A curiosity about pigeon guillemots leads to study

Frances Wood was sitting in her car, trying to find good reception for her cellphone, listening to an olive-sided flycatcher and talking about her favorite subject: birds.

More specifically, pigeon guillemots, the water birds with brilliant red feet and legs that burrow in the steep bluffs of Whidbey Island. In the summer, the stocky 13- to 14-inch guillemots are all black with white wing patches that have a partial bar, patches that are visible in flight or while at rest.

“The pigeon guillemot is the only seabird that regularly breeds in Puget Sound, yet no one really knows about the bird unless you’re into birding,” Wood said.

It’s a pigeon-size bird with a narrow beak used to dig out stones and sharp toenails that loosen and scrape out soil to create nesting burrows. The lowest burrow Wood has found is 20 feet above the water; higher burrows are found near the top of bluffs.

Burrows are as deep as three feet. Guillemots often take over and enlarge kingfisher burrows, since kingfishers build a new one every year.

The burrow locations keep land mammal predators such as rats and raccoons at bay. Winged predators are mostly eagles and peregrine falcons.

“They can be disturbed by an eagle in a tree near a bluff, even a great blue heron flying in front of the burrows. They throw off a big dark shadow that startles them. And crows go after the eggs in the burrow,” Wood said.

Erosion of the steep sand clay and glacial till bluffs is a danger to the burrows.

“It is very sensitive to disturbances. I once watched a becalmed catamaran floating about 30 yards offshore, it’s brightly colored sail fluttering. The birds wouldn’t go near their burrows,” Wood said.

“One of the hardest things on the birds is people walking their dogs off the leash on the beach. Disturbance by humans and pets is the largest factor. Birds will leave the bluffs and just disperse offshore. Enjoy your walk, but be aware and leash dogs by the colony areas,” she said.

Wood’s connection to these sea birds started in 2002 when she was doing a breeding bird survey on Whidbey Island.

“I was seeing these amazing groups of pigeon guillemots. They’re very interesting, playful birds. I was curious how many and where they grouped in colonies, and where they bred.”

Wood and Phyllis Kind joined forces and the new survey began; each year they added more volunteers. Several years ago they found funding to hire interns who spent five hours a day starting at dawn.

“I think that the volunteers might be a little more awake in the early morning than some college intern!”

“We found more and more colonies and became more sophisticated in our data collection,” Wood said. “We have recorded a pretty stable population of 1,000 birds (in) 20 to 25 colonies that are mostly stable, with lots of birds every year. We’re about to publish a scientific paper with the last five years of data,” she said.

The data reflects the population numbers, active burrows, which burrows had chicks, and even identifying the prey that parents delivered, Wood said.

Whidbey Island chicks were fed about 60 percent eel-like gunnel, 20 percent sculpin and the rest in the “other” category.

The next 10-week survey starts the last week of June. It follows scientific protocols and is supported by the Whidbey Audubon Society and the Island County Marine Resources Committee.

The bird survey is but one of Wood’s many interests. She just finished a book on the history of Langley (“Langley”), and has started a project that includes painting watercolor portraits of the 150 common birds of the West.

She’s also author and illustrator of “Brushed by Feathers.”

More about Wood and her work can be found at www.franceswood.net.

Columnist Sharon Wootton can be reached at 360-468-3964 or www.songandword.com.

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