About The Island

Middleton Island comprises about 2200 acres, excluding the supra-tidal lands resulting from the 1964 earthquake.  The latter totals an additional 1000 acres by rough estimate, but has never been adequately surveyed or mapped, and continues to evolve through longshore deposition, sedimentation, and plant succession. The course of biological investigations on Middleton is inextricably tied to the island’s cultural and geological history.

scott hatch

Biology Started In 1956

Thanks to Robert Rausch, then at the Arctic Health Research Center in Fairbanks, Alaska, Middleton Island has the longest running time series of seabird monitoring of any Alaska breeding site.  In 1956, Rausch and several colleagues conducted a floral and faunal survey, anticipating possible environmental effects from construction of the Air Force base. In that respect, the work was well ahead of its time (i.e., pre-National Environmental Policy Act [NEPA], required Environmental Impact Assessments [EIAs] or anything of that nature).  As a result, we have the earliest baseline of seabird observations (some qualitative, some quantitative) available for any Alaska island. Also, photographs from Rausch’s trip, together with images available from every decade since the 1920s (fox-farming documented in National Geographic Magazine), comprise a unique photographic record of physical, biological, and cultural changes on Middleton.


Biological Timeline of Middleton


An inaugural biological reconnaissance of Middleton Island

In a journal paper published in The Condor, Robert Rausch describes bird habitats and species present in summer, including “several thousand” kittiwakes, “about 400” murres (mostly thick-billed murres), and absence of breeding by glaucous-winged gulls.  Photographs from that period suggest few tufted puffins and probably no rhinoceros auklets were breeding.



A reconnaissance by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS)

USFWS evinces gathering interest in Middleton by dispatching a small party of biologists (including Pete Isleib and Bob Bergman) to the island for a one-day, whirlwind reconnaissance.  With many miles of coastline to cover on foot, and little time available, these folks nevertheless arrive at what proves to be a remarkably accurate assessment of the kittiwake population at that time:  about 150,000 individuals. Clearly, a major increase has occurred since the time of Rausch’s observations (with the 1964 Alaska Earthquake intervening between assessments).



Alaska Outer Continental Shelf Environmental Assessment Program (OCSEAP)

Starting in 1975, the OCSEA program dominates the scene in Alaska marine research for several years, with USFWS dispatching David Frazer and Marshall Howe to Middleton for 6 weeks during July and August. The kittiwake population is estimated at 47,000 pairs, a number judged in hindsight to be depressed by poor breeding conditions.  Rhinoceros auklets are discovered breeding in small numbers.



OCSEAP, episode 2

As part of OCSEAP, USFWS dispatches Scott Hatch (and Tom Pearson, Patrick Gould) to Middleton for a full-season effort (April-August) which entails seabird breeding biology in general and set-up of permanent plots for population monitoring.  The kittiwake population stands at approximately 150,000 individuals, and remarkably, egg-laying begins fully 6 weeks ahead of any other colony in the Gulf (or elsewhere in Alaska), an anomaly not observed again or adequately explained to this day.



Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge Seabird Monitoring

Biologists from AMNWR and USFWS Research use the aforementioned monitoring plots and all-island counts to track seabird numbers during two scheduled visits per summer–one for adult population counts and a second to assess annual productivity of young.  The kittiwake population peaks at 162,000 individuals in 1981–probably the largest, densest colony of that species in the world.



Advent of sustained, intensive bird research on Middleton

In 1986, Hatch (now sponsored by the USFWS Alaska Wildlife Research Center) returns to Middleton to initiate a mark-recapture study of adult survival in black-legged kittiwakes.  Breeding studies at varying levels of detail are initiated or maintained for kittiwakes, auklets, puffins, gulls, cormorants, and kittiwakes. Research centered on natural habitats around the island documents major changes in seabird populations and productivity.



Dawning of “The Tower” Age

Having first nested in 1986 on the largest of four derelict Air Force radar towers, kittiwake numbers by 1993 reach levels that encourage enhancement and use for research purposes of that artificial “cliff” habitat.  Key accoutrements (replacement walls, one-way windows, feeding tubes and the rest) are piloted in 1993-1994, and the first master’s research project involving supplemental feeding of kittiwakes is conducted in 1996-1997 (Verena Gill). Novel research in a similar vein continues henceforth, and additional man-made habitats are reclaimed and repurposed for seabird research on a continuing basis.



A Strategic Location

Islands have a certain mystique, an allure known to anyone fortunate enough to live or work on them for any period of time.  Seabird biologists, in particular, are prone to “island fever”–the kind that draws one to islands, rather than hastening one’s departure.  To the biologist, all islands are appealing, but some are more amenable than others to topical, island-based research. To wit, Middleton Island is:

A Logistical Paradox

Though uncommonly isolated and remote (as Alaska coastal islands go), Middleton is highly accessible. With the ample and still well-maintained airstrip constructed by the Air Force ~65 years ago, a trip to Middleton entails just a 1-hour flight from Anchorage via air taxi on any given day. No rocky, multi-day ocean voyage--or slogging through a breaking surf in exposure suits--needed to gain a foothold on this welcoming island.

Truly Oceanic

Middleton Island lies smack in the middle of the main east-to-west flowing currents in the Gulf of Alaska--the Alaska Stream and Alaska Coastal Current. Well-separated from the coast, and low-lying itself, the island is little influenced by such factors as orogenic weather (mediated by coastal mountains), variable freshwater inputs (rainfall/glacial runoff) or other processes operating in a near-coastal environment.

A Sampler of Two Oceanic Domains

Being situated only a short distance from the steeply sloping edge of the continental shelf, Middleton presents seabirds the option of foraging in either or both of two distinct ecological zones: neritic (continental shelf) and pelagic (deep ocean) marine habitats. The prey that birds bring into the colony, and the relative performance of nearshore and long-distance foragers shed light on the workings of these disparate systems from year to year.

Close--But Not Too Close--To The Exxon-Valdez Oil Spill

Middleton Island lies within the area affected by the spill, as evidenced by live, oil-contaminated seabirds encountered on Middleton beaches in April 1989. By and large, however, this site can serve as a useful control for evaluating oil-spill effects and responses within Prince William Sound itself.

Out of Sight, But Not Out of Touch

Thanks to FAA infrastructure on Middleton, field researchers have long enjoyed a telephone link in case of emergency and normal operations as needed. The station itself has a steady AC power supply. In 2015 a partnering organization (Marine Exchange Alaska) installed a satellite dish on the property, supplying access to the World Wide Web and VOIP communication from computers and cell phones. Such amenities are unexpected in a remote Alaska field site, to say the least.

get in touch

Connect with the team currently doing research on the island or learn how you can give to current projects. Your tax-deductible contribution, in any amount, will help grow a permanent endowment fund, the earnings from which will support both incremental additions, upgrades, and maintenance of facilities and continuity in a core program of seabird monitoring and research.

fun facts you should know

Questions And Answers

Most of the acreage on the island is owned by Chugach Alaska Corporation, one of 13 Alaska Native regional corporations in the state. The question of principle ownership was settled in the 1970s and 1980s with passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA), the  Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) and follow-up negotiations between various stakeholders and the federal government. The Federal Aviation Administration retains some 200 hundred acres in support of radar installations for weather and air traffic monitoring.  The privately owned biological station (182 acres) is the other substantial inholding.

In the decades since the 1964 Alaska earthquake, former sea cliffs have eroded from near-vertical faces to slopes of ~45 degrees near their bases, and vegetation is steadily advancing up the slopes, already overtopping the bluffs in places.  This process will continue, and extensive cliff habitat will never again be available to ledge-nesting seabirds on Middleton (at least not in the context of human timelines). As sea cliffs are transformed to vegetated bluffs, an ever-increasing amount of soil habitat is available where underground nesters can dig their burrows.  Rhinoceros auklets and tufted puffins are clearly taking advantage of that development. But the “first cause” of volatility in bird populations is thought to be changes in food supply, triggered in part by the earthquake perhaps, but also reflecting other natural and, increasingly, human-induced trends. Compounding the effects of food dynamics has been a marked increase in predators, notably bald eagles, which prey on adult seabirds and the young of open-nesting species.

Many summer days are cool and cloudy (temperatures in the low 50s F), or wet and windy, but balmy days in the 60s (F) can also be expected.  It depends a lot on luck of the draw–some seasons bring agreeable weather more consistently than others. In winter it can get quite cold and breezy–winds of 60-80 mph and higher are not uncommon, but the island’s maritime setting moderates temperatures somewhat and keeps snow accumulation to a minimum.

There are no land mammals that are naturally occurring.  However, domestic rabbits were released in the 1950s, and ever since (no surprise), feral bunnies are ubiquitous. Their numbers decline greatly in winter (thanks in part to hungry eagles and snowy owls), but they rebound quickly in spring and summer. It appears that females are able to raise up to three litters per season.  Sea mammals on island beaches and in offshore waters include seals, sea lions, the occasional sea otter, and several species of whales.

Yes, in fact there is great potential for environmental education and ecotourism on Middleton.  On occasion, the Anchorage chapter of Audubon Alaska has organized day trips to the island by chartering an aircraft with 18-20 seats–the shared cost makes the tour feasible for ordinary folks.  For those of ample means, a twin engine air taxi from Anchorage will set you back about $2000 each way (2020 prices). And it’s been a few years, but skiff-loads of passengers from nature-oriented cruise ships have been known to hit the beach.