Archive for June, 2011

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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This week on Metinic we have spent a few of our afternoons scouring the coastlines for Black Guillemot burrows.  Black Guillemots are the only bird of the Alcid family (the Puffin family!) nesting on Metinic since other Alcids prefer to stay farther offshore.  Black Guillemots nest in rock crevices along the shorelines and in order to monitor their nesting success we have to find their burrows! A burrow with an egg in it is pictured in our previous post “Eggcellent”.

As we were hunting for burrows, Charlie happened to stick his head in a crevice that was occupied, not by a Black Guillemot, but by a Great Black-backed Gull Chick! The chick was probably only a couple days old and screamed defiantly at us as we ogled at its cuteness.  We have also seen our first few Common Eider ducklings of the season swimming on the water with their mothers.  These groups of Eider ducklings and mothers are called “Creches”.  We have certainly been excited to have our first tastes of what is to come; chicks galore!

Great Black-Backed Gull chick!

~The Metinic Crew, Jennie and Charlie

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Atlantic Puffins

Here on Petit Manan Island, we spend much of our time watching terns: figuring out how many of each species we have, counting nests and eggs, reading bands, determining what they’re eating, and making general behavioral observations. But it’s always a treat to get to work with our photogenic little Alcids on the rocky shoreline: the Atlantic Puffins!

Each female puffin only lays one egg

We try to be objective researchers, but let’s face it: puffins are pretty darn cute. Currently there are over 200 puffins on the island, and many of them are incubating eggs! A female only lays a single egg inside a burrow.  Sometimes puffins use crevices created by large, pink-granite rocks along the shore, and other times they dig burrows in the soil along the vegetation line. They use their bills to loosen the soil and their feet to kick it out. These burrows can be three feet deep! On Petit Manan, puffins also inhabit artificial burrows that we’ve created using wooden or plastic boxes with tunnel-like entrances made from tubing.  They often use the same burrow year after year.

An artificial puffin burrow

A puffin egg inside artificial burrow #97

For the most part, we leave the puffins to their business of hanging out on the rocks, feeding on fish offshore, and incubating their eggs. But we do spend time observing them from afar to read their metal identification bands.

With this information we can ascertain whether the same puffins are returning from year to year, what their success rates have been (in terms of laying eggs and fledging young), and whether they are using the same burrows. Many of the rock burrows are marked with numbers in green and yellow paint so that we can identify specific locations.

We also periodically investigate the burrows to determine how many eggs have been laid. This can be a bit of a challenge since some of the burrows are very small and deep.

The "snake" tool for looking into puffin burrows

For the most difficult crevices, we use a nifty piece of equipment that we informally call “the snake.” A small, lighted camera with a long, bendable neck can be inserted into the burrows that we can’t access, and we can look at the image on a screen.

But the hardships of investigating burrows (e.g. sandwiching your body into a rocky, guano-covered crevice to peer into a burrow, all-the-while being dive-bombed by angry Common Terns) are all worthwhile when we get the pleasure of spying on an incubating adult!

Christa, Morgan, and Andrew checking for puffin burrows

Keep checking back for updates, because if you think adult puffins are adorable… wait until you see what their chicks look like!

Burrow 210

Puffin in burrow 210

Puffin face!

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Eggcellent! 2011

The Terns have started to settle down here on Metinic.  Nests are popping up everywhere, but the Terns are not alone!  Take a look at all the wondrous little ‘chicks to be’ we have discovered so far!

This Arctic Tern has three eggs! No wonder it chose a soft grassy cushion next to the granite ledge.

This Arctic Tern decided on a shell nest for the season, classy!

Common Eiders create a blanket of down feathers for their nests, and even tuck the eggs in before leaving them. This helps the eggs stay warm and hide them from predators.

Spotted Sandpiper, we almost stepped on this nest when we found it! Checking it daily to ensure we get a chance to see the chicks up close.

Killdeer, this little shorebird had already hatched its clutch before we could find its nest. So that we do not spoil the impending chick pictures, here is a great shot of our Killdeer nest from 2010. Photo Credit: Brette Soucie

Black Guillemots nest in cavities of the rocky Maine coastline, you can only imagine the amount of searching it took to find this egg.

Great Black Backed Gull, this nest was in the open. These gulls are so large that they have few predators to hide from.

Herring Gull, amazing color variation within a single nest

A Savannah Sparrow nest. These eggs are no larger then your thumb nail!

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Mist net sunrise on Metinic Island

It’s 3:45am and alarms are ringing on Metinic Island (they’re set at a more hospitable 5:00am in the fall).  Mist nets, used to capture passage-migrants that have landed on the island, are open and active at first light.  Migration monitoring is underway!

As many of you following this blog are aware, the refuge-owned portion of this island has been managed as part of a coordinated seabird restoration effort in the Gulf of Maine for the last thirteen years.  But, what happens on Metinic before and after the seabird nesting season?  It turns out, A LOT, as was discovered in the fall of 2009 and substantiated through spring and fall migration monitoring efforts since.

Just who are these early risers and what are they doing?  Migration research on Metinic is a collaborative effort between the Refuge and the University of Maine’s Holberton Lab of Avian Biology.  A variety of techniques including visual surveys, acoustic sampling (recording species specific calls given by migrants flying over at night), and banding are being used to monitor bird movements on Metinic.  Results of this ongoing research have since led to an international effort to document bird movements throughout the Gulf of Maine region.  

Left: The “catch” from a busy net round. Birds captured in mist nets are brought back to the banding tent in cloth bags and await processing before being released. Above: This adult male American Redstart was one of more than 600 birds captured on the island this season, a total achieved even with weather precluding banding on almost half of the days.

Photo showing a diverse array of band sizes from hummingbird to hawk. The inset picture is included to provide scale for the hummingbird band, which comes printed on a flat sheet of metal and is shaped into bands by each bander.

This spring, migration monitoring on Metinic began on 1 May and continued through 7 June.  Of the techniques mentioned above, banding, in particular, offers the unique opportunity to study birds in the hand and provides detailed information about individuals.  Nets are checked regularly throughout the day and birds brought back to the banding tent are fitted with a small aluminum band containing a unique nine-digit number.  Essentially, a “social security number” for each bird.  Birds are then aged and sexed, a series of measurements are taken (which provide information about the size of the bird and its energetic condition), and then each individual is promptly released.

Jennie releasing a Common Yellowthroat after processing.

Importantly, while anecdotal observations of migrants have shown that Metinic, as well as many other offshore islands in the Gulf, provides valuable stopover habitat for many species of birds during migration, specific use of islands by migrants has not previously been studied. With proposed and planned energy-related developments throughout the Gulf of Maine, migration research on Metinic, and throughout the region, is especially timely for identifying potential threats these developments  may pose to migrants.

Stay tuned for Part II, where we’ll feature select species captured this season!


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

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