Breeding Survey and Data

Whidbey Audubon Society and the Island County Marine Resources Committee sponsor our on-going study of breeding Pigeon Guillemots on Whidbey Island, Washington. We also receive funding from Ott and Murphy Winery and the National Audubon Society. The research project assesses the population and productivity of the approximately 1,000 guillemots that form breeding colonies around the island.

Whidbey Island, a long snake-like island in north Puget Sound, stretches from about 30 miles north of Seattle nearly to Canadian waters. Tall bluffs, particularly along the island’s west side, offer safe burrow sites that are relatively near rich feeding areas. In all but two of the 25 regularly surveyed colonies, the guillemots burrow into nearly vertical sandy cliffs termed “erosional bluff.” (One colony breeds on a deserted offshore wooden structure; the other in rocky cliffs at the far northern end of the island.)

delivery to burrow-new-During each breeding season over 40 trained volunteers visit assigned colonies once each week from late June through the end of August. The volunteers sit quietly and monitor the birds for one hour. They take population counts, locate nesting burrows, record the birds’ behavior, document adults visiting and carrying food to the burrows and record disturbances.

The summer study also includes more concentrated observation by a paid intern/contractor. The contractor spends five hours per day visiting a single colony and, beginning at dawn, records all behavior of the birds.

The project will continue for several years in order to track the Pigeon Guillemot population, gauge the rate of reproduction and determine their feeding needs. Since this species is near the top of the food chain, its vitality is a good indication of the overall health of Island County’s Marine Stewardship Areas, which include the waters around Whidbey Island.  Summary graphs can be viewed on our data website:


Pigeon Guillemot Study — Procedures for 2017 season

  1. The procedures and field card have been revised for 2017 to reflect changes in procedures. Please use the 2017 field card and discard any old field cards.
  2. Safety is our first priority. If you can’t go with a partner, take a cell phone and/or be sure someone knows you are on the beach and when you’re planning to return.
  3. It is expected that for each field card record you will sit quietly at your study area

    for one hour and observe the activity. Arrive early and let the birds settle into

    normal behavior before you begin the survey.

  4. The earlier you can get to your colony the better chance of seeing more activity. You may begin your survey at any time before 8:45 am. We need a total count of birds before 9:00 each time you visit.
  5. We ask that you visit your site at least ten times this season. One visit should fall during each week beginning with the week of June 12th. Continue visiting your site for 10 weeks. After the 10 weeks, if there are two consecutive weeks with no burrow acitivy (no VBs or FBs) you my stop the survey.
  6. The focus of this year’s study is to determine four things:
    1. The maximum birds present during your survey. We suggest that you

      count the birds when you first arrive, about half way through your survey and again at the end. At any time, if there appears to be an increase in the birds, count again. Select the largest number of birds counted prior to 9:00 a.m.

    2. The number of active burrows.
    3. The type of fish delivered.
    4. The disturbances that change the guillemot’s behavior.
  7. First locate and identify the active/occupied burrows. Make a drawing or take a photo so that you can locate, number and remember the burrows. Make a duplicate drawing or photo and send it to Frances, so that we can more easily fill in substitutes and so that we can understand your colony more completely.
  8. A burrow is considered “active/occupied” when:
    You see a bird disappear into or emerge from the burrow (VB) (A “ledge sit” is not valid, nor is fresh guano.)
  9. For each active/occupied burrow, tally the behaviors noted. These will include VB (Visiting Burrow), FB (Fish to Burrow). Note time for each VB and FB. (See field card.)
  10. Most fish delivered will be either sculpin or gunnels. If you can identify the fish delivered, please indicate the type of fish. If you can’t, tally under “Other/ Unknown.” (Identify the prey if possible. For example, if you see a perch, cod or shrimp mark that under “Other/Unknown.”)
  11. Under “Colony Wide Activity”, tally the total number of birds, volunteer hours (including travel, survey and data entry for all members of the team) and disturbances.
  12. A Disturbance should be noted if the birds vacate the burrows, fly off the water, leave land for the water, stay in the water rather than tending burrows or seem disturbed by people, dogs, boats or predators, etc. Number and identify the disturbances and use the number to indicate the resulting change in behavior.
  1. Either before or afer your survey walk under the burrows and look for dead chicks, egg shells, rejected prey, etc. We encourage you to mark down any unusual behavior or anything that seems noteworthy. Just write in the margins or on the back of the field card.
  2. If your colony has moved substantially, let us know so we can get new GPS readings.

15. Make a decision. Question marks or number ranges are difficult to interpret.

  1. A. Be sure to copy your field cards (or keep good notes) and snail mail them to

    Frances Wood within three weeks of completing the survey. We don’t want to lose any surveys and later we may ask you to check computer output against your records.
    B. Designate someone on your team to enter your data on line. The data for each survey should be entered within one week of the survey.

  2. If for any reason you must miss a week, or your plans change and you are not able to complete the study, contact the co-ordinator assigned to your site immediately. For a planned vacation, please let your site contact know at least one week ahead of your absence so that a substitute can go out with you and shadow your survey to learn about the colony.
  3. Please snail mail field cards within three weeks of your survey. Send to: Frances Wood

    P.O. Box 1254 Langley, WA 98260

Thank you for your time and effort given to this study. It is deeply appreciated. Please don’t hesitate to call or e-mail any questions or concerns you may have.




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