I feel proud of myself for giving back to the community, for just not hoarding all of this knowledge to myself. At the end of the day, I could tell that they’ve learned something just by the way they look. The look in their eyes.
Ari Daniel: Chauncey says his perspective’s changed over time too. When he was little, he’d chase the seabirds, scare them away.
Chauncey Demientieff: I was something.
Ari Daniel: But today he looks at them with respect, and dignity.
One of the traditions of Seabird Camp is for the kids to put on a play. They wear these gorgeous handmade masks assembled from bike helmets, cardboard, and papier mâché. Walruses, otters, halibut. And of course, the whole cast of seabirds.
Seabird Camp Performer: Three puffins and an auklet land near the newcomers. The end. <applause>
Chauncey Demientieff: So we’re trying to teach not only the kids, but the community about seabirds and what role they play on St. Paul.
Ari Daniel: A role that’s both cultural and ecological — and one in danger of being lost.
Chauncey Demientieff: I hope that they all flourish. I hope that they get high enough numbers where they start repopulating.
Ari Daniel: Through Seabird Camp, Chauncey’s taught others — kids and adults alike — the value of these birds. And this teaching is crucial.<fade up Reef ambi> Skip a generation or two, and people forget. Traditions and knowledge evaporate. Take Ivan Melovidov — rappeler of cliffs and collector of murre eggs.
Ivan Melovidov: Nobody else up here does it, pretty much. no.
Ari Daniel: Wait, you’re the only person on the whole island that does it?
Ivan Melovidov: Yeah, pretty much. Yeah.
Ari Daniel: Ivan knows this high schooler named Myron — he calls him his little buddy — and he’s working with him, showing him the… ropes, literally. Myron’s still pretty scared when Ivan sends him down — and that fear of dangling over the edge of the cliff is the main reason most people don’t want to learn — but Myron’s slowly getting better. He can bring back a few eggs now. So he may be the one to take up the mantle from Ivan.
Destiny Kushin: I’ve been learning how to properly fish for halibut, how to cut seal, how to pack seal for the winter, how to just preserve food.
Ari Daniel: Destiny — the 16-year-old, and Ivan’s niece — has taken it upon herself to learn as many of the traditional ways as possible from her family. And she’s not alone among her friends and peers. A growing number of young people want to make sure these traditions don’t end up locked away inside just a couple of elders.
Destiny Kushin: It makes me happy just to know that someone younger knows how to do these things instead of relying on people older than them to constantly tell them what to do.
I wanted to learn these things for a while. I want to learn them. I don’t have to. But I prefer to. And I prefer to teach other people than to just keep it to myself. It makes me feel more connected to everything — the people, the land, just everything that nature provides. I’m proud to learn everything and I’m proud of who we are and what we are becoming. And I finally get to learn because people actually want to teach me things. My grandma’s taught me lots of things.
Zee Melovidov: I’m proud. I’m proud of her. Makes me happy. She watches me. She wants to learn. Some kids nowadays, they say, “No, I don’t want to. I don’t want to.” But Destiny Kushin’s always there. She’s determined to learn everything and find out how everything is. She’ll be a survivor, I know that. She loves to cook. She loves to bake. Cooks have to clean up their own mess!
Ari Daniel: There’s a profound lesson tucked into Zinaida Melovidov’s words. To survive, we must work to clean up our mess. To help others survive — like the seabirds clinging to the precipice below — we must do it fast. And until we do, until we have real, global leadership on confronting climate change head on, then places like the Pribilofs, families like Destiny and Zee’s, and birds like the murres and the kittiwakes are all hanging in the balance.
Thanks for joining us for the first episode of Threatened. If you’re interested in learning more about the seabirds and people of the Pribilof Islands, visit BirdNote dot org and check out our show notes.
Next week on Threatened, producer Monica Gokey searches for Long-billed Curlews.
Monica Gokey: What are you hoping to see?
Heather Hayes: Some chicks [LAUGHS]. There were four eggs last time I checked, and hopefully they will be there.
Ari Daniel: And learns about the changes to the intermountain prairies, and how the grassland birds are adapting.
Heather Hayes: It used to be the biggest population of Long-billed Curlews and now in this short 40 year span they’re at about a 95% decline.
Ari Daniel: Subscribe now so you don’t miss it! You could also give us a rating and review in Apple Podcasts, it really helps other listeners find the show. And, stay in touch with us on social media by following BirdNote on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
Special thanks to Ethan Candyfire and Veronica Pedula for their help recording in a time when it wasn’t safe for me to travel to the Pribilofs. This episode was produced by me, Ari Daniel, and the BirdNote team.
Thanks again for listening and see you next week.
Artwork by Clint McMillen at Braincloud Design