To an undiscerning eye, they don’t look very exotic or special, but the seabird known as the Pigeon Guillemot plays an important role on and about Whidbey Island and the rest of Puget Sound.
The seabird is so popular, in fact, Pigeon Guillemot Appreciation Day was just observed at Ott and Murphy’s Winery and Tasting Room in Langley. The event was put on by the Guillemot Research Group, a citizen science project of the Whidbey Audubon Society.
The group, founded by Whidbey Island author and naturalist Frances Wood, along with professor Phyllis Kind, has been conducting an annual breeding survey of the seabirds the past 12 years.
”This is the only regularly breeding seabird in Puget Sound,” said Wood, adding that about 1,000 of the seabirds nest annually on Whidbey Island. “It’s important to monitor them because this is the only seabird that has been identified as an indicator species.”
That is important because it means the Pigeon Guillemot, or PIGUs, for short, is a great indicator as to the health of the environment in general and Puget Sound in particular.
“They are like the proverbial canary in the coal mine,” said Govinda Rosling, a past intern with Guillemot Research Group and current volunteer. “It’s nice to keep tabs on the bird’s population; if it’s down, we know there could be a larger problem that needs to be addressed.”
Between 60 and 70 volunteers with the research group spend one hour in the morning each week on the beach near the PIGUs burrows, beginning in June and lasting until late August or early September. They count the birds and burrows, track when the eggs hatch by when the adults begin delivering food to the burrow, track the type of fish being eaten and how frequently they deliver the fish to the burrow.
“It helps us monitor the population and the breeding success,” said Wood.
All of this research is collected, tabulated and presented to the Puget Sound Partnership, which monitors all marine species in the Sound. The data is also presented to the Island County Marine Resources Committee.
“It is citizen science at its best,” said Wood.
The group has one paid intern each year. It is their job to spend three hours on the beach from 6 to 9 a.m. each weekday morning, collecting even more specific data. Emily Terao is this year’s intern, a self-described “huge bird nerd.”
“I love to watch birds and thought this would be the perfect way to get involved and pursue my passion,” she said. “Every half hour I count the birds I see, I record any time there is a fish in an adult’s mouth, what kind of fish it is, what burrow they bring it to and what time they deliver it.”
By watching this behavior, volunteers can determine when the eggs have hatched, how many hatchlings there are (typically two) and when they have fledged, or left the nest.
Terao also takes photographs and videos of the birds and their behavior.
“I’ve seen some really cool things,” she said. “They are really adorable. They have distinct personalities, they play. And a lot of people don’t even know what they are.”
According to Wood, PIGUs do resemble pigeons in terms of the shape of their head and necks, which probably explains their name. However, they are slightly larger than a pigeon, reaching about 13-inches. They are dark brown, have white wing patches and bright red feet.
PIGU’s mate for life. They typically spend most of the year offshore, although they can be found on Whidbey year round. They return in May or June to nest in burrows dug into the island’s bluffs. There are approximately 25 colonies on Whidbey, stretching the entire length of the island, from Deception Pass Bridge to Possession Point. Most of the colonies are located along the western shore of the island, but there are several colonies on the East, from Mariner’s Cove and Crescent Harbor to Penn Cove to Pratt’s Bluff.
Anyone who is interested can get involved in the research project and get more information from the group’s website at www.pigeonguillemot.org or on its Facebook page.
“I think our volunteers enjoy how much fun they are to watch,” said Kind. “They are charming. We all fall in love with them.”
“The Guillemots are easy to fall in love with,” agreed Rosling. “They are so much fun to watch and they’re a very important seabird. It is definitely a labor of love.”