Every summer, thousands of tiny auklets flock to the Aleutian Islands to nest. But scientists don’t know where the seabirds go in the winter.
That’s about to change, thanks to a group of researchers who’ve just returned from Buldir Island, east of Attu, and Gareloi, near Adak. They’ve been camped on the uninhabited islands since late May, outfitting crested and parakeet auklets with tracking tags for the first time.
Steve Delehanty is the director of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge.
“Technology has just come into existence within the last couple of years, that little tiny tags on the birds — geolocators — are light enough now, and small enough, to safely put on these rather small birds,” he says.
Delehanty boarded the refuge ship Tiglax in Unalaska a little over a week ago and went to pick up the auklet researchers, about 700 miles down the chain in the Western Aleutians.
He says the new geotags will record where the auklets go over the next year. Then, the researchers will go back and check on them.
“The birds are very faithful not only to the island where they nest, but even to the same rock crevasse,” he says. So the researchers “will go and capture these same birds next year.”
This was also part of an annual trip for Delehanty — he takes the Tiglax every year to visit different parts of his uniquely far-flung refuge. And he says the Aleutians never disappoint.
“You’re looking out and you’re seeing tens of thousands of auklets — swarming around the colony and on the water and in the air, big ribbons, strings of thousands of auklets and puffins and murres and kittiwakes and so many other species,” he says. “It’s just a really special thing to be able to see that.”
And it happens, he says, because the Aleutians are a rich ecosystem without many native predators. Buldir is one of the only islands in the chain where rats and foxes were never introduced — which is why the auklets come back, year after year.