Bird by Bird

Late last year, near the peak of the austral summer, Andrew Titmus ’06 found himself on the small, rocky peninsula of Cape Royds in Antarctica.

In one direction, the slate gray Ross Sea was alive with ice. In the other, the 12,000-foot, snow-covered hump of Mount Erebus rose up in the distance, steam puffing out of its churning caldera. Above him, the polar sky was enormous and ceaselessly bright. As the ammonia stench of guano filled his nose, knee-high Ad.lie penguins chattered loudly at his feet, fussing about their nests, bickering with each other, and not giving him the time of day.

Everything is different at the bottom of the world, on this far-flung, icy continent. Night is day. Summer is winter. Liquid is solid. And the most remote place on Earth—often thought of as untouched by civilization—is a laboratory to study ever-increasing human impacts on our planet.

The entire population of the world’s Adelies lives in Antarctica. (There are also breeding colonies on islands to the north of the Antarctic Peninsula.) On land, they are as awkward as toddlers with pants around their ankles. At sea, they turn into efficient hunting machines, dolphining sleekly through the water in search of prey. The lives of these iconic seabirds hinge on the dynamics of sea ice, which climate change will likely transform in the decades to come.

Andrew had traveled more than 11,000 miles and flown for nearly 30 hours to get to the frozen continent. A short helicopter ride brought him from McMurdo Station, the largest American presence on the continent, to the penguin camp. But in a way, the trip to Antarctica and to this remote colony of neatly dressed, boisterous seabirds had taken this 33-year-old to the center of his life and his passions, into the world of winged, sea-dependent creatures that have much to tell us about our changing planet.

Seabirds are some of the most fascinating animals on Earth. They inhabit all of the planet’s oceans and make use of some of the globe’s most remote lands. The common link among the hundreds of species in this loosely defined group is a dependence on the sea, but beyond that, their diversity is startling. The European storm petrel is as dainty as a sparrow, while the wandering albatross can have a wingspan of more than a dozen feet and the heft of a small dog. Some seabirds are flightless, while others spend most of their lives on the wing. Some, like black skimmers, feed in flight by scooping food off the water’s surface with an open bill. Others, like the brown pelican, plunge into the water for fish from seven stories up or dive hundreds of feet deep, like the thick-billed murre.

The plumage of seabirds tends to be bland; life at sea favors simple countershading of white bellies and black backs. But these birds aren’t without some finery. The crested auklet sports a jaunty curl of feathers above a coral-red bill. Pigeon guillemots have lipstick-red legs. The Atlantic puffin’s bright beak is known the world over. And the Inca tern flaunts what must be the most fabulous mustache on Earth.

While seabird colonies of more than a million birds can leave one breathless, researchers are particularly interested in how these creatures can serve as sentinels of what’s happening in the natural world. When hundreds of thousands of common murres and other marine birds washed up starved to death on West Coast beaches from California to Alaska a few years ago, it was the clearest evidence to the general public that warmer ocean waters had upended the marine food web. 

Andrew Titmus ’06 and Alexis Rudd ’05
Andrew Titmus ’06 and Alexis Rudd ’05.

Andrew grew up in a small market town in southern England, about an hour’s train ride from London. As a boy, he didn’t pay much attention to birds. He was more captivated by the tiny fish darting in the rocky tide pools of Cornwall beaches, where he and his family camped during the summer. Along with his younger brother, Andrew would take a small net and catch as many fish as he could, examine them in a bucket, and then let the creatures go. He loved the sea, but seabirds were, for the time, out of his view.

When he was 16, Andrew moved to his mother’s native California and enrolled in a Bay Area high school. Used to the buttoned-up environment of English schools, Andrew now felt like one of the fish he had trapped years before in a bucket. He couldn’t connect with his American classmates.

But Andrew found his way into an advanced biology class, and his interest was piqued. When it came time to apply for university, he knew what he was looking for: a small school that would allow him to pursue his interests in the ocean and in biology.

At Puget Sound, Andrew spent hours in the field, especially along the waterfront, learning about ocean and intertidal habitats. He also met Alexis Rudd ’05, the woman who would become his wife, in a marine biology class. Pretty quickly the pair realized that they shared a passion for field biology and a desire to apply their scientific knowledge to solve real-world problems.

And problems kept presenting themselves. Across the country, international ships and recreational boaters have introduced scores of invasive aquatic species, including mussels, snails, crab, and fish. Dealing with the impacts of these invaders—which push out native species and can upend entire ecosystems—costs the nation billions of dollars. At a public dock not far from campus, Andrew wondered: Would native sea stars prefer a meal of invasive mussels because those shellfish grew larger than their native counterparts? Through careful observation and data collection, he realized the sea stars did not. By asking questions and then figuring out how to answer them, Andrew was creating knowledge about the natural world around him. He got hooked.

“The thing I realized then, and that I continue to appreciate, is that feeling of discovery, of learning new things,” Andrew says. “Certainly it’s what has driven me to do research in all sorts of remote places.”

Following graduation, Andrew enrolled in an intensive summer biology program at the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre on the outer coast of Vancouver Island. It was here that Andrew fell into bird work. He had never taken an ornithology course before, but for a required independent research project, he developed an investigation into the behavior of the marbled murrelet, which, along with the spotted owl, has become a highly visible poster child for conservation issues in the Pacific Northwest.

Marbled murrelets nest up to 40 miles inland in old-growth and mature forests, where they lay a single mottled egg in a shallow depression on moss-covered branches of large conifers. In recent decades, logging has decimated much of the birds’ nesting habitat. And at sea, murrelets are often drowned in commercial gill nets. The bird is now listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.

Andrew wanted to look more closely at the birds’ behavior around potentially lethal fishing nets. So he set up a dummy gill net composed of a just float line, a string of grapefruit-sized floats that hang a fishing net near the surface of the water like a curtain. When these petite seabirds approached the line, some dove below it and others swam alongside, as if to check it out. This behavior led Andrew to believe that more murrelets could survive their run-ins with fishing operations if float lines were designed with gaps so that the birds could paddle through and away from the net below.

Andrew’s project had resulted in a useful answer with practical implications. “It helped me realize that these were the sorts of questions—about conservation and management of species and ecosystems—that I was really interested in,” he explains.

By the time Andrew was wrapping up his work at Bamfield, Alexis had moved to Hawai`i to start a Ph.D. program in whale biology. Andrew followed her there and began a master’s program of his own at Hawai`i Pacific University, investigating seabirds and marine debris.

Zoom out on a map of the Hawai`ian archipelago, and all you’ll see for miles is blue. The youngest state sits nearly smack-dab in the middle of the Pacific. The closest mainland is more than a thousand miles away. The remoteness of this collection of volcanic islands makes them an especially important habitat for seabirds, providing all or nearly all of the nesting sites for such species as the Newell’s shearwater, Laysan albatross, and Hawai`ian petrel.

But while Hawai`i is time zones away from any significant landmass, it is neighbor to the most massive collection of trash in the world, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the largest eddy of marine debris on Earth. 

In the middle of the North Pacific, circular ocean currents gather floating trash—namely plastic—as well as chemical sludge from as far away as Los Angeles and Tokyo. This giant gyre of debris includes fishing line, foam, bottles, caps, and bags. At sea, broken down by wind, waves, and sun, plastic multiplies into a kind of confetti. These tiny pieces of plastic turn the surface layer of ocean into a veritable pudding of flotsam.

To look closely at the debris, Andrew spent two weeks aboard a 170-foot research vessel in the middle of the Pacific. Far out at sea, out of sight of land, with only a horizon of blue meeting blue and the sea rolling slowly beneath him, Andrew experienced the stunning beauty and heartbreak that makes up life on Earth. For days, the boat puttered through endless plastic debris, the refuse of humanity that will forever haunt the planet. But on the horizon, sperm whales spouted their characteristic angled blows, an occasional red-tailed tropicbird squawked from hundreds of feet overhead, and ocean tows brought curious life to the surface: angler fish, gulper eels, and glass squid, which have eyes at the ends of long stalks. At night, out of the reach of light pollution on land, Andrew watched Perseid meteors fall brilliantly across the sky and the sea glow green with phosphorescence.

Back in Hawai`i, Andrew wanted to investigate the impact of the debris on seabirds. Scientists have known for a long time that marine plastic works its way into the food chain, ingested by sea life including squid, sea turtles, and whales. Andrew focused on the black-footed albatross—a gull-like seabird the color of charcoal with a white smudge beneath its dark eyes that gives the birds a plaintive look—as well as the Laysan albatross. These stout seabirds range across the entire North Pacific, from California to the Bering Sea in the north and Japan to the west. Nearly all return to Hawai`i each year to nest in colonies on the state’s northwestern islands.

Working with a team of researchers, Andrew examined boluses, cigar-shaped masses of indigestible material—including squid beaks and pebbles—that albatross chicks regurgitate before fledging. The boluses contained cigarette lighters, Styrofoam, bits of shopping bags, and even full-size toothbrushes—more plastic than any other single material. And the stomachs of chicks found dead at their nests contained a multitude of additional plastic debris that the birds had been unable to expel. It seems that plastic sickens the birds by dehydrating them, as it replaces water-containing food the chicks would normally ingest.

Andrew’s work also uncovered important information about the state of our oceans. “You can use seabirds as a really useful oceanographic tool,” he says. By combining the findings from bolus dissection with data from satellite transmitters on where these birds feed, Andrew and his team learned more about the extent of plastic in specific patches of ocean.

Seeing the immense accumulation of plastic in our ocean and the prevalence of it in birds’ diets shook Andrew to his core. “It had a really big impact on me. You realize the immensity of the problem and what a difficult issue it is to fix. Just cleaning it up is not a realistic solution.”

Building on his master’s research, Andrew wanted to continue his work with seabirds and how they can be impacted by human activities. He enrolled in a Ph.D. program at the University of Hawai`i, where Alexis was busy dragging underwater microphones behind cargo barges to detect the presence of whales. 

He landed on a little-known seabird that breeds on American Samoa, a collection of islands nearly halfway on a straight line between Hawai`i and New Zealand. The reclusive Tahiti petrel is a dusky, crow-sized bird that, like the black-footed albatross, travels widely, winging between South America and New Guinea in the east, and Australia in the west.

Each year, these seabirds return to American Samoa and a handful of other Pacific islands to nest in burrows that they clear out among the roots of tropical trees. It is at their nesting sites that these birds are vulnerable to predation by introduced species and to local nickel-mining operations.

Andrew selected a study site on Ta’ū , an island nearly 90 miles from the American Samoan hub of Tutuila. While based in Hawai`i with Alexis, Andrew would make extended four- to six-week trips to American Samoa spread out over different parts of the year. Partially, this strategy was intended to determine the Tahiti petrel’s breeding season.

On Ta’ū, a single five-mile-long paved road squeezed in between the surf and the steep rise of the lush, mountainous terrain connects the year-round population of perhaps a few hundred residents. Church is the center of life, and in the villages, while chickens and dogs wander about, you can hear church choirs practicing in the dome-roofed, open-air pavilions called fales. 

In photos, Ta’ū looks like a dream: an emerald wedge rising up from an ocean of topaz. “Working there is so far removed from paradise,” Andrew quickly warns. For starters, just getting there is extremely difficult. There’s a plane that theoretically flies to the island, Andrew explains, but it hardly ever runs. Plan B is a small cargo boat run by the government that is rickety and unpredictable. Once on the island, reaching his study sites required a half-day’s slog through jungle trees and head-high ferns at best, and at worst, a 12-hour trek up a mountain with 50 pounds of field gear, food, and water. And the environmental conditions are demanding. The weather is hot, humid, and often rainy. Andrew was constantly wet—from sweat, humidity, or precipitation. Mosquitoes thronged him as he worked. And the field day was cut short by the early tropical sunset, which plunged the island into darkness.

One thing Andrew has learned about himself through field research is that he is not easily deterred. “You’re in this place that very few people get to go, and you’re seeing things very few people get to see, and you’re learning new things. It’s really incredible,” he says.

Most scientific research takes place where there are infrastructure and resources. On Ta’ū, there is little of either. And with its secretive nature and remote nesting sites, the Tahiti petrel rarely attracts the attention of researchers and wildlife managers.

“This is a species of concern, but it’s always fallen into the ‘too hard’ pile,” Andrew explains. But he had believed strongly that there were important questions to be answered about this species and its habitat.

Over the span of four years, Andrew traveled to Ta’ū five times, setting up recording devices that would monitor the birds remotely, painting a clear picture of this elusive bird’s behavior and providing the means for local wildlife managers in American Samoa to monitor the birds from afar in the years to come.

Back in Hawai`i, while Andrew and Alexis wrote up their respective research, they both received prestigious National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fellowships in Washington, D.C., that would provide them with opportunities to apply their scientific backgrounds to the world of policy-making.

While Alexis was placed in the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, Andrew was posted to the National Science Foundation, the federal entity that administers the U.S. Antarctic Program and is responsible for all of the research and infrastructure—from helicopters to toilet paper—on the remote continent.

In addition to being a wildlife biologist, Andrew is a nature and wildlife photographer.
In addition to being a scientist, Andrew is a nature and wildlife photographer, and, together with Alexis, runs Wild Coasts Photography.

Outfitted with extreme cold-weather gear, including a bright red parka and super-insulated military “bunny” boots, Andrew spent a month at McMurdo Station, which is home to about 900 people at the peak of the summer research season. Temperatures can plunge below minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit, and winds howl at more than 100 knots. But with three hot meals a day, showers, Internet, a gym, and even a couple of bars, life on the most uninhabited continent seemed cushy to Andrew.

At McMurdo, Andrew worked with the on-site environmental staff to ensure compliance with U.S. Antarctic Program policies. Strict environmental protocols regulate life and work in Antarctica, which is governed by an international treaty.

In Antarctica, even human waste must be shipped out. At the McMurdo sewage treatment plant, human waste is treated with microorganisms that consume organic material, dried, and then packed into freezer-size cardboard boxes for shipment. As the waste, which resembles potting soil, sits awaiting transport, tomato seeds—the only things that appear to survive the treatment process—sprout tiny, earnest plants. 

But Andrew knows the complications are worth bearing for the fruits of research. It is science, he explains, that can really “move the needle” in solving our most intractable problems.

After a day of wandering between clumps of nests in the Adelie colony helping the two researchers stationed at the camp for the summer to locate tagged penguins, Andrew retired to a small tent and double-zipped himself into an extra-thick, government-issue down sleeping bag on top of two sleeping pads. As the sun completed the day’s ring around the sky, the temperature dropped to near zero degrees Fahrenheit, but Andrew was warm.

Andrew’s work has come to encompass our planet’s most beautiful creatures and some of our most devastating losses. It is the process of discovery that keeps him going. “There’s so much that we don’t know about so many places on the planet. There’s so much opportunity out there to learn new things, and that’s really exciting,” he says.

And among the dazzling array of seabirds that inhabit the Earth, there are still so many questions to be asked, so many problems to be solved. While we go about our days, while the tides wash in and out, while our changing world spins on its tilted axis, these brilliant birds zoom across forgotten patches of our oceans, serving as eyes and ears to the Earth’s watery surface, helping us learn more about our planet and ourselves.

 

By Miranda Weiss
Published April 25, 2018
Photos by Andrew Titmus ’06

Miranda Weiss is the author of the best-selling natural history memoir Tide, Feather, Snow: A Life in Alaska. She lives in Homer, Alaska.

View more of Andrew's wildlife and nature fine-art photography, and learn more about the birds seen here, at wildcoastsphotography.zenfolio.com.