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Pigeon Guillemot Survey
The pigeon guillemot, Cepphus columba, is a medium-sized auk or alcid (similar to puffins). They are one of five alcids that breed in Washington State. However, pigeon guillemots are the only species to breed in the interior of the Salish Sea. They also utilize the Salish Sea in both the breeding and the non-breeding season. These seabirds are near the top of their food chain, monitoring their populations and breeding success can help provide insights into the health of subtidal marine environments. This makes them particularly interesting to researchers as an indicator species for the overall health of this unique ecosystem we call home.
The original survey goals and protocols were established by Frances Wood and Dr. Phyllis Kind on Whidbey Island in 2004. Today, volunteers survey in seven regions, including both Whidbey and Camano, as far as the South Sound, and the Olympic Peninsula, working together as the Salish Sea Guillemot Network.
Volunteers to perform weekly surveys of established breeding colonies in the Salish Sea. Since the pigeon guillemot utilizes both coastal bluffs and marine ecosystems, their breeding success can be a harbinger of things to come. As volunteers, we monitor their numbers, map active burrows, count deliveries and type of prey to chicks in burrows. This monitoring seeks to fill knowledge gaps and inform our understanding of the health of nearshore marine environments.
Click on the Survey Site name below to learn more about each one of the sites where we have found breeding colonies of Pigeon Guillemots.
Fort Casey North
We survey the breeding activities of the Pigeon Guillemot. Weekly, we monitor active burrows via prey deliveries and perform a total count of the birds in the colony.
Highest bird count this year in our colony.
A four volunteer team sit and monitor bird activity for one hour each week. We collect data including: number of birds at the beginning, middle and end of each survey, number of burrow visits, prey deliveries to burrows including species and what burrows are active. We also monitor for bird disturbances during our survey as well as other objective information including tide data.
Rolling Hills is often the 1st monitoring site on Whidbey Island to have burrow activity or prey deliveries. 2021 was no exception. Our first prey delivery was recorded on June 2nd, 2021.
On early mornings, sitting on the beach for an hour each week, watching the activity of these engaging seabirds is not only meditative, but purposeful. On a standardized Beach Data Sheet, the number of birds, their burrow activity, and disturbances (primarily eagles) that send them far off-shore are documented. This information is entered into many data bases, such as the Department of Fish and Wildlife and the University of Washington.
The highest number of fish deliveries to one burrow during a one hour survey.
Clinton Ferry Dock
Surveyors have observed guillemots with fish flying under the dock, however this colony is challenging to monitor since we can’t pinpoint where the burrows are located. One exception is a very visible “burrow” located on the south side of the loading ramp. Despite the huge ferry coming and going every half hour and hundreds of cars rumbling by only a few feet away, this burrow has produced chicks at least twice in the last few years.
Burrow that is easily visible on the south side of the loading ramp.
This site is located on the west side of the island on property of the Naval Airstation Whidbey. It is a low bank with an extensive mud flat run-out during low-tide. The colony has remained active, year after year. Counting the number of birds at the beginning, middle and end, noting anything that disturbs the birds, and documenting all burrow activity are all standardized components of each and every survey hour during the summer months.
Years this site has been a part of the Whidbey Pigeon Guillemot Survey.
This small colony is only monitored for population counts. It is located on the Naval Airstation and has not been reliable in producing active burrows.
Two surveyors monitor this site, and they are both members of the SWS Class of 2021.
This colony is located on the south east side of Whidbey Island on Whidbey Camano Land Trust property. A delightful 30-minute walk takes you to the half-dozen burrows on a fairly low bluff.
Active burrows that are easily observed due to the low height of the bluff.
Located on the east side of Whidbey Island south of Penn Cove, this small colony has decreased over the years. On average only one or two burrows are successful each breeding season. It is within the flight pattern of the Navy practice touch and go field.
Although there are a small number of burrows at this site, as many as 33 Guillemots have been recorded at one count.
One burrow carved into the end of a decaying beam of an old structure has produced chicks in the past. However, recently rock doves have taken ownership of the old burrow. It appears the small colony is looking for new housing and have unsuccessfully tried air holes in transient boats at the boat repair dock to the north.
The one Guillemot burrow at this site that was usurped by rock doves in 2021. This sent the Guillemots in search of a new burrow site.
Way down on the southern tip of Whidbey Island at Possession Point State Park, you will find a small colony with one or two active burrows. About a dozen guillemots annually congregate here during breeding season.
The average number of Guillemots that congregate at this site annually.
We survey the breeding activities of the Pigeon Guillemot. Weekly, during the summer months, we monitor active burrows via prey deliveries, any disturbances that send the birds far off shore, and record a total count of the birds attending the colony.
This colony has 3 human made structures that support active burrows – rock jetty, old wharf, ferry landing.
Because the Pigeon Guillemot Survey is standardized by way of a Beach Data Sheet for each observer at each colony on each given day, the process of monitoring Guillemots during the summer is the same. The beginning, middle and end bird counts, the burrow activity (including type of prey deliveries) and the various kinds of disturbances that frighten the birds vary from week to week. One never knows what each hour on the beach will unveil as it relates to these marine birds.
This colony has had 29 observed prey deliveries to date to 6 burrows over a 6 week period.
Lake Hancock North
A three member volunteer team monitor bird activity for one hour each week during the summer. Following a set protocol, they collect data including number of birds at the beginning, middle and end of each survey, what burrows are active, number of burrow visits, and prey deliveries to burrows, including species of prey (fish). Disturbances during the survey, in addition to other objective information, including tide data, is documented. There is room on the survey form (Beach Data Sheet) to add observational notes, especially for calling attention to anything unusual.
This colony has 2 active burrows with a high count of 70 Pigeon Guillemots. Observers have noted a significant decrease in burrows over the last 2 years.
At this site, one volunteer sits along the shoreline and monitors bird activity for one hour each week for at least 10 weeks, June to August. Following a defined protocol, data on number of birds at the beginning, middle and end of each survey, active burrows, number of burrow visits, and the type of prey deliveries to burrows, including the exact time these occur, is collected. Monitoring disturbances to the birds is also an important part of the survey, as is objective information such as tide data. General survey notation, especially for any unusual occurrence or activity, is added by the observer.
This small colony is very efficient. It has a high count of 12 Pigeon Guillemots with 2 very active burrows.
Hastie Lake South
We had an interesting disturbance on Week 2 of the PG Survey at Hastie Lake South. We noticed several birds who had gathered on the meeting rock and most of the birds swimming suddenly moved further out. Moments later, a coyote wandered into the site from the south. It came within about 25 yards of my spot and hung around for five minutes or so. The coyote seemed to want to pass by me on the beach, but turned back south and disappeared around the point. It was a thrilling wildlife encounter.
One example of a “disturbance” during Week 2 – June 15 of the survey at Hastie Lake South as recorded by Lac Pope.
Bush Point Dock
Surveying at this location is challenging when the birds hide under the deck of the B & B where they can’t be seen. This accounts for consistently low bird counts. This hiding habit may be due to two eagles that regularly fly low directly over this colony.
Despite eagle activity, completion with rock doves, popularity of the public boat launch, and the B & B directly adjacent, as many as 7 Pigeon Guillemots attend this colony.
This long stretch of sandy beach and precipitous bluff requires five observers who weekly document the Pigeon Guillemot activity at this site on Useless Bay. With a high bird count of 61 in June, keeping track of the tide, burrow identification, burrow activity, prey deliveries, disturbances, and general notations make the hour productive for these volunteers.
Coyote was a potential “disturbance” blending into the Double Bluff landscape on an August morning.
This is a small site requiring two observers who complete the training and follow the weekly survey protocol each early morning from June through August. Wildlife sightings accompany their hour-long observations, including deer, seals, orcas, eagles, heron, kingfishers, and rough-winged swallows.
Time of day on June 22, when a pod of orcas in Admiralty Inlet passed by the surveyors and the Pigeon Guillemots at this site.
Swantown is on West Beach in Oak Harbor facing the Straits of Juan de Fuca. Wind, high waves and foggy mornings in addition to a bluff that is evolving and eroding make this site ever-changing for the two observers. Nonetheless, following the assigned protocol, the tide, number of Guillemots, burrow activity, prey deliveries, and disturbances are noted during each weekly early morning hour.
Week after week, 2 eagles “bedevil” the two observers as well as the Pigeon Guillemots.
Monroe Landing is on the northeast side of Penn Cove, and the observation site is along a driftwood-laden stretch of beach. In addition to watching Pigeon Guillemot behavior and documenting it on a Beach Data Sheet according to protocol, the one consistent, long-time observer is often rewarded with the morning sun and inspiring vistas.
This season, 1 brand new and subsequently busy burrow was activated by the Pigeon Guillemots at this site.
This site is short in space but long on Guillemot activity. The bluff is also not high, which causes the Guillemots to fly directly overhead to make their burrow visits or to bring prey to their chicks. Located on Admiralty Inlet, facing the Olympic Mountains and the Kitsap Peninsula, the three observers have an exquisite view as they document Guillemot breeding behavior for one hour, once a week during the summer months.
On less than a 20 foot length of bluff, under an overhanging bramble-laden ledge, at least three Pigeon Guillemot burrows are active.
Near the hundreds of people visiting the Coupeville Wharf every summer, a quiet colony of Pigeon Guillemots choose their burrows and follow their natural inclinations to breed and raise chicks. One observer documents the burrow activity on the bluff, on the wharf beams and at the passenger dock throughout the summer, following consistent protocol for accurate data base entries.
While eating shellfish close to the burrows, 1 raccoon caused a measurable disturbance at this colony.
At this serene, east-facing site on Saratoga Passage, two to four surveyors monitor the Guillemot breeding behavior through the summer months. With disappointment, there’s no indication of breeding success at Pratts Bluff this season and a reduction of Guillemots over the years has been noted. However, sightings of seals, common loons, porpoise, a soaring red-tail hawk, hummingbirds, and a flock of white pelicans have been documented.
During an hour survey in July, observers noted a flurry of 6 to 8 Pigeon Guillemots flying in wide circles between the bluff and the water and 3 separate ledge sitting events with several of the birds.
Lagoon Point South
On the shores of Admiralty Inlet, facing the Olympic Mountains and Marrowstone Island, Pigeon Guillemot activity keeps the two observers alert. Using the prescribed protocol and the Beach Data Sheet, they document tide at the outset of the hour, number of birds at the beginning, middle and end, burrow identification, burrow visits with or without prey, and anything that disturbs the birds in this colony.
With a high count of 9 burrows, two intrepid observers keep track of Pigeon Guillemot breeding activity.
Lagoon Point North
On survey mornings during the summer months, volunteers at this west-facing bluff document Pigeon Guillemot breeding behavior. With a high count of 86 birds this season and as many as ten burrows to monitor, the three to four vigilant observers document tide, beginning, middle and end bird counts, burrow identification, burrow visits and prey deliveries. The time each of these occurs is also noted as are the common disturbances from eagles that share this site on Admiralty Inlet with the marine birds.
In mid-July, a dead, newly-hatched chick was discovered at the foot of the bluff. Observers rarely find dead chicks. This one will be preserved and saved for future Whidbey Audubon education programs.
Early mornings are often serene along this stretch of shoreline and equally long stretch of bluffs. From June through July and August, the Pigeon Guillemot activity increased both in number of birds and number of burrows in the bluff. As Guillemot activity built over the summer months, the four to five observers continued to identify new burrows so they could accurately monitor beginning, middle and end bird counts, burrow visits, and prey deliveries to newly-hatched chicks in the burrows. Views of the Olympic Mountains and the entirety of Mutiny Bay, along with osprey, heron, seals, and eagles, accompany these observers during each hour of documentation.
The highest Pigeon Guillemot count during a single hour of surveying this season was 96, which was the middle count on Monday, August 9, at 7:50.
Country Club North/Cavalero Beach, Camano Is.
We observe the Country Club North/Cavalero colony of pigeon guillemots. Sitting still as driftwood, we document fish deliveries of gunnels or sculpin to hatchlings in bluff burrows. “PG’s” whistling tunes, bumble bee flight paths, and social interactions keep us coming back! Heron ballets, king fisher acrobatics, and low-lying marine mists with Mt. Baker in attendance, enliven our weekly morning hour of immersive observation.
Our highest count of pigeon guillemots at Cavalero in 2021.