Eagles feasting on winterkill fish aren't an inspiring sight to everyone, but they were to undergraduate Anne Schaefer. The outing was fieldwork for an ornithology class at South Dakota State University that set Schaefer on the path to becoming an avian research assistant at the Prince William Sound Science Center in Cordova, Alaska.
In South Dakota, the eagle feast was unique, Schaefer said. "In Alaska, it's normal." Cordova is a fishing village along the Copper River Delta, near the site of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in southeastern Alaska.
After completing her bachelor's degree in organismal biology and Spanish in 2011, Schaefer did bird surveys in New Mexico along the Rio Grande for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
"I loved that job," she added. She credits associate professor Kent "KC" Jensen, who teaches the ornithology class, for helping her start in the field.
After doing bird surveys in Arizona and working on a trail crew in southern Utah with American Conservation Experience, Schaefer pursued a master's degree at the University of Montana. Her thesis research focused on ways to improve the monitoring of seabirds in southeastern Alaska.
How herring affect bird populations
Schaefer, who began her job at the science center in July 2014, works with bird biologist Mary Anne Bishop on a project to study the relationship between Pacific herring and seabirds. In 1993, the Pacific herring population collapsed and hasn't fully recovered, she explained. Herring are an important food source for seabirds.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game tracks the herring spawn, which occurs March through July, in Prince William Sound. One of the researchers at the science center does aerial surveys of herring schools, estimating herring tonnage based on school size and density, Schaefer explained. Most science center projects are done in collaboration with conservation agencies and research groups.
"The herring spawn makes a milky cloud that can extend for miles," she said. The shorebirds and gulls feast on the herring roe, with the eggs sticking to kelp and rocks. "It's a good food source," she added, pointing to its high fat and energy content.
Cordova is an important stopover site during spring migration for about 30 species of shorebirds headed to breeding grounds in western Alaska, Schaefer explained. The herring roe seems to be an important energy source, for shorebirds, such as surfbirds and black turnstones.
"It's all connected," Schaefer said. "If the fish aren't doing well, the birds don't have anything to eat." That, in turn, affects mammals, such as bears and whales.
Monitoring nesting, migration
Schaefer said she spends a lot of time in boats documenting the abundance and distribution of seabirds. "When I see a bird, I put it down," she added. In some instances, the researchers band or use geolocaters on particular species, such as the black turnstone or semipalmated plover, to track migration and identify nesting sites.
This summer, she worked on a project to investigate the role that interaction between glaucous-winged gulls and human activity plays in transmission of avian influenza. The research is done in collaboration with Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The gulls nest on nearby islands and feed on waste from the fish-processing plants in Cordova, Schaefer explained. She and her colleagues banded gulls and took mouth swabs and blood samples to test for avian influenza. The goal is to be able to predict how and when outbreaks of animal-borne diseases, such as avian influenza, can occur.
Though she's been there just over a year, Schaefer said, "so far, I love it. My job changes a lot based on the seasons and it's a beautiful area."
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