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> May 19, 2006 – SPOTLIGHT ON…Liz Labunski, Liz, the Animal Whiz
post May 22 2006, 07:54 PM
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May 19, 2006 – Aboard the Healy
Longitude: 173 44.745 W, Latitude: 63 15.913 N

When a “pipe” goes out over the ship’s loudspeaker announcing, “There’s a group of walruses on the port side,” it’s fair to say that Liz Labunski was probably the first person onboard to spot the animals. That’s because Liz’s job on the Healy is to identify and count the marine mammals and seabirds that she sees.

Liz is a scientist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Migratory Bird Management Division in Alaska. Armed with a pair of binoculars, animal guidebooks, a computer, and years of experience, Liz surveys animals on the port, or left, side of the ship. She keeps her eyes glued to a pie-shaped area of sea and sky that is 300 meter long.

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Liz stands on the bridge of the ship to get a good view of the sea and sky. With the help of binoculars, she can identify most of the seabirds and marine mammals that she spots.

If she spots an animal, she looks at it carefully until she is able to identify what species it is. Then, she records the animal spotting in her computer. The computer is hooked up to GPS (global positioning satellite), so it logs the exact location at which she saw the animal.

Liz’s computer also has a special program that allows her to note the current temperature, ice type, weather, and sea conditions. This is important information because if it were foggy, for instance, she might have missed some birds. By surveying to a specific distance, she can use calculations to estimate the average number of a certain type of animal in the area.

Scientists lack data about the animals that call the northern Bering Sea home during this time of year. If there were ever an oil spill or other disaster in the area, people could refer to her data to learn what animals might be in the area and be at risk.

So what animals has Liz seen on the trip so far? Walruses, bearded seals, a female ribbon seal, a rare bird called McKay’s bunting, ivory gulls, murres, northern pintails, and more.

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Liz pulls out her bird book to show me what types of birds she has seen on the expedition so far.

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This photo, taken by Liz, is of a group of walrus that were resting on some chunks of ice.

And today, she got a rare treat: An owl that was perched on a small boat onboard the ship! She used a bird guidebook to try to identify it, and she thinks it is a long-eared owl. But what was a long-eared owl, which is not native to Alaska, doing in the middle of the Bering Sea? That’s a question that even an expert like Liz can’t answer!

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This mystery owl was spotted on the Healy today. Liz and others onboard think it is a long-eared owl. But they aren’t usually found in this region of the world. What is it doing here? No one knows.

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Liz took a digital photo of the mystery owl to compare with pictures in a bird guidebook. Using body size and other physical characteristics like the color of its feathers, Liz helps helicopter manager Alex Stone and me decide which species of owl it might be.
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