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From the Mudflats to the Mountains!

Posted by: nina-karnovsky | July 22, 2011 Comments Off |

This past spring an outstanding group of research students studied the otoliths of Antarctic fish in my lab.

Julia P, Corinne, Ali'11 (working on senior thesis), Molly and Anne-Claire panning for otoliths

Corinne, Molly, Julia G'10 (visiting Alum), and Amber

This summer some of these students are taking their talents into the field. Corinne is studying the distribution of juvenile dungenous crab in San Francisco Bay as part of an REU at SF State.

Corinne sampling in the mudflats of SF Bay

Amber is spending her summer in the Rocky Mountains at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory. She is studying the phenology of the dwarf larkspur, Delphinium nuttallianum.

Amber studying plant ecology in the Rocky Mountains

Filed under: Antarctic, Where are they now?

Where are they now? PART IV

Posted by: nina-karnovsky | July 21, 2011 Comments Off |

Derek Buchner’08 was part of the 2007 field team that went to the Arctic to study little auks. He has continued to pursue his passion for birds and now works for the peregrine fund with CONDORS!

Derek releasing 12 year old male Condor

There is more information about his work on this facebook page:

Nik Tyack’11 and Eleanor Caves’11 graduated this past spring. Nik wrote his senior thesis on seabirds around Santa Barbara Island and Eleanor wrote hers on the diving behavior of Cassin’s auklets breeding on the Farallon Islands. They have left the west coast islands and are both in Massachusetts for the summer. Eleanor is studying whales at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI) and Nik is studying herring at NOAA.

Nik, me and Eleanor at Oyster Pond

Filed under: Channel Islands, Farallon Island, Herring, News, Senior Thesis, Where are they now?
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Vigorous Video Watching

Posted by: nina-karnovsky | June 29, 2011 Comments Off |

When you walk by the lab this summer you will see three students in a darkened room hunched towards computer screens. They are intently watching very compelling videos. The star of these movies are the Xantus’s murrelets that nest on Santa Barbara Island. Last summer Channel National Park biologists with the support of the Montrose Settlement Restoration Program installed video cameras in the nests of these rare seabirds. The murrelets dig their nests under vegetation or use exisiting holes. These data will help in the conservation of the species by letting us know more about the nesting behavior of these birds and what predators visit their nests. The students went to Santa Barbara Island to see the nests, cameras and birds. See the previous post to hear about their adventures!

Jamie, Neha and Molly intently watching murrelet movies

Filed under: Channel Islands
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2011 Adventures on Santa Barbara Island by Jamie

Posted by: nina-karnovsky | June 29, 2011 Comments Off |

Sea lion heads swivel as our boat powers up to their cliff-side colony. The captain alternates between forward and reverse, edging us closer and closer to the dock structure that clings precariously to the cliff face. A sea lion chorus arises as we clamber one by one up the rusty ladder onto the first level of the dock. Around half the group stays on the boat, prepping the scuba gear for their kelp forest survey, while we ascend a steep concrete staircase behind Kevin, our researcher and island guide.

The sea lion colony – a noisy welcome

Kevin studies a group of birds called the Alcids, which includes auks, murres, and puffins, specifically those native to California’s Channel Islands. As we climb, he points out some small wooden structures to our right. They’re to encourage nesting of Cassin’s auklets, he explains. He also waves a hand over the colorful plastic flags and plants that cover the slope to our left, which his research group has been working ambitiously to restore. Strange plants dot the hillside, including giant coreopsis (Coreopsis gigantea), which, at this time of year, looks hardly alive. We’re seeing its dormant state – bare, fleshy arms reaching up out of the dry soil – but a google search will reveal something almost sunflower-like, if you catch it in bloom.
The researchers here have been working to restore the island to its natural state – before rats, invasive plants, and others were introduced. The island we’re on, by the way, is called Santa Barbara. If you’re not familiar with the Channel Islands, you may not have heard of it. At 640 square acres, it’s the smallest channel island, and also one of the more remote. When we arrived, we’d been on the boat for four hours – and then there’s the two hour drive from Claremont to Ventura, where our boat departed. After our first hour on the boat, we reached Anacapa Island, where we deposited our twenty-some tourists. Then we kicked back with the other researchers for the ensuing three-hour ride. We were entertained variously by stories of their friend Paul Watson, captain of the Sea Shepherd in the popular show Whale Wars, a discussion on which animals are most dangerous to keep around babies (chimpanzees and ferrets, it turns out), and of course, the details of their research on the islands. Before we knew it we’d reached Santa Barbara, where we’d have just an hour before we’d have to board the boat again for the long trip home.
After we make it up the cliff, Kevin shows us around the researchers’ home base – a small house overlooking the landing cove.

The view

Our first stop is the screen room, where live video data from several nesting sites can be seen. This is where we come into the picture. For the past two years, Kevin has been recording the entire breeding season of Xantus’s Murrelet (Synthliboramphus hypoleucus) at about eight nest sites on this side of the island. Of course, no one person could analyze such a vast quantity of data – the season runs from February to June – but the three of us have been slowly chipping away at it for the past three weeks. Xantus’s Murrelet is listed as threatened by the IUCN because its entire population nests on a few small islands off the coast of southern California and northern Mexico. Twenty percent of the population nests on Santa Barbara Island. Heavy shipping traffic in and out of Los Angeles means there is always the threat of an oil spill, which would devastate the species. We’re analyzing these videos because almost nothing is known about their nesting habits, and if any sort of disaster were to befall the islands, the knowledge we’re collecting could make a big difference in rehabilitation efforts for this species.
Back in the screen room, Kevin is disappointed to find that the computer is in the process of backing up the most recent recordings to an external hard drive, meaning we won’t be able to see the videos while we’re here. He records over 30 gigabytes of video every day, he explains, so it takes several hours to transfer. Having watched videos all day every weekday for the past three weeks, we aren’t terribly disappointed.
He then leads us around the house to the nearest nest site, which is under a scrubby bush just a few feet from the edge of the deck. We take turns crouching down, pressing our faces as low and far into the bush as we can. And there, far in the back, we can see a murrelet’s head poking up out of a little depression. It’s not much of a view, but having only seen them on computer screens, we’re all thrilled with our first three-dimensional sighting. The tour continues and we see several other nest sites. As we move down a steep slope, we pass through an area where gulls are nesting. Their chicks are large, but still flightless, and they eye us suspiciously, looking like tiny, fearful dodo birds. “If you accidentally flush any chicks out of their nests, just grab them and put them back in,” Kevin advises us, “otherwise the other gulls can eat them.” He also points out that should we be dive-bombed, to hold our hands above our heads, “because they always aim for the highest point.” This duly noted, we glance skyward hesitantly before proceeding.

Gull chicks, wondering what we’re up to

Once we’ve made it back down to the path, Kevin asks us if we want to see them band an auklet chick, to which the answer is a pretty obvious yes. He and another researcher, Sasha, hop the railing and walk over to the little wooden structures that Kevin pointed out earlier. After a brief chase, they capture the chick and bring it back over to the path. It’s the first auklet chick ever banded on Santa Barbara, so everyone’s very excited. We all huddle around the chick and Sarah – the researcher who’s doing the banding. It takes a little while, but eventually we hear the band snap shut. After we pose for pictures, Kevin and Sasha take the bird back over to its nest, and our journey continues.

Banding the Cassin's auklet chick

Neha, Sasha, Jamie and Molly, with the auklet before it is released

For our last and most exciting adventure, we head back down to the dock area, where the nest sites we’ve been watching are located. We see Molly’s nest first, because it’s higher up and more accessible. She’s surprised to find that her nest is actually pretty high off the ground, meaning that the very punctual mouse that runs in and out of her nest nearly every day at the same time has been doing quite a bit of rock climbing.

Molly, happy to see that one of this years eggs hatched, but sad because the other has been eaten.

Reaching the nest Neha and I have been watching is a little more difficult. The pilings supporting the dock structure form a nearly impenetrable barrier between us and our nest. Kevin points to a horizontal piece of wood and directs Neha: Put your foot there, hold the vertical piling in both hands, swing around and step down on the other side. As soon as she moves toward the piling, the bull sea lion sitting at its base swings his head around and begins to bark at us. Neha steps up, and begins to swing around – Kevin is still holding onto her at this point – when the sea lion roars – actually roars, like a lion – and lunges toward her. Kevin yanks her back down and the sea lion goes back to barking and looking very, very angry. We consider our options. Kevin points at a small hole near the top of the wall and suggests we try climb through. He goes first, followed by Neha and then me, each of us going through feet-first, holding ourselves up with our arms while we search blindly for purchase. Kevin coaches us from the other side, and we make it through. Molly stays behind so that when we don’t return, she can point out to the rescuers exactly which sea lion did us in.

Later, Neha made up with the sea lion, and he let her pose for a picture

It’s pretty invigorating to finally see our nest in person, though we are still a little energized from our recent sea lion encounter. At first it looks unfamiliar, but then we start to recognize things. “Oh, that’s that rock!” and “So there is another entrance here, that’s where they’ve been going!” We don’t have much time, so we just admire it briefly, then walk back to the barrier. The sea lion has moved away, so we follow the more traditional route this time. He looks up from his lounging, but no longer seems interested, and we get by without incident.

Neha, Jamie, and the nest we’ve been watching

We wait on the top level of the dock structure for the boat to return. The fog is just beginning to burn off for the day, and we watch from above as the sea lions bask amid kelp fronds in the sparkling blue water. Soon enough we hear the thump thump thump of the boat rounding the corner, and we make our way back down to the ladder, where we’ll clamber back aboard, sprawl out on the padded benches, and nap until the tourists come back on board. It’ll be a long trip, but well worth it.
Once we got back to Ventura, we took a group photo with Kevin before saying goodbye, and heading back home to watch some more murrelet video!

Filed under: Channel Islands
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Where are they now? PART III

Posted by: nina-karnovsky | June 8, 2011 Comments Off |
Kristina McOmber ’12 studied seabirds on Southeast Farallon Island last summer. She is currently in Australia where she has spent most of 2011. She has explored the Great Barrier Reef and has also had some incredible encounters with terrestrial wildlife!

Kristina and SPIDER in Australia!


Laurel McFadden’06 studied little auks in the Arctic in 2005 and 2008. She has rarely been below the Arctic circle since! She spent a year on a Watson grant in Greenland, and the Norwegian, Russian and Canadian Arctic before moving to Alaska. She is currently getting her Master’s of Science degree at Universtiy of Alaska.

Laurel and her dog Biomese in Alaska


Allison Bailey’07 conducted research on little auks in 2006. After graduation she went back to the Norwegian Arctic on a Fulbright grant studying Arctic flora. She then went on to get a Master’s of Science degree at University Center of Svalbard where she studied the winter behavior of zooplankton in Arctic fjords. Allison is currently studying birds in the Sierras where she must be right at home because it is cold and snowy there!

Allison on the ice in a fjord of Svalbard



Christine Cass’05 and Colin Fiske’05 studied grunion and woodrats during the summer of 2005. Christine just finished her doctorate at University of South Florida and next month they will both move back to California where Christine will be a professor in the Oceanography Department at Humbolt State University.

Christine and Colin at a recent wedding

Filed under: News, Where are they now?

Where are they now? PART II

Posted by: nina-karnovsky | April 5, 2011 Comments Off |
Elizabeth Ng graduated last May. She did her senior thesis on the fish component of penguin diets. Elizabeth has been an intern at NJ Audubon working on a citizen science project monitoring habitat use and foraging behavior of herons in NJ and NYC.  She is now moving to Klamath Falls, OR for an internship through that Conservation and Land Management Internship Program.

Elizabeth Ng at NJ Audubon

 Nell Baldwin graduated in May, 2010 and did a thesis in which she experimentally investigated the potential of pigs being fed on pasture land (versus given grain feed). Nell worked in the Arctic on the little auk study in 2007 and the Channel Island surveys in 2010! Nell has been working for GreenCorps running campaigns to protect food and water. She has some shocking stories; did you know that arsenic is often put in chicken feed?! 

Nell (second from the right) at a GreenCorps event.

Julia Gleichman graduated last year and did her senior thesis on both the Arctic little auks and tropical wedge-tailed shearwaters! She worked on the Arctic little auk research project in 2008. Julia won the biology department senior prize and she is now at Pomona College conducting neuroscience research on zebrafish.   

Julia with her very happy zebrafish.

Zachary Brown graduated in 2007. He did his senior thesis on using stable isotope chemistry of grunion otoliths to assess migration patterns. Zach worked on the Arctic little auk project the summer after he graduated and is now a graduate student at Stanford University. Zach has been collecting data for his doctorate in both the Arctic and Antarctic!

Zachary Brown on the ice in Antarctica

Filed under: Where are they now?
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Posted by: nina-karnovsky | January 31, 2011 Comments Off |

People who follow this blog often ask me about the where the student members of the lab go after graduation. Here is an update on some of last year’s (2010) graduates:

Charlotte  who worked on the Prairie project and was also my senior thesis student is at Cambridge University working on a Master’s degree. She is experiencing a very cold winter there!

Charlotte and her Snowman

Kristen who worked on the Channel Islands project is currently experiencing a very cold summer in Antarctica where she is studying penguins.

Kristen with her Adelie penguin pals.

Augie who also worked on the Channel Islands project is now on Fulbright Fellowship in Poland and will be heading north to the Arctic for a chilly summer!

Augie on the 'molo' (pier) in Sopot, Poland.

Filed under: Where are they now?
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Posted by: nina-karnovsky | August 18, 2010 Comments Off |


Filed under: Herring, News


Posted by: nina-karnovsky | August 18, 2010 Comments Off |

An article has just been posted about summer “vacation” with pictures of Augie, Kristen and Charlotte:

Filed under: Channel Islands, Fun, News, Prairie

as chicks fledge we enter data

Posted by: krm12008 | July 28, 2010 Comments Off |

Hello again from the Farallons!

In the past few weeks we have been continuing/finishing up our studies on the various seabirds here.  It was also recently my turn to update the official Farallon Island blog, here is a link to my post there:

We finished Common Murre diet watch! Technically we were supposed to continue diet watch until only 10 chicks were in the plot, but because there were SO many feedings this year, our data’s sample size included over 7000 feedings (as compared to last year’s 1500 feedings), so Russ and Pete officially said we had plenty of data to work with.

Also, I dont know if I’ve mentioned this previously, but another one of Katrina’s studies that I took over when she unexpectedly left was her gull plot (H-East).

In gull studies, we follow gulls of known age (they are banded birds).  They essentially claim a territory that they maintain throughout the season (usually for their lifetime, with their mate), and we have a special labeling system to identify them, and we monitor their breeding attempts.

You can resight gulls to! Here’s how (banded birds hang out a lot in San Francisco locales, like AT&T park, the SF zoo, Golden Gate Park, places where there is food, etc): You can first tell what year the bird hatched by its color combination, and you’re likely to see gulls between 3-15 years old (they have been known to live much longer, some of the gulls in my plot are way older than me!) we use a code that gives the order of the bands by upper left (upper band on the left leg) lower left (lower band on left leg), upper right, lower right.  For example, blue-yellow-metal-nothing indicates a bird that has a blue band on its left leg above a yellow band also on its left leg, and only a metal band on its right leg. (Metal bands also have a number that you can usually read with some binoculars.  If you actually see a bird and record its combo AND number, you can let the folks at know and they would be thrilled to hear about it!)

I’ll list the hatch year and the combo here starting with 1986:

1986: yellow-metal-nothing-nothing

1987: blue-metal-nothing-nothing

1988: green-metal-nothing-nothing

1989: black-metal-nothing-nothing

1990: reddishbrown-metal-nonthing-nothing

1991: gray-metal-nothing-nothing

1992: nothing-nothing-yellow-metal

1993: nothing-nothing-white-metal

1994: nothing-nothing-tan-metal

1995: nothing-nothing-green-metal

1996: white-nothing-metal-nothing

1997: nothing-nothing-blue-metal

1998: nothing-nothing-black-metal

1999: nothing-nothing-gray-metal

2000: yellow-nothing-metal-nothing


2002: green-nothing-metal-nothing

2003: black-nothing-metal-nothing

2004: red-nothing-metal-nothing

2005: gray-nothing-metal-nothing

2006: metal-nothing-yellow-nothing

2007: metal-nothing-blue-nothing

2008: metal-nothing-white-nothing

2009: metal-nothing-green-nothing

2010: metal-nothing-black-nothing

So that means this year, all the chicks that are hatching are getting banded with a metal band (with numbers) on its left leg and a black plastic band on its right leg.  After we band all the “followed” chicks (chicks hatched to at least one parent that had a band, thus of known-age, that bred within the plot boundaries), we choose a day where we do “saturation banding”, which is where we band ALL of the chicks, regardless of whether or not their parents have bands, within the plot boundaries.  We don’t just band all the chicks on the island because we only band birds we expect to have to resight later and know the age of, and since western gulls tend to breed in the same plot they were hatched in, we only band within the plot.

This is Melinda banding a gull chick.  Banding gull chicks takes teamwork.  Other species breed in crevices, burrows, or study boxes designed for animal-handling, but gulls breed out in the open and their chicks roam around.  In order to handle a gull chick without scaring it (which causes it to run really fast away from us and into another gull’s usually-hostile territory), we have to circle it and slowly and gradually close in on it from all sides with towels, and as we get really close, one of us flings our towel on top of the gull which usually immediately calms it down (they like to be “hidden”), and then we can band it.  Sometimes they fidget, which is why my hand is holding down this gull chick in the picture.

Sometimes, the gulls breed really close to other study sites, and when we check on these study sites, the gull chicks get scared and want to run away, so one of us has to hold on to the gull chick while the rest of us take/record data.  Here is Jessie holding a gull chick while Michelle in the bottom left checks on a Rhinocerous Auklet box, and Russ next to Jessie.

After reading all that text, I’ll bet you want to see some more pictures, right???

Three gull chicks, mostly feathered, roosting together.

Two fully feathered chicks standing.  They reach their adult plumage at about 2 years of age, and don’t start breeding until they’re about 4 or 5 years old.

A gull chick begging for food from its parent, not pictured.

For some reason, some of the chicks can’t tuck their wings in properly, and their wings are always sagging and drooping.   We don’t really know why this is happening, but its likely due to poor nutrition or some kind of contamination during the egg forming or incubation period.  I personally think they are zombie gulls.

Poor parenting leads to injured or dead chicks.  This chicks parents for some reason dont defend their territory regularly, and when they’re gone, this little chick gets beat up on by its neighbors.  It’s still alive, though!

This is “Bobby”, one of the oldest chicks on the island.  He’s totally fully-feathered and can fly nowadays, but as any chick would logically do, still returns to his parents territory as long as his parents still feed him when he begs.  We try to refrain from naming the birds so that we don’t get too attached, but sometimes you can’t help it (and he wasnt a study bird).

This WEGU found a meal of one of the Common Murre chicks.  This is why you can’t get too attached to any wildlife.  Wildlife are not pets.  This is a common misconception amongst many people who dont understand why we don’t attempt to “save” every organism on the island.  If we save all the chicks from much of their inevitable death, you get population explosions and then a concurrent resource depletion, leading to a population crash.  Also, if you save all the chicks from the gulls, then some of the gulls might starve.  Also, saving chicks from death wouldn’t allow us to study them at all since we wouldn’t be getting any idea about the birds ability to raise their own young.  We are here to observe and report, not to interfere and meddle with complex food webs that we are still attempting to learn about.

Alright, on to a different species.

Yesterday, I brought my camera out with us during a routine Cassin’s Auklet check to document a little.

This is a very very tiny Cassin’s Auklet chick that was left alone a little earlier than it should have by its parent.  We really really quickly took a weight and a very quick picture before hurriedly putting it back.

What a clean and organized box! Nice job, Cassin’s! This is a study box we use for Cassins.  The top is kept covered with a shade and rocks on top so a gull can’t knock off the top and steal whats inside (we try to imitate the safety of the burrows Cassin’s usually dig out), and it has a tunnel that serves as an entrance/exit they use.  When we check the boxes, we cover the tunnel with our knee or foot, and carefully lift up the top to look at the contents.  Usually once a chick is hatched the box has a ton of poop and doesnt look this pretty.  When an adult is first incubating its leg we check to see if the adult is banded and if it is of known-age, we take some measurements to record.

This is a partly-feathered Cassin’s Auklet chick that I weighed.  It’s down is such a soft gray color! The iris of their eyes turns very milky-white at about age 4 or 5 years.

There also have been TONS of Cetaceans around the island this past week.  We’ve been regularly seeing almost 100 humpback whales every day, including the usual 2 or 3 gray whales, and really exciting – 7 blue whales that have been hanging out! About 100 risso dolphins have also been feeding nearby, as well as some Pacific white-sided dolphins.  I’ll bet there’s lots to see on those tourist whaler boats that come out here all the time.  It’s kind of ridiculous how spoiled we get, if we only see a few humpback whales, the regular 2 gray whales, and a few other cetaceans, we’ll exclaim BORING! but in a kind of silly way because we totally know we’re so lucky to see all this amazing wildlife.

Anyway, I have to go back to entering data! I’m nearing the end of my 8-week stint here, which means I have to enter/analyze all the data onto computers that I’ve collected here out in the field so far. Hope you enjoyed the post (and don’t forget to check out the Farallon blog, Los Farallones! The link is at the top of the post!)

much love,

Filed under: News

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