Tales from the Tides - FOR BIRD'S SAKES! (Science Stories for Kids!)

Black oystercatcher on the beach
My, what a big bill you have! This black oystercatcher is just one of the cool-looking bird species that you can see on Katmai's coast. For short, biologists call this a BLOY (rhymes with "toy".) Remember that name, you'll want to know it later on! NPS Photo/E. Kunish

For Bird's Sakes!

Skiffs that the research team will use to conduct surveys.
Researchers use these skiffs to conduct their surveys. NPS Photo/ D. Ochs
They’re off the boat - looking soggy, chilled to the bone, and a little bit wistful. Who’s that you say? A team of wildlife researchers from the National Park Service and the US Geological Survey! This hearty bunch went out to Katmai’s remote coastline in March to see what birds and marine mammals were spending the winter out there.

Why go out in one of these boats (see image on right) to a remote coast in Alaska…in the winter, you ask? (I mean, it’s cold there even in the SUMMER, right?) Well, just like you check on your gerbils, fish, or any living thing you are responsible for, parks do too. We want to know who’s out there, where they are, and how they’re doing. We go out in winter and in summer because the types of birds that live along the coast change with the seasons.

Map of Katmai's coast
But first, let’s get you oriented. Take a look at the map to the right. The tiny image of Alaska at the top shows where Katmai is (look for the green dot) and the arrows at the bottom show you where they did the survey.

Now, remember those pet fish we referred to earlier? Imagine you came home one day only to discover that they had all died! You’d probably want to know why and keep a close eye on the next batch. Something very similar happened in Katmai in 2016. The researchers found dead birds on EVERY SINGLE beach they went to. A LOT of them.
A dead bird on a beach at Katmai in 2016
One of the many dead birds researchers found on the beaches of Katmai NPP in March 2016. NPS Photo
What killed them? Well, they’re still not sure, but, like the water in your fish tank, ocean water needs to be a certain temperature for the animals that live in it. That year the Pacific Ocean experienced a sort of heat wave. This warm water either killed or drove away their food sources, and made some toxic. The birds couldn’t get enough to eat and actually starved. Sad story, right? Fortunately, if conditions are right, wildlife is pretty resilient.

The Dream Catcher
Approaching the Dream Catcher at the end of a long day counting wildlife. Supper was going to be really good that night!  NPS Photo/D. Ochs
Cut to March 2018 and it’s time to get back out there and check on the birds.

Now this is a little more like it! This is the Dream Catcher, the team’s home base during the four days of the survey. Boy were they glad to see this site at the end of each day!
Researchers in skiff
(If you listen carefully, you might hear the Mission Impossible theme song in the background!) Wildlife biologists Dan and Dan look for birds and mammals along the coast, while Carly records what they see. NPS Photo/D. Ochs
Day 2 of the survey was a bit chilly (yes, that is snow falling). The two Dan’s spy birds and call out what they see to Carly (sitting down) who types it into the computer. Psst! Wanna’ be a wildlife biologist? Study up on your birds, otherwise you get stuck recording the data (hint: that’s the cold job)!

So, what exactly did they see out there? Lots of beautiful and sometimes even odd-looking birds, sea otters, wolves, whales and a few other inquisitive visitors……….Watch the video below to see who accompanied one of the skiffs!
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Watch this video to see what happened! It was quite an experience for the research team to have so many sea lions come right up to their boat and follow them! How would you have felt if you had been on that skiff? A little nervous? Excited? Probably both. This is a great display of sea lions' playful and curious nature. (Be warned though - they can be aggressive. Do NOT approach them.) Videos like this reveal marine mammals' character and intelligence and encourage us to protect them.

Emperor geese standing on a rock
NPS Photo/D. Kurtz
Our research team also got to see these stylish-looking characters standing on a rock. The biologists referred to them as EMGO’s - that’s code for emperor geese.

Have you got the codes figured out yet? Take the first two letters of each word in the bird's name and you've got it's code name. Get it? "Em" for emperor and "go" for goose. Try it yourself on the next bird!
Harlequin duck on the water
NPS Photo
They counted lots of these sharp dressers. This is a harlequin duck. Can you guess its code name?

(If you guessed "HADU", you're right!)
So, the good news is, the team found no dead birds this time. But that doesn’t mean the birds are out of hot water (or warm water in this case). These coastal animals are facing all kinds of challenges, including oil spills, plastic they mistake for food, fast-moving boats and climate change.

That makes these surveys really valuable. Remember when we said that bird species can recover if conditions are right? These surveys tell park managers where the popular wildlife hangouts are. Once they know this, they can study the conditions in these areas and make regulations, like setting speed limits on boats, to protect the birds and marine mammals in these areas.

But they can’t do it all. After all, warm water, oil and plastic trash don’t respect park boundaries. You can help by learning how to protect wildlife where you live! Volunteer during beach and stream cleanups in your area! Even using less plastic (straws are one of the most common types of trash found on beaches) and riding your bike or walking (when it’s safe and you have permission) instead of driving can make a difference. You don't have to be a wildlife biologist to help save wild places and protect the amazing animals we share this planet with.

Katmai National Park & Preserve

Last updated: October 26, 2021