The night before Ryan Mong was scheduled to start his summer job on Buldir Island, the lanky 31-year-old ducked into the cargo hold of the federal research vessel Tiglax to make sure his supplies were in order.
“All these white boxes are the food that we’ve ordered from a distributor,” Mong said, gesturing past gently swaying piles of waterproof Pelican cases. “Packed up the things we really like — nutritional yeast, the Srirachas, the stuff you just always have a lot of back home.”
Mong was one of a handful of biologists hired by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to work in the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. They maintain nine field stations stretching from southwest Alaska to Saint Lazaria Island near Sitka.
But Mong and his colleagues — an adventurous couple, also in their 30s — signed up for a special challenge. Their job was to spend three months studying seabird nests on a windy speck called Buldir Island.
Located more than 300 miles west of Adak Island and 70 miles from the next nearest piece of land, Buldir is the most isolated island in the Aleutian Chain. It’s also the most pristine; the fox breeding operations that altered the ecologies of other islands never took here.
Without any threat from foxes, seabirds had free rein on Buldir. More species now build their nests among the island’s jagged rock faces than any other location in the Northern Hemisphere.
The Alaska Maritime refuge has been sending biologists into voluntary exile on Buldir each year since 1988. The program has become legendary among bird researchers such as Ryan Mong — and the scientist who first clued him in during a field season in Arizona.
“It was like, ‘Oh, you get to ride a boat for two weeks out to the end of the Aleutian Chain! And there are so many seabirds that they’re going to hypnotize you!’” Mong said. “So I immediately got on email, sent the resume off.”
It took three years and a stint at another Alaska Maritime research camp in the Pribilof Islands before Mong secured a spot on Buldir. “To describe it to family, I just call it National Geographic Syndrome,” Mong said. “You want to go to the wildest places, the places with the most species, and enjoy the show. And it’s quite a show.”
A “Swiss cheese” island
When the birds come back to roost on Buldir, it seems like there’s no number large enough to capture them all — and certainly not enough space. The island is just 4 miles long and two-and-half miles wide.
Nests are built on top of nests, filling every available nook and cranny.
“You might find like four or five burrows around this rock, and a storm petrel that’s nesting in the grass tussock on top and puffins underneath from different angles,” said assistant refuge manager Jeff Williams, pointing to an innocuous-looking boulder on the beach. “Swiss cheese just really describes it.”
Williams got his start doing the same kind of work as the field biologists he now hires on an annual basis — hiking over rocky beaches and dense clusters of ferns to find a handful of diverse seabird nests. The researchers go back again and again to find out how many eggs hatch over the course of the summer, and what happens to the chicks.
Over time, that data can be used to uncover population trends. Seabird populations are in precipitous decline worldwide, with flocks reduced by up to 70 percent. But the refuge hasn’t detected that trend in the Aleutian Islands. The biggest change seems to be in where birds go to build their nests, which is usually driven by the availability of food in the surrounding ocean. Those observations get sent along to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, so they can get a read on the ocean ecosystem before they set fishing quotas.
Williams said that might be part of the appeal for researchers — seeing their work get some use in the real world, instead of going “into a filing cabinet.”
There’s also the unique office environment to consider.
“If you think about it, every one of these birds poops,” Williams said. “There’s millions of them. So it’s like millions and millions of pounds of fertilizer coming onto this. It creates this vegetation that’s super dense and rank. I bring machetes and stuff for people to cut their ways through the paths.”
Williams also tries to set up the island’s radio antenna and make sure the rough wooden cabin and weather-port tents are in good shape. But this summer, a string of storms in the North Pacific Ocean almost disturbed those plans. It took days before the Tiglax, the refuge’s research vessel, could steer close enough to the island to launch an inflatable skiff and sail ashore. The ride was still choppy, and it wasn’t safe to land on the beach closest to the campsite.
That left the research team with no choice but to strap on frame packs and start carrying hundreds of pounds of fuel, food, and tools around the rocky point to their cabin. The crew of the Tiglax had to push on — conducting more research and checking on interpretive signs posted by Fish and Wildlife throughout the refuge.
The storms broke and the ship eventually turned back, unloading deckhands, biologists, and refuge staff to help haul the last boxes ashore. But it just as easily could have gone the other way. The rough arrivals are one of many reasons why Williams says any field worker who can handle Buldir “has earned their stripes.”
“Buldir’s a big life-changer”
McKenzie Mudge and Kevin Pietrzak had already been through the wringer before they were hired to spend a season on Buldir.
“Usually we say we do bird surveys because that’s something most people can understand,” Mudge said. “Nice and simple. We’re outside looking at birds.”
In reality, Mudge and Pietrzak have spent the last six years studying bird migration and diet together. Since they first met at a research site in Antarctica, they’ve traveled from Chile all the way up to the North Slope.
“When you get to working in remote field camps like this, at least a third of your time is camp maintenance and trying to keep the building from falling down,” Pietrzak said. “It’s work, too — trying to figure out how to survive in a place like this. It’s not always easy.”
Mudge and Pietrzak are not the first scientists to fall in love under these conditions. There are several couples who met working for the Alaska Maritime refuge (Williams, the assistant manager, met his wife that way). But it’s not as common to find a couple that chooses to stay in the field.
“It’s different,” Pietrzak said with a laugh. “It’s kind of weird to go back down to Southern California and see my friends that have houses and families and kids of their own, and I’m like, ‘Well, I got to see a lot of the world. That’s really cool, right?’”
Eventually, Mudge said, they would like to put down roots — adopt a dog, make their own home. But first, they wanted to find out what Buldir had to offer.
“You know, everybody always says Buldir’s a big life-changer,” Ryan Mong said. “But you feel lucky getting to do it, because most people just get to come here once or so.”
As Mong spoke, he tugged on a pair of hip waders. It was early summer, and the camp was ready — time to push the inflatable skiff back out to sea so the Tiglax could continue on its way. I asked Mong if it bothered him that the field season he was about to start on Buldir could also be his last.
“I like living like that,” Mong said.
For two months, I didn’t hear another word from Mong or the rest of the camp.
It was to be expected. Besides a sluggish email connection and a satellite phone, there aren’t many opportunities to reach the outside world from Buldir. And there shouldn’t be any opportunity to post images of the island’s rolling green hills and endless views of the North Pacific to Instagram.
“My season got cut short due to an injury to my finger,” Mong said after I messaged him about his posts on the social media app. “I was done checking all the burrows that I needed to check and I was making my way back down a hill — slipped, dropped the machete I was carrying, and it cut right into my hand, really deep.”
Mong tried to work through it, but medical advisors for the refuge suggested he leave. The damage wasn’t permanent. And McKenzie Mudge and Kevin Pietrzak took it all in stride.
Even though it was truncated, Mong said the experience was everything he’d hoped — the sheer variety of seabird species, the headiness of living in isolation, the camaraderie among his crew.
In fact, spending so much time with a couple like Mudge and Pietrzak got him thinking.
“I kind of need to go settle down with my loved one and make her mine for the long run,” Mong said. “So I decided out on Buldir that it’s finally time to propose to my girlfriend.”
Once he made it back to the Lower 48, Mong rode his bicycle across the West to Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado, where his girlfriend works as an interpreter. When he got there, the answer was yes.