Archive for June, 2011

Jennie listens intently for the high pitched chirp of a radio signal.

Last year on Metinic, a new question started being researched; “where do the Terns go to fish?”  Terns take shifts incubating chicks and foraging for fish to bring back to their mate or young.  Last year we started performing “foraging flight surveys”.  This consisted of watching to see what direction Terns return with fish from, or what direction they take when they leave, and then taking a compass bearing on that point.  This doesn’t tell us where they are getting the fish from, but at least we know where to look! The data from last year was overwhelmingly unidirectional towards the north west.

This year we are expanding the research to include a telemetry aspect.  Telemetry, put simply, is putting a radio transmitter on an animal to be able to track its movements with an antenna.  A couple weeks ago five Arctic Terns and five Common Terns were outfitted with small radio transmitters, each with a specific frequency that we can use to identify individuals.  Then their breast feathers were dyed a deep red, so that they can be identified within the colony.  The dye allows us to confirm that the birds are still incubating and our efforts have not caused abandonment, as well as identify an individual as a radio bird in flight.

Increasing antenna height even a few feet can tremendously help signal reception.

Twice a day we raise our antenna as high as possible and rotate it in slow sweeps of the island hoping to pick up the radio signals and establish presence or absence of the individuals within the colony.  We have also been experimenting with signal range, and whether we can get bearings on Terns leaving the colony for foraging.

These efforts have been paired with USFWS staff using a similar antenna system on a boat.  The hope is that the antenna on the boat can pick up a signal from a bird leaving the colony to forage, and then staff members can radio track the bird to see where it is going to fish. If radio birds are not within signal range, then the direction from the foraging flight surveys can be used to try to find a foraging flock.  Hopefully we will able to get information on how far these birds need to go to find food, and how long that takes them.

If we are able to establish where foraging Terns are going day after day to find fish for their chicks, we can then help to protect this vital resource.  If this resource is not protected, Terns will have a much harder time finding schools of fish to feed upon, which could lead to weaker fledglings or birds who choose not to reproduce in order to save energy for migration.  One current concern is the establishment of wind turbines in vital feeding areas.  We welcome a push towards more sustainable energy practices in Maine but a lot of consideration needs to be put into placement.  Hopefully we will be able to gather enough information to help assist that tough decision making process.

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Rainy Days

Bad weather on PMI

The season is heating up out on Petit Manan, especially now that we have tern chicks to monitor! Usually we have projects to keep us on our toes every moment of the day: first thing in the morning we count seabirds from the lighthouse tower, then we’re on to weighing and banding tern chicks, reading identification bands on adults, looking for Roseate terns, and keeping an eye out for any predators. So, we’re pretty busy… at least, when the weather cooperates…

But on days like today when the temperature outside barely reaches 50 F, winds are gusting over 15mph, and it’s spitting cold rain on and off, well, our days are a bit different.

We avoid going out into the tern colony when it is wet and cold since it disturbs the birds that are incubating eggs or caring for their chicks. When they are frightened off their nests, even briefly, their eggs and/or chicks can get chilled, which may impede development inside the eggs, and chicks can get hypothermia.

So we are stuck in the house. Needless to say, we all love being out in the field, but we’ve become very adept at keeping ourselves busy indoors! Here are a few of the activities that keep us preoccupied:

Toasty fire goin' strong!

Priority #1 on a really cold day is keeping the wood stove going!

Andrew, diligently entering data

All of the observations that we make are added to databases or excel files, so there is always data entry to be done.

L --> R: Morgan (barely visible behind the desk), Christa, and Andrew busily painting the livingroom.

Drawing numbers for the bedroom doors

Good researchers take pride in their facilities, which is certainly the case here at the William H. Drury Jr. Biological Research Station. We keep our work and living space tidy, but we’ve also undertaken a larger project of painting the entire inside of the two-story building! It’s quite an endeavor, but perfect for rainy days like today.

Mediterranean-esque dinner night with: baba ganoush, tabouli (minus parsley), and salad (not pictured = pita, falafel, and greek dressing)

Enjoying family dinner

Food is also a really big deal. “Family Dinners” are an important part of our day. Everyone on Petit Manan loves food, and cooking is a great rainy-day pass-time!

Christa reading

We also have time for reading – both educative and leisurely. Collectively we’ve read at least 14 books, including great titles like The Big Year by Mark Obmascik, Life Between the Tides by Les Watling, Jill Fegley, and John Moring, Spoonhandle by Ruth Moore, and Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold.

Yes, so all and all, “in-house days” aren’t so bad, but it looks like the sun’s peeking out, better get ready to head into the field!

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Photograph by Brette Soucie.

A Black Guillemot takes off from its driftwood perch. Photograph by Brette Soucie.

Black Guillemots may be the most abundant alcid in Maine waters, but that doesn’t mean that they deserve any less attention than their charismatic cousin the Atlantic Puffin!  They are one of the few seabirds on the Maine coast year round.  Unlike other alcids most Black Guillemots are sedentary, and if they do migrate it is only short distances from their breeding colonies. Black Guillemots feed in mid to shallow waters, and often loaf on intertidal rocks or on the surface in between foraging dives.  These habits make them one of the more visible alcids from the mainland.  Breeding plumage is solid black with white wing patches.  This makes the species easy to identify at a distance, but up close you will notice the bright red legs and gape, which give these charming birds a splash of color.

A Black Guillemot about to crash land into driftwood pile. Photograph by Brette Soucie.

I wish we could get a good video of Guillemot behavior, if we watch them for too long we just break up laughing.   On land their movements are a combination of awkward waddles and hops.  Black Guillemots are wing propelled swimmers and require strong short wings to literally fly under the water while foraging.  High wing loading (mass vs. wing surface area) makes slowing down in aerial flight very difficult.   As a result these birds seem to crash land into just about anything to stop themselves.

Our next Guillemot check is coming right up so we hope to have some pictures of Guillemot chicks up for you soon!

*The incredible photography for this post was taken by Brette Soucie, Metinic Supervisor 2010.  Her patience and artistic eye are responsible for our ability to share such beautiful images with you.  Thank you Brette!  We hope you are taking tons of pictures on your recent adventures!

Always appreciative –The Metinic crew

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Eider Parade!

These Common Eider hens decided that our front yard was the safest route for leading their ducklings to the water!  I just happened to glance out the window at the right moment.  We thought you may appreciate how adorable the scuttling little ducklings are.  We are truly lucky to be out here and so close to all of these birds.

-The Metinic Crew

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Well, now that the excitement and anticipation for the first tern chicks has subsided, we thought it was time for a little landbird interlude.  Below are some of the featured species captured during our spring migration monitoring on Metinic this year.

The second year (SY) male Rose-breasted Grosbeak pictured below, aged by the contrasting black and brown feathers on the wing, was just one of a few of its species banded this season (SY means it hatched out last summer).  Unlike most other passerines where it is strictly the female that incubates the eggs, male Grosbeaks often help with this aspect of parental care.  Among passerines, males are typically the song-makers, however, female Grosbeaks will also sing their robin-like song quietly when changing places with the male on the nest.

While every bander hopes to have a bird they banded captured elsewhere, that is not the main purpose of most modern day banding efforts.  It is the data collected during the banding process that provides details about each individual that is especially valuable.  This kind of information cannot be obtained through other methods.  For example, identifying age and sex ratios enables us to structure demographics of populations, and body mass and fat measurements provide information about the condition of each bird at the time of capture.

Our first foreign recap! This SY male Common Yellowthroat shows off his band.

With that said, every bander still hopes to find that needle-in-a-haystack, and on May 31st , WE DID!  It was not surprising to walk up to a net on Metinic and see a Common Yellowthroat, it was not surprising to find it had already been banded (there is actually quite the population of breeding Yellowthroats on the island), but it was surprising, and I recognized instantly, that we had not banded it!

This foreign recapture (i.e. a bird captured more than 90 miles away from the location of its original banding) was originally banded on Plum Island, Massachusetts (a station run by Parker River NWR) on May 21st.  Ten days and 110 miles later, he found his way into one of our nets on Metinic Island.  Only future recaptures would tell us for sure, but it appears as though he may have been setting up a breeding territory on Metinic.  I noted a developing cloacal protuberance, which indicates that a male is in breeding condition, and he had dropped from 11.0g at original capture to 9.7g, suggesting he was no longer in a migratory state.

A handsome shot of “George”, affectionately named by his original captors.

Because of their prevalence on the island, we would expect Common Yellowthroats to be the number one species banded, but they were surpassed this year by Magnolia Warbler(93 to 90).  While Magnolia Warblers breed in Maine and at higher elevation sites throughout New England, more than 50% of their global breeding population is dependent upon the boreal forests to our north.  Because these habitats are especially sensitive to changes in climate and are increasingly threatened by timbering practices and oil and natural gas development, it is important that we closely monitor boreal dependent species.  With their populations largely occurring in remote, inaccessible areas, it is important that monitoring efforts continue where concentrations of these birds occur during migration.  Through the partnership between the Refuge and the University of Maine and a number of other network collaborators, we are doing our part to study and conserve these species throughout the Gulf of Maine.

The Magnolia Warbler (SY male pictured above) was once called the Black-and-Yellow Warbler. Interestingly, the current name came from an observation made of this species in a magnolia tree during migration. Other than now sharing a name, there is no connection with this species’ life history and its namesake.

Finally, when we caught the male and female Blackburnian Warblers pictured below together in the net, we just couldn’t pass up on this great opportunity for comparison, and photo taking!  The male’s flame orange throat is probably this species most striking and unique feature.  It is actually the only North American warbler with an orange throat.  As with many of the other migrants banded this spring, Blackburnian Warblers are considered neo-tropical migrants, meaning they breed in Canada or the U.S. during our summers and winter in Mexico, Central, or South America.  Months prior to being captured on Metinic, these two birds departed from South America, and possibly from as far south as Peru or Bolivia.

A male (left) and female (right) Blackburnian Warbler. As with most dimorphic bird species, the males are more brightly colored and conspicuous than females.

Authored by Adrienne J. Leppold with Courtney Viall (and special guests Charlie Walsh and Jennie Wiacek).  All photos by Adrienne J. Leppold.

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Tern chicks hatch with 5 o'clock shadow, I think that's what makes them so cute!

I didn't expect to see him as i walked by, I did a double take! The pips in our adjacent productivity plot have tripled overnight. More chicks are on their way!

Right on schedule, found this little bundle of joy right outside one of our productivity plots!  Tern chicks are Semiprecocial.  Their eyes are open, they can stand, and take food within a few hours of hatching.  These young chicks will stay under an incubating adult until food arrives, and quickly return to the warm safety of its parent after food is delivered.  We will be keeping track growth rates and fledging success through an enclosed sample of the population.  As well as the rate and quality of food delivered through a different sample of chicks.  All of this is about to start on islands across the Gulf of Maine stay tuned for more updates from Metinic and Petit Manan! Posts on provisioning, productivity and telemetry are coming soon!

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It has finally happened! We have tern chicks on Petit Manan! Only a couple so far, but with thousands of eggs on the island… there are sure to be more. Here are a few pictures, but we’ll have more information about the chicks and our research soon!

Newly hatched tern chicks

After just a few hours, the newly-hatched, damp, limp little chicks turn into these adorable little fluffs!

Notice the white tip on its bill? That's called an egg tooth. It's used to help break out of the egg, and it falls off soon after hatching.

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Matinicus Rock has a great diversity of nesting seabirds! We saw Puffins, Razorbills, Common Murres, and Laughing gulls on our feild trip.

A major landmark of our field season is the GOMSWG Census.  GOMSWG stands for Gulf of Maine Seabird Working Group, and is a collection of professionals who pool their knowledge and efforts together to provide greater insight to the condition of our seabird populations.  This census, which focuses on nesting Terns, occurs on many islands in the Gulf of Maine, and allows us to detect yearly variation in the density of nesting seabirds.  Our census was completed yesterday after being rained out on Friday. We also took a day trip on Monday to Matinicus Rock to assist the Maine Audubon crew complete their census. We had a great time seeing a different island, and the hospitality was unmatched!

Our census line progressing down the cobble beach.

To census, a tight line of staff and volunteers progress through the colony and mark each nest with a Popsicle stick.  Upon marking the nest, the clutch size (number of eggs) is shouted to the recorder, who shouts the number back in order to confirm that the correct number was recorded.  Recording sounds very simple until there are 6 people shouting at the same time in a dense nesting area, and the entire process is being drowned out by the commotion of upset Terns.

A Common Tern nest Marked from census. The Popsicle stick marks the nest, letting us know that it was counted.

Luckily the line stops and waits for the recorder.  We don’t know how Charlie’s voice survived the recording process.   After the colony is combed, the group walks two transects to count how many nests are marked vs unmarked.  From this we can establish a correction factor estimating the number of nests we may have missed, and calculate a final population estimate for the season.  Our final corrected population for this year is 498 nests, which is about two thirds of our population last year.  Metinicus Rock’s numbers are up though, and they say they have read bands on several birds banded on Metinic. Hopefully this immigration accounts for our loss.

On Metinic we have a 30 meter grid system that covers the entire Tern nesting area.  This grid not only keeps us on track as we progress through the colony for census, but by uploading nest numbers into a GIS database, we can monitor shifts in habitat use and nest density over the island.  This information is crucial to tracking the effectiveness of management efforts.  If a particular grid suffered from uncharacteristic levels of predation, are Terns as likely to nest within the same area the following year?  If we manage vegetation by excluding the sheep from one area and instead mow the vegetation, does one provide more productive nesting habitat then the other?  Considering these are question that take years to answer, the grid and census are the most viable means of answering them.

Pipping has progressed around an egg. The anticipation is KILLING us!

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A young Killdeer chick caught on the cobble

Jennie holding an almost fledged Killdeer chick. This little guy could fly about 5 feet at a time!

We have more chicks on Metinic!  Two Killdeer nests have hatched, and our first Spotted sandpiper chicks were found yesterday!  Our first Killdeer nest hatched almost a month ago and the chicks are just about to fledge (begin to fly).  Charlie was able to catch a Killdeer chick while it was still fluffy, and again, a few days ago, when it could almost fly away from him! We never found either nest, but two new young and fluffy Killdeer chicks have now appeared in the tern colony!  Killdeer are a large plover with two black rings around their neck, but these “shorebirds” are not confined to coastlines.  Their breeding range is the northern United States to central Canada and can be found on the coast, on estuaries, and even in fields.  Breeding adults are well known for feigning injury, displaying a “broken” wing to predators.  This tricks a predator into thinking the adult is an easy meal. The Killdeer will lure the predator away from the nest site, and then suddenly fly away when eggs or chicks are safe.

Spotted Sandpiper chick, notice the huge feet! Most shorebird chicks are precocial, up and running right after hatching.

Our first Spotted Sandpiper chicks hatched from a nest that we had not found (we have three nests flagged), and are, we believe, our cutest chicks yet!  We spotted two chicks but we could have been missing some since they are very small and camouflage with the cobble.

Charlie wanted to keep it, but Jennie was a voice of reason...

Spotted Sandpipers bob their tails up and down when they are standing, and the chicks are no exception!It was adorable to watch clementine sized fluff balls bob up and down. Their breeding range is the northern United States up through Canada. They prefer pebble beaches on lakes, streams and seashores as nesting sites. Jennie caught one that was stumbling away from her, ensuring the photo op! Enjoy the pictures!

And soon to come…. Tern chicks! On Thursday we found three eggs with “pips”! Pips are little spider web like cracks on an egg that are caused by a chick poking at the shell with its bill from inside!

A pip in a Arctic Tern egg. This chick wants out!

The chicks have to “pip” in a circle around the eggshell in order to pop the top of the shell off. A chick will continue in a circle until it can finally poke its bill through the eggshell. This is called a window!  After a chick makes a window, it still continues to break the shell in a circle until finally the top pops off! This whole process can take up to four days! We could find our first chick today! Now if only the rain and fog would go away so we can find it…..

~Waiting in anticipation, the Metinic Crew, Jennie and Charlie

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Kelsey and Jennie make their way through the Bayberry.

This week on Metinic we had the opportunity to participate in the annual Common Eider round up!  We grabbed our boots and our nets and headed into the brush!  Now finding an Eider in the bushes isn’t easy, and getting a net in front of her before she can flush to the water is even harder.  Jennie disagrees; she scared one right into her net!

Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife biologist Brad Allen bands an Eider hen that Jennie caught.

Common Eiders are devoted mothers.  They do not feed during incubation, and may lose up to 45% of their initial body mass!  Within the first week of incubation females will leave the nest to drink freshwater, then stay on their nests around 20 days unless disturbed.   Once ducklings hatch, the hen leads them to the water and nonbreeding hens join them to create a protective “crèche”.  These crèches are crucial for defending the ducklings against predation from Great Black-Back Gulls

Common Eiders are an important harvest species in Maine, and require management to protect the populations from decline.  Mark and recapture roundups like ours on Metinic, combined with band reports from hunting mortalities allow biologists to set bag limits.  In recent years those limits have had to decrease in response to increased hunting pressure.

A Eider in the hand is definitely worth two in the bush on Metinic, Charlie didn't catch a thing!

These long lived ducks have reproductive models more similar to seabirds then other ducks.  They have deferred sexual maturity, small clutches, and long lifespans. Because of this, females have the option of taking a year off from breeding.  Traditionally there were 300 Common Eiders nesting on Metinic Island, this year it was estimated to be about 25 on the north end.  There were plenty of female Eiders on the water so hopefully they are just taking a year off.  At least our new ducklings will have a lot of “aunts”!

A giant Metinic Thank You goes out to Maine Departmaent of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife biologists Brad Allen and Kelsey Sullivan, and U.S. Geological Survey biologist Dan McAuley.  We had a blast on our Eider round up!

~ The Metinic Crew (Charlie Walsh, and Jennie Wiacek)

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