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> July 2, 2006
post Jul 5 2006, 04:54 PM
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TEA Teacher

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July 2, 2006

As I mentioned yesterday, I'm helping with the bongo nets during the first part of the cruise and, since the nets are done on a regular schedule, I have some time to talk to the scientists on board. Today I spoke with Ian Darling whose job on board is pelagic seabird observer. Ian's interest in birds has taken him all over the world, and he has done regular land bird counts in Scotland, but this is his first time counting Arctic sea birds. While at home in Edinburgh, Ian is a member of a lands tribunal which decides property disputes; he's also the Director of British Waterways, a state owned company responsible for all canals in the UK. His work on ship lasts from just after breakfast until just after dinner (or later if lots of birds are around), and it's all on a volunteer basis!

Most of the time, Ian can be found on the bridge, binoculars in hand and tally sheet close by. He counts all the birds in one 90 degree arc, 250 meters out at five minute intervals. By recording the starting and stopping latitude and longitude, he essentially measures the birds he sees in a "box" off the ship. The purpose of his work is to record the numbers of birds for a comparative study. This survey has been done at least once before, and Ian will send the numbers from this cruise to Ken Morgan at the Institute for Ocean Sciences in Victoria, BC. The goal of all bird counts is to build data bases and to look for trends. For example, if scientists note a decline in a particular population, they'll try to find where it's taking place. It could be at the breeding grounds, among the juveniles, or along the migration route. This particular count won't be able to answer those kinds of questions, because Ian is only counting, not banding, the birds.

IPB Image
Ian Darling searching for birds - Ian Darling's work on board is to observe and survey pelagic sea birds. He spends many hours each day on the bridge looking through binoculars.

Although Ian has done lots of bird counts on land, he has had to learn different methodologies and a new system of codes in order to count on the cruise. He can identify birds by their calls on land, but out here he must actually see the birds, either flying or sitting on the water. In addition, the UK uses a five letter code, and the code for the Arctic birds is only four letters (ex. Kitti for a Kittiwake in the UK, BLKI for the Black-legged Kittiwake here). Not only does Ian have to spot and identify the birds, sometimes with only minor variations among them, he must also count and record the correct codes and numbers quickly so he can continue his survey. Ian told me that most of the birds he's seeing are either non-breeding birds or those that breed in the southern hemisphere. Northern hemisphere birds are at breeding grounds now. Unless we're quite close to land (as we'll be when we're near the Aleutians), he won't see the breeding birds of the northern hemisphere.

I really admire Ian's ability to do his job. I love birds but have always had a tough time spotting and identifying them. Maybe if I'd had his years of experience, it would be easier for me, but I think that there's a prerequisite natural ability there as well. Ian definitely has it.

IPB Image
Ian Darling recording bird counts - Ian Darling must keep an accurate record of the numbers and species of all the birds he sees.
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