Aga Release Blog Part 2: Super Typhoon Yutu

This morning, at around 8 am while visiting the release site, I watched three of the released Aga flirting with small gusts of wind; tonight, only 15 hours later, I sit in our dark house, with electric power gone, while super typhoon Yutu howls outside. This morning these young birds were playful-- learning their balance with this new force of nature. I watched the three take flights into the winds, opening their wings and sailing upwards abruptly, before landing, with little grace, back in the trees. Between flights they stripped bark to find insects, cawed and rattled, and generally seemed overjoyed with life. “They will learn from this incoming storm,” I thought. “This will be the first of many, during their long lives on this little island in ‘typhoon alley’.” Just before release they weathered typhoon Mangkhut huddled in their “crow howdie” cages, safe in their concrete walled house, but now, just one-month post-release, yet another typhoon is approaching the Marianas. This storm is called Yutu. It is aiming to come half way between Rota and Tinian.

After watching the three Aga play with the wind I tracked the signals for three more Aga: Goay, Grga, and Yoya (named based on acronyms for their color band combinations). Goay startled me with a loud alarm call as I walked up the drive to the release site. The other two were just behind her and all three moved along, foraging in a loose group. Finally, I tracked Yaow and Wwag—our male/female pair. The roar of the wind and the ocean hid the sound of my footsteps, and soon I spied them, chattering quietly and collecting nest material. Wwag, the male, picked a twig off a scrappy Eugenia tree and carried it to the canopy. Yaow, his mate, followed and the two grumbled their quiet sounds at each other. Just as I was about to leave, the male spotted me and sounded the alarm. Both birds approached, alarm calling and pounding on sticks. I got out of there as quickly as I could.

I drove home, checked the weather update, and learned that Yutu had intensified while I was out tracking birds. The National Weather Service now described Yutu as “An extremely dangerous category 5 typhoon, possibly the strongest typhoon in the history of the Marianas.” It would bring sustained winds of 165 mph and gusts approaching 200mph and the track had shifted slightly south, bringing the eye very close to Rota. In that moment I had a realization: If the released Aga stayed in the jungle, this might not be just their first of many typhoons, but their last. We had to try to save the lives of these birds. It remains true that they will eventually have to learn how to live through a storm in the jungle…but Yutu isn’t the right storm to provide that learning experience.

A few hours later I was back at the release site with two assistants, Jess and Holly. We were armed with dead mice—a favorite food item of the Aga--and a whistle that boasts of being “the loudest whistle in the world” and comes with earplugs. “Toot TOOOOOOOOOOOT,” I blasted a 2-note whistle that signals the presentation of supplemental food to the released birds. Meanwhile, Holly was dressed head to toe in a costume and face cover, dangling a mouse from inside the aviary (we wear costumes when providing food to crows, to prevent them from associating food with plain-clothes humans). Jess hid in the keeper area, ready to close trap doors as birds entered the aviary. Toot TOOOOOOOOOOOT! Nothing happened. No birds. We waited 5 minutes, then 6 minutes …and suddenly they arrived. Never before have I been so grateful for this “dinner bell” sound cue that we have trained our birds to associate with food. It took some time and some coaxing, especially for the older female, Yaow, who is wise and suspicious, but within an hour even Yaow hopped through the trap door of the aviary, drawn in by her less cautious boyfriend. After letting the birds eat their treats we placed each bird in a crate for the drive back to the facility.

And so, here I am, at nearly midnight, writing with the last bit of computer battery. Our windows are boarded up and our living room is piled with items from the porch. My husband, Phil, and our two toddler boys are sleeping together in the room that we consider the safest, where I will join them in a few minutes. Power will likely be out for days or weeks. There may be a break in water service. The Aga are settled in tight quarters in their concrete walled typhoon shelter where a sharp, pungent smell of crow poop is building in the confined, windowless room. But all of this is expected and completely tolerable, when you put your mind to seeing it that way. What I’m really worried about is: aviaries. The crew just spent 6 weeks repairing damage from the last typhoon. What will this category 5 storm leave in its wake? Twisted, mangled panels of mesh? Will it throw pieces of aviary through the air, and perhaps even toss them off the cliff, 50 feet from the house – like typhoon Mangkhut did to us? The eye of the storm will arrive in 4 hours. I don’t know what will happen. I hope our 24 Aga sleep tight in the safety of their shelter. These are no longer the kind of winds for an Aga to flirt with.

Post Script: After the above writing, the track of super typhoon Yutu moved slightly north so that the eye passed directly over Tinian, 65 miles north of Rota. Tinian and nearby Saipan were devastated by the strongest storm to hit US soil since 1935. These islands will be without water for months and without power for a projected 6 months. Here on Rota, we were extremely fortunate to have a much lower impact. We had minimal damage to aviaries and we lost power for only 2 days. The Aga have been re-released into the jungle and have picked up where they left off: Wwag and Yaow are carrying sticks around, trying to decide which tree is most suitable for their first nest; the others are exploring and chowing down on crabs, insects, and lizards. Here’s to hoping that Yutu was the last typhoon to affect the Marianas this season!