Shoney Wind Kittiwake Tower collaborators:
Dr. Kyle Elliott is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Natural Resources at McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, and project investigator with the Institute for Seabird Research and Conservation. He completed his BSc at the University of British Columbia, and MSc and PhD at the University of Manitoba. Kyle holds a Canada Research Chair in Arctic Ecology and his research program has a strong focus on the ecology and energetics of seabirds. He first collaborated with the Institute for Seabird Research and Conservation for his dissertation research and is now a leading academic partner with the ISRC. Kyle has published over 100 scientific papers on seabird ecology, movement and energetics.
Shannon Whelan is a PhD candidate at McGill University who works with the Institute for Seabird Research and Conservation. She completed her BSc at Trent University and MSc at the University of Ottawa. Shannon’s dissertation research uses long-term monitoring data and experimental food supplementation of black-legged kittiwakes to understand drivers of seabird movement and phenology. Shannon has published nine scientific papers on seabird physiology, ecology, and movement.
History of Middleton Island
The unique tower colony of black-legged kittiwakes on Middleton Island, Alaska, is a retrofit of an abandoned Cold War vintage radar tower. Decommissioned in 1963, the tower and other buildings constituting a small U.S. Air Force base lay dormant for many years before they were repurposed for seabird research by field biologists. In 1966, the federal government sold the property to a private entity, the Middleton Island Investment Company (MIDICO), whose partners speculated the site would be a valuable base of operations for offshore oil and gas development in the Gulf of Alaska. Such development never materialized, however, and lacking any maintenance to speak of, the buildings have deteriorated comprehensively, except for those targeted for renovation by researchers. Chief among the salvaged structures is the ~70-foot tall main tower, which was first colonized for nesting by a few kittiwake pairs in 1986.
Since 1974—intermittently at first but annually from 1986 to the present, employees of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Survey, and others have conducted seabird research and monitoring on Middleton. Before nesting birds settled on the Air Force buildings, such activity occurred in formerly extensive natural habitats around the island. However, uplifted terrain, erosion, and successional change resulting from the 1964 Alaska earthquake gradually rendered those original sea cliffs unsuitable for nesting, and today the Air Force buildings, and a rusty shipwreck on the island’s southwest shore, are essential for the persistence of ledge-nesting birds (kittiwakes, cormorants, murres) on Middleton.
From 1992 to 2011, with the permission of the property’s owners, biologists camped in, modified, and set up long-term research protocols on the deteriorating buildings of the Air Force site. At the main tower, this entailed the installation of new exterior walls, wooden nesting ledges for kittiwakes and cormorants, and hundreds of windows (one-way mirror glass) behind the ledges to facilitate daily observation and access to birds and nests from inside the building. Starting in 1996, supplemental feeding at some of those managed nest sites (around 72 sites annually) became an integral part of the research protocol—a long-term experiment spanning 25 years (through 2020).
The tower colony and supplemental feeding of kittiwakes employ seabirds as indicators of annual variation and trends in their marine environment. The value of such work increases disproportionally the longer it continues. Finding little enthusiasm among government agencies for developing or maintaining a permanent station at Middleton, biologists familiar with the situation founded in 2009 a nonprofit entity, the Institute for Seabird Research and Conservation (ISRC), as a possible means of achieving that end. In 2011, MIDICO transferred to ISRC its real property holdings on Middleton at a generously discounted price, thereby placing in reliably friendly hands the rudiments of a permanent biological station.
While much remains to be done in terms of renovation, new construction, and general site clean-up at the Middleton station, ISRC and all future beneficiaries of this project are indebted to numerous entities whose support, financial and otherwise, have made the enterprise possible. The idea for a permanent station could not have been conceived nor incubated if not for the funds, personnel, time, and materials invested by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Geological Survey over many years. Chugach Alaska Corporation provided free housing and research access on corporation-owned lands in years before the Air Force site gained prominence. Funds for consummating the MIDICO-ISRC transaction were provided equally by The Conservation Fund and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. Vital financial assistance during ISRC’s nascency was received from the Rasmuson Foundation, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Audubon Alaska, and Pacific Coast Joint Venture. For in-kind logistic support on multiple occasions the project is indebted to the Native Village of Eyak Tribal Council and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Lately (since 2015) our remote station has Internet access generously provided by Marine Exchange Alaska.
Since 2017, most of ISRC’s operating funds have come by way of a cooperative agreement between the Institute and the U.S. Geological Survey (Alaska Science Center). The activity is part of Gulf Watch Alaska, a long-term environmental monitoring program financed by the Exxon-Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council. ISRC is the antithesis of a self-sufficient operation. The station is above all a vehicle for collaborative research. For more than 30 years the efforts of professional researchers and students from various academic and scientific institutions have greatly increased the scope and impact of seabird studies at the station. In many instances, some level of direct cost-sharing has been part of the equation. To date, the ever-growing list of such partners and stakeholders includes:
- University of Alaska Anchorage
- University of Alaska Fairbanks
- McGill University
- University of Ottawa
- University of Guelph
- Queen’s University, Canada
- Oregon State University
- Bucknell University
- University of Tsukuba, Japan
- Hokkaido University
- Konrad Lorenz Institute for Comparative Ethology
- Université Paul Sabatier (Toulouse, FR)
- French Polar Institute (IPEV)
- National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS, Toulouse)
- Université Pierre & Marie Curie, Paris
- University of Manitoba
- University of Kiel, Germany
- Université de Lausanne, Switzerland
- Norwegian Polar Institute
- Prince William Sound Science Center
- University of Liverpool
The success of the Middleton project also depends vitally on the contributions of volunteer and externally funded research assistants, who collect and manage data, ply their esoteric skills, and perform all manner of day-to-day operations at the station over what is typically a 3- to 4-month field season. Since 1978, that roster comprises around 160 stalwart workers from more than a dozen countries and all regions of the U.S.
Finally, and on behalf of all the above, ISRC thanks Federal Aviation Administration managers and field personnel who conduct FAA operations on Middleton for logistical support, loans of equipment, tools, expertise, camaraderie and countless other favors extended over 40 years. For more information please visit : MiddletonIsland.org