Cold War outpost in Gulf of Alaska becomes bird sanctuary

Abandoned military tower gives seabirds a nursery and scientists a laboratory

Posted: Sunday, July 09, 2000

MIDDLETON ISLAND, Alaska - On this lonely, flat island 160 miles from Anchorage in the Gulf of Alaska, researcher Scott Hatch is building one of the world's most unusual birdhouses - and a biologist's dream.

Once a U.S. Air Force radar tower used during the Cold War, the concrete-and-steel structure stands about five stories high. Hatch, a seabird biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey's Alaska Biological Science Center, recognized a rare opportunity when he first noticed black-legged kittiwakes nesting on the abandoned tower in the mid-1980s.

Six years ago, he and his colleagues began renovating the tower, eventually adding more than 200 wooden shelves around the tower's top to make it more attractive to kittiwakes and pelagic cormorants, another seabird.

The biologists also started feeding some of the birds to see if well-fed birds reproduce better than ones that weren't fed.


The result? Hatch and his co-researchers have built a thriving seabird colony. Each summer, more than 1,200 pairs of kittiwakes and 900 pairs of pelagic cormorants fight for nesting space on the high-rise bird condominium.

``We've managed to turn this place around,'' Hatch said. ``Since we started feeding the birds, kittiwakes have even started nesting on the roof.''

Besides providing good nesting habitat because its sheer walls protect the kittiwakes from raiding gulls, the tower offers biologists unparalleled access to the birds. From a circular room inside the top part of the tower, biologists can observe birds through hundreds of panels of one-way glass installed when they retrofitted the tower. Each small rectangular window peers straight into a nest.

Whenever biologists need to weigh, measure or band a bird, they simply slip a wire hook through a slot beneath each window and loop it around the bird's leg. Then they lift the one-way window and snatch the bird inside. After just a few minutes of handling, the bird is set free through a square hatch in the wall to settle back on their nests.

On a recent Friday, kittiwakes circled the tower in a wide halo, squawking and screeching as they soared. Chicks were hatching on every ledge, and in some of the windows, glimpses of newborn chicks could be seen whenever the adult birds rearranged themselves or flew off to catch fish. When the birds returned, the mate left tending the nest often squawked in recognition, bobbing its head up and down, a behavior biologists call choking. Occasionally, fights broke out over the better nest spots.

``The birds here really have the life of Riley,'' Hatch said. ``Every bird on this island wants to be on this tower.''

The studies Hatch does on Middleton Island are similar to fieldwork done by other biologists each summer around the state. One of the main questions Hatch is trying to figure out is why the overall population of black-legged kittiwakes has declined on Middleton Island while other seabird species, including gulls, rhinoceros auklets, oystercatchers and perhaps tufted puffins have increased. Hatch thinks the answer is food, which is why his research team feeds a select group of the birds frozen capelin through plastic tubes that poke through the wall onto the ledges next to the nests.

As the winds, currents and weather have shifted over time in the Gulf of Alaska, some fish species such as pollock have increased while fat-rich fish such as sandlance and capelin have declined. Pollock are leaner fish with far less nutritional value for seabirds, Hatch said. He jokingly calls them junk food for birds, like Twinkies from the sea.

What's most unusual about Hatch's work is his laboratory. For whatever reason, seabirds on Middleton Island have always nested in strange places, Hatch said. They nest on abandoned buildings and on the USS Coldbrook, a merchant vessel grounded on the island in the mid-1940s. Since beginning fieldwork there in the late 1970s, Hatch has found puffins in the ship's toilets, staterooms and in the old meat locker. These days, kittiwakes, cormorants and murres line the ship's decks while puffins nest inside.

Two kittiwakes have even roosted on an old lighting fixture and on a pulley hanging from the ship's mast. The front deck, now thick with vegetation, looks like a bird's paradise, with birds nesting on nearly every square inch.

Middleton Island is home to a state-of-the-art weather observation station and a radar facility and airstrip operated by the Federal Aviation Administration. The island was once an Air Force outpost during the Cold War. Back in the late 1800s and the early 1900s, Middleton Island was leased by the government to private interests for breeding blue foxes. Hatch's research team, which includes two full-time biologists and four volunteers, cook and eat their meals in old military buildings. They sleep in tents set up between old barracks to keep them out of the wind.

Today, regional Native corporation Chugach Alaska and the FAA own the largest portions of the island. A group of private investors from Anchorage owns the middle section, where the tower stands.

That land totals 2,200 acres. Another 1,000 acres were added to the island during the 1964 Alaska earthquake, when the seafloor thrust upward, Hatch said. About 4,300 years old, the mostly flat island continues to grow with seismic uplifting at the average yearly rate of a little less than an inch. Six marine terraces show where the island has grown over the years.

Hatch hopes that most of the island might someday be sold or donated to an agency, such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and maintained as a biological research station, in addition to the FAA and National Weather Service work done there.

The unusual nests on Middleton make Hatch wonder if more artificial seabird colonies can be created on the island. Now that the tower is thriving, Hatch is trying to establish a colony of murres.

On the side of one of the island's many abandoned buildings, Hatch has installed a wide shelf covered with several dozen murre decoys, which look like small, slender penguins. Inside the building, he has rigged up a solar-powered compact disc player that continuously plays the sounds of a murre colony. Fellow researcher Charla Sterne calls it the ``murre cocktail party.''

It seems to be working. Several murres have taken to the shelf.

Hatch's dream is to someday have thriving artificial colonies for five of the main seabird species that use the island. He also dreams of making Middleton Island one of Alaska's premier research stations, a place where biologists can control experiments and perhaps even educate visitors about seabirds.

``I'm jazzed about the idea,'' Hatch said. ``I have been for several years. This could be here for a long time if we do it right.''

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