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Walking down the main house steps, it’s hard not noticing the almost eerie silence settling in across the island. Apart from the occasional high-pitched squeal of Black Guillemot chicks running under the boardwalk, there’s little to signal there were any birds left at all which certainly means the season’s end is not far off.

The field crew coordinating the never easy task of grubbing Black Guillemots chicks out from under the boardwalk.

Having come to the island in May before many of the birds started to arrive, the silence now mirrors those early days but still somehow feels different. The difference stems from the reality that in a few short days, our time on PMI will definitively be over and we’ll be faced with the return to the mainland and ‘normal’ life once again. The simplicity and joy of being within a seabird colony ends the moment we step aboard the boat following this coming weekend.

For the past few weeks, the number of terns on the island has dropped precipitously and aside from the one lone fledgling reluctant to leave our front lawn, we’re lucky to see or count 20 individuals any given day. Even given the fact puffins don’t make much noise, the rocky shoreline feel bare as more adults make their way out to sea where they’ll stay for the winter. The few birds that remain speckling the intertidal areas are surely the proud parents of the 25 or so remaining pufflings still making the final push to fledge.

An adult Atlantic Puffin perched after exiting from feeding its chick.

Having worked as part of many projects and seabird seasons before this, it’s the waning days when a nostalgic feeling sets as you look back on the time you had yet it carries the somberness knowing once you leave, you may never see these birds ever again. Looking back, it may not have been the vibrant season I had hoped for in regards to breeding success, but it has still held it’s wonderful moments and been special, memories and experiences to cherish forever.  

Island intern Jorja in from Ship Island enjoying getting to see a Leach’s Storm-petrel chick for the first time.

With the fact our boat ride back looms just over a week away, we’ll be busy our last remaining days closing out the little tasks like taking GPS points for every nest and burrow, cleaning up field supplies, and pulling down and putting away our observation blinds. There will be more yard work than bird work but thankfully we still have the few remaining puffin and guillemot chicks to check in on as they finish their own time on PMI time and fledge making the voyage out into the sea.

Ryan holding a near fully feathered puffling, the nemesis chick from burrow E14 which only his long wingspan can reach by a fingertip.

We’ve certainly enjoyed the time to write and share what has happened during our time here, and as I’ve learned before, never count out something incredible happening even in the latest hour so stay tuned as who knows what might still take place before we finally say goodbye to PMI!

-PMI Supervisor, Ryan P.  

Fledglings? We’ve got them! Nestlings? We’ve got them! COTE still incubating eggs? You better believe we’ve got them too! Seems like we have a little bit of everything here on Ship Island at the moment.

A hungry COTE chick waits for food.

You may be wondering just why it is that we are seeing such a huge variation in the ages of the chicks right now, and even still have terns incubating eggs. As best we can tell, the reason for the hatch date of many of the eggs/nests being so asynchronous is due to the microburst that hit the island in June which damaged many eggs or even fully destroyed many nests. At that time those birds which lost nests renested, resulting in a significantly later hatch date for their eggs. We are effectively seeing a 2 phase nesting season for this colony which will be interesting to see how it fully plays out over this coming month.

A familiar sight, adults bringing in fish for chicks.

Our time now has mostly been divided between monitoring chick provisioning and checking our productivity plots and, of course, weeding. Speaking personally, this is the moment in the nesting season, delayed though it was this summer, which I appreciate and enjoy the most. Being able to spend time watching the colony in close proximity from a blind and seeing the chicks hatch and grow up is a very unique and intimate experience. It’s one of those things that, while being on the island and having it be part of your daily duties, is easy to take for granted. But I know that once this job is over seeing the chicks grow up and fledge are some of the strongest memories I will carry with me from this summer. Of course, there is work involved while we are in the blinds collecting data on chick provisioning, but it’s still very special to me all the same, and really makes all the challenges of this field season feel worth it.

“Where’s the fish?”

We also currently have the luxury of being able to monitor the colony without the worry and the strain that accompanies a difficult provisioning season as, so far, the adults do not seem to be having any issues bringing in good food for their chicks. So, we are still hopeful that this colony may prove to be the exception this season and we may see a good success rate for our chicks.

Lunch time!

I am still shocked that it is already August, which means our field season will be wrapping up in just a little under 2 weeks. It still seems like this colony has a long way to go before their nesting season is over but as they say, time waits for no man (or bird).

Until next time,

Bethany

I’m writing this final post back on the mainland and though I can’t complain about having running water and other amenities that island life lacks, I can’t help but feel nostalgic knowing that the seabird season on Metinic has come to end.

On Thursday morning, Caitlin, Lincoln, and I woke early to catch our last sunrise on Metinic Island and it was one of the best we’ve had this season, with streaks of pink and orange reaching across the sea. But before the thought of leaving had really settled in, it was time to load our packed totes onto the boat and start our journey back to the mainland. Driving away, it was strange to see the island that we knew so well from a different perspective as we looked back at North Cove where we always stood to watch the boat leave after resupply runs.

One last sunrise over the tern colony.

We were leaving a place that was our home for the past three months and it was difficult to say goodbye to all that we were familiar with – the calls of terns above our heads, guillemot chicks in their burrows, our cozy cabin, and the peaceful nooks across the island that we knew so well.

With the island behind us, we could see the whole north stretch of the coast with our cabin sitting empty atop the cove and the treetops of the forest forming a thick dark line on the horizon. The sky over the northeast point, once crowded with terns, seemed more open than weeks past. Many of the adult terns and fledglings were loafing on rocks in the intertidal and will soon start their long journey to the southern hemisphere. With the terns almost ready to start their migration, our work on the island had come to an end.

A tern fledgling just days before our departure.

It was a difficult season for the terns this year, with low chick survival rates across the Gulf of Maine and Metinic not being an exception. Though it was challenging to witness nature’s course firsthand, I think I speak for the entire 2021 crew when I say I am so grateful for the opportunity and wouldn’t trade it for anything.

As we passed the terns loafing on the rocks, we could see this year’s fledglings among them waiting for their parents to bring them food. It was a hopeful sight that helped balance out the hardships of the season and a gratifying moment to know that the work we did contributed to their success. We can only hope that they will return a couple of years down the road to raise their own chicks in a time with plentiful food.

Thank you to the Refuge staff, the Friends of Maine Coastal Islands, and everyone else we got to meet on the island this summer – we will miss you!!

The Metinic crew (Caitlin, Lincoln, and myself) departing the island.

-Emma

RAZO’s Edge – PMI

For three consecutive nights, we patiently sat upon the lighthouse deck waiting for a chance to see what may be one of the rarest occasions on Petit Manan Island. As dense fog rolled past and collected in tiny dew drops upon our pants, we squinted trying to see the shoreline below under the last remnant rays of daylight. The goal of our efforts was to catch a glimpse of our last Razorbill chick fledging from the island.

A lesser-known cousin of the Atlantic Puffin, the Razorbill (RAZO) is a hefty contrast of bold black and white with a bill apt for its established name. Although we’ve had high counts of 80 adults and consistently seen upwards of 20 around the island throughout much of the season, PMI’s breeding population sits at the low total of five individual nests at this point in time.

Adult Razorbill perched outside its burrow entrance.

A general thought for so few breeding pairs is from a potential lack of ideal nesting crevices across the island and, in some areas, high levels of competition with puffins jostling to use the best burrows. One hope for the off-season is to build and install artificial burrows specifically for RAZO using pieces of culvert tube covered in stone that they might prefer to try and help bolster the island’s breeding numbers, a project made possible through donor support.

One thing that makes Razorbills and a few other species of Alcids unique is that the chicks fledge and leave the island before they are capable of sustaining flight. Although it may seem counterintuitive, the need to travel above water isn’t as critical for them as the ability to travel in it where prey fish are. They aren’t exactly built for efficient flight either, but are profound swimmers that dive underwater in search of food much like penguins.

Adult bringing in a long Sandlance before its chick heads out to sea.

Once a chick is about 14-17 days old, an encouraging father tries to coax it out from the confines of its burrow around sunset to make the arduous scramble across the rocks into the nearshore water. After the pair reaches the ocean, they’ll stick side-by-side for the next month or two as the adult continues to feed small bits of food to the chick and teaches it how to forage until they part ways for the winter.

Approximately 12 day old RAZO chick just short of fledging.

You might now see our reasoning to stick out the cold, wet air to witness such a journey and cherish the moment of the chick’s maiden voyage. We missed seeing the island’s first chick fledge by a single day and sadly, luck wasn’t on our side for seeing the second and final chick walk out either. During the first night we watched we thought we struck gold as everything seemed perfect for it but the chick was reluctant to budge and stayed hunkered in its little ‘bat cave’.

Passing thunderstorms kept us from returning the following two nights out of safety concerns not being atop the lighthouse with lightning nearby, and as things would have it, the burrow was empty when I stopped to check this morning. BUT… our efforts weren’t entirely in vain, as a couple hours later we heard a faint cry beckoning off the water and saw little RAZO 5 swimming within eyesight. I want and like to think that just maybe it was it telling us it made it, the final goodbye.

Adult and fledgling pair parting ways with the island.

-PMI Supervisor, Ryan P. 

Hello everyone! It’s Gwendolyn. I know that some of you are probably wondering, wasn’t she on Petit Manan? Well, yes, I was! I just shipped over to Ship Island about a week ago. What a difference between the two islands! On Petit Manan, we were practically done with our provisioning watches (watching the fish the terns bring in to their chicks until chicks are about 21-30 days) and this has just begun on Ship Island! As in past years, the terns have nested much later than any of the other of the islands!

Anyway, today I am here to chat with you all about the garbage that I have found on Petit Manan and Ship Island. The amount is expansive, enormous, and catastrophic. On Ship and Petit Manan, we found several items including: balloons, random toys (a little elephant and a spyglass), loads of buoys, rope, lobster traps, plastic containers, and much more. Every day, I go out and walk across the beach on Ship Island cleaning up whatever there is to be found. It is extremely depressing to see such items wash up on the shore of the islands. It just made me wonder, are people throwing the items overboard or are they escaping from the garbage bags?  

Garbage on Petit Manan
A gull chick in the garbage

This has prompted me to provide you with some simple ways for you to try to reduce the amount of garbage that you produce in your own life:

-Cut down on your plastic use by using shampoo and conditioner bars instead of bottled products.

– Buy bamboo toothbrushes that break down more easily than toothbrushes with plastic handles.

-Use hand towels instead of paper towels.

-Choose to use reusable bags instead of plastic bags for your produce.

-Buy clothes from a second-hand store instead of new, they are just as good!

-Drive less often if you can (walk/bike everywhere!).

Simply start off small and you can build up to more! There are so many things that YOU can do to save the environment and protect species that live in the wild. It all starts with YOU first. I really hope that this little bit of information has made you think about wildlife and the things that one finds that shouldn’t be a part of it. So go out there and set a great example for those around you!

Photo of Gwendolyn after collecting garbage on Ship Island

This is Gwendolyn, signing off for this week!

As the end of the season draws closer, we have been quite busy here on Metinic! As shorebird migration has picked up during this time, we have our eyes stuck to the skies as short-billed dowitchers, whimbrel, American oystercatchers, and a variety of sandpipers pass through. We have also been monitoring the nesting Leach’s storm petrels that nest around the island. They prefer to nest in the ground under features such as exposed rocks, the man-made rock walls, in piles of driftwood, and even under our house! The refuge recently brought out a new burrow scope for us to use to monitor these birds, so we have been able to confirm that there are nine petrel chicks on the island. We have also been able to use the new scope to capture photos of petrels in their burrows (see below).

An adult Leach’s storm petrel in burrow, photo taken with the burrow scope.
This is a photo of some of a Leach’s storm petrel’s feathers (in red circle) poking out from underneath an adult incubating it.

This week, we had the pleasure of hosting some of the members from the Friends of the Maine Coastal Islands group for a day and show them around the island! With good weather on our side, we brought our guests into the tern colony to show them the chicks, as well as the few pairs of black guillemots that nest in the tern colony. We were even able to wrangle a Leach’s storm petrel from its burrow! It was a great day to share with them what island life is like and how our birds have been doing.

A photo of us with our visitors from the refuge and the Friends of the Maine Coastal Islands.

As of right now, we only have eight days left out here on Metinic. It is hard for me to believe it as I write that. It seems like yesterday that we got to the island and eggs had yet to even be laid! However, our work is far from over, and we will be using our remaining days making sure that everything is in order for our birds’ migration to their wintering grounds!

Slow and Steady on Ship

Over the last week we have begun to see more Common Tern chicks hatching around the colony as well as in our productivity plots. After such a difficult start to the season being able to see things unfold as they should has been a relief as well as pretty invigorating for the island crew.

Because our colony has had such a late start we have the benefit of insights from the other islands where their Common Tern colonies are wrapping up their breeding season. So while we are hoping for the best on Ship we are also aware that many other Common Tern colonies near and afar have had a difficult season and low success rates. Still, perhaps a later start to the season many yield better results for this colony. Time will tell!

For the time being we are just enjoying seeing more chicks hatching each day and will take the rest as it comes. Soon we will begin monitoring the type of food the adults are feeding their chicks as well as the frequency of food delivery. This will provide us with valuable information about food availability for the colony.

Something else we have been working on has been collecting fecal samples for two different studies. Recently we have been focusing on collecting samples for a microplastic study that is assessing the threat of microplastics to nesting seabirds. The study will be identifying and quantifying the microplastic particles in the fecal samples which are collected. We are focusing on collecting samples from Common Terns and gulls since those are the species we have access to on Ship and Trumpet Island. Yesterday, with the help of refuge staff I went over to Trumpet Island to collect our gull samples from Herring Gull chicks.

If you’ve ever wondered how we obtain these samples from chicks, it goes a little something like this: grab a chick and hold some aluminum foil under it’s bottom until it produces a sample. Some of the more stubborn gull chicks required a bit of cajoling and patience to get a good sample, but in the end Jim and I were able to get every sample we needed from the gulls.

Patiently waiting for a sample.
Jim helping collect gull samples.

Another happening on the island this week has been the switching of two of the refuge’s island researchers on Ship and PMI. Yesterday Gwendolyn arrived from PMI; she will be here on the island with me until her internship is over at the end of this month, with Jorja taking her place on PMI. We will be spending some time going over the ins and outs of the island over the next few days.

Gwendolyn getting the lay of the land on Ship.

I’m sure she will come to love the quiet tranquility and beauty of this island over the next few weeks just as much as I have. Welcome Gwendolyn!

Sunset on Ship.

After our most recent post about the poor breeding season for terns on PMI, it felt like the best follow up should be with better news and that shimmer of light I always like to find on a job.

Not to say that the rest of the birds on the island aren’t glorious in their own right, I know the one people probably want to hear most about is our beloved group of Atlantic Puffins. As one of only four islands in the United States on which puffins breed (all in Maine), the three of us working here consider ourselves very lucky getting to see and witness their playful antics almost daily.

Atlantic Puffin under the soft glow of sunrise.

Just over a week ago, I got to celebrate the momentous occasion knowing our first puffling (name for a baby puffin) was finally with us. As I sat there in the confines of the wooden observation blind during a tern provisioning watch, I happened to catch a glimpse of an adult puffin flying by with an obscure set of objects protruding from its bill. Taking a quick look away from my hungry terns, I noticed the bird had a beak full of fish and as soon as I got my binoculars on it, SWOOSH it went into a burrow and out it came a minute later, bill empty. I nearly hit my head on the roof and fell out of my chair I was so excited!

One of the island’s first pufflings for the season.

Since then, we’ve completed two burrow checks for other newly hatched chicks and started growth measurements on a small subset to analyze how they develop until they fledge. It’s pretty much a rite of passage for anyone on PMI grubbing their first puffin burrow, and there’s a certain energy to it when you know there is a puffling waiting there inside it. I will note we never grub when there are eggs and first use a burrow scope to check before we try a hand at it.

A young puffin having its wing cord measured.

Some of the greatest moments are when you’re lying there bent in half between two rocks, shoulder deep in a burrow, reaching to feel that fluff on your fingertips as the chick tries to evade your grasp or nip your hand. Having the longest arms on the island means frequently getting called over when no one else can reach and there’s a strange sense of pride being able to contort yourself in such a way to delicately pull out a chick you wouldn’t have been able to measure otherwise.

The glory of fieldwork – grubbing a puffin chick while simultaneously conducting a naturalist talk via radio.

With so few terns left, this is what the majority of our season will now consist of and we aren’t arguing against it. We certainly look forward to sharing more photos and stories along the way as our little puffling grow more and more each day!

– PMI Supervisor Ryan P.

The days seem to come and go in the blink of an eye and with only a few weeks left on the island, the end of season reality is setting in. It feels like just yesterday our first egg was hatching and now we have young fledglings taking to the air to make short experimental flights through the colony. It’s a thrilling moment to watch the young birds with their newly formed juvenile feathers attempt a few flaps of the wings and to their amazement, as well as ours, actually achieve lift-off! They briefly get to join the dance of terns above our heads, but it’s not difficult to pick them out of the crowd with their slightly awkward flight patterns as they learn to master the graceful flights of the adults.

With more and more terns taking to the air for the first time, we are doing banding sweeps through the colony to band chicks outside of our productivity plots. Increasing the number of chicks we band will help track the movements of this year’s cohort of fledglings and tell us more about these birds in the future. If they are resighted in years to come, then their band number will tell researchers that it was banded as a chick on Metinic Island in 2021! This helps us collect information on survival rates in addition to movement patterns.

We are not able to differentiate between common and Arctic terns based on their coloration alone, so we have to measure their tarsus length to determine species before we can band them. The tarsus on a bird is equivalent to the area between the ankle and toes on a human and on larger chicks, Arctic terns will have a tarsus length less than 19mm and common terns over 19mm. The less scientific and less reliable “tern personality” test is a fun way to guess the species based on their level of calmness in hand. We’ve found that Arctic terns are the most cooperative when it comes to getting their flashy new bracelet and are able to stay calm and collected, while the same can’t always be said for the commons.

Emma measuring the tarsus of a tern during a banding sweep

While we aren’t in the tern colony, we are busy monitoring other nesting seabirds on the island. Many of our black guillemot chicks have hatched and are growing at healthy rates. Our routine guillemot checks involve walking the rocky coastline to visit burrows we picked out earlier in the season and checking their status. If chicks are present, we weigh them, measure their wing length, and band them once their legs are big enough to hold the band in place.

A young black guillemot chick
Caitlin weighing a guillemot chick during a routine burrow check

There is surely enough to keep us busy here and while our days may be long, we are also taking the time to stop and enjoy the beauty of the island while we can. It feels as though we will always be able to fall asleep to the sound of waves on the shore and watch the steady stream of terns fly by our kitchen window but of course this isn’t the case and our time will soon come to leave as well.

Sunrise over the tern colony

-Emma

Sour Weather – PMI

It would be wonderful to always have great news to write about but as it goes in wildlife biology, that isn’t always the case. Coming into this season, I personally hoped and felt that it was going to be one of those boom years where the birds have phenomenal breeding success and hit record numbers and when the birds started to arrive in May, all things pointed towards that being the case and I was extremely optimistic.

During many of our early counts, we recorded record numbers for many of the island’s Alcid species and saw a small increase in the overall number of nesting terns, Arctic Terns in particular, compared to 2020. There was an early start to egg laying, which can at times mean good things, but as it stands now for reasons not yet fully known, Common and Arctic Terns are having a dismal year in regards to breeding success not just on PMI but throughout much of the Northeastern United States. Time is still out for how our Atlantic Puffins and Black Guillemots will fair as chicks have just started hatching, but word from other islands is that they are seeing struggling numbers early on as well.

Within our tern productivity plots alone, we are looking at over a 70% rate of loss for chicks that have hatched which would leave us with a fledging success far below any average we would like to be close to. So far we believe our low success stems from the weather anomalies we’ve had, such as the tropic storm expected to hit the island later today and rising and higher than average sea surface temperature in nearby waters that can potentially be linked to poor prey availability.

Three Arctic Tern plot chicks collected for growth measurements, one not far from fledging.

In the long term, poor years are bound to happen, but the hope with any bad year is that it is just an outlier and isn’t going to become a common trend. Unfortunately, given the information we know and the fact that the Gulf of Maine is currently one of the fastest warming bodies of water in the world’s oceans paired with an increase in the amount of annual precipitation in the state of Maine, things aren’t painting the brightest image for years to come. That said, a benefit of seabirds is that they are long-lived species and can overcome rough spells to breeding seasons and at times even adapt their foraging strategies. In the end, however, there is only so much they can handle changing.

Wet adult Common Tern perched during a rainy morning.

Seabirds serve as a great indicator for the state and wellness of our oceans, so this year’s struggle is a pressing reminder that things may need to change quickly in order to allow these birds to flourish in a manner we’d like them to. From the ten years I have spent living and working with seabirds and other wildlife, I don’t want to believe this is the reality of our time but more leads me there each day. But as I have also learned, within the bad times and poor years there are still many signs of success and reasons to hope and push for better days as changes can be made where these birds then rebound quickly.

As I get to tell the tour boat during our daily naturalist talks with onboard passengers, these birds and islands are incredible animals and places capable of remarkable feats that can captivate and inspire the soul even if only getting the chance to see them once and know they share this world with us. It may be tough to be a part of such a season but there is still so much joy to take from it and it won’t deter us from the love and fight to see the times ahead when more young birds get to take their first flight and we get the chance to share that news with you.

– PMI Island Supervisor, Ryan P.

Recently hatched Common Tern chick and one more reason for hope.