Archive for June, 2013

Although I may have spent the first few posts talking about songbirds and gulls, terns are our focus around here. These feisty seabirds are what bring us to Metinic, so it’s high time I let them have their “tern” as the center of attention.

Metinic’s terns, both Common and Arctic, had a rough season last year. Because of an unfortunate combination of bad weather and lots of egg-eating gulls, the terns were forced to abandon their nests shortly after they began laying eggs.

A Common Tern soars over Metinic - Photo by Zak

A Common Tern soars over Metinic – Photo by Zak

We were all holding our breath to see if the terns would take a chance on Metinic again this year. Even if they did, we had no idea how many would actually return.

After completing our annual tern census this week, we’re pleased to say we have 350 pairs of terns nesting on Metinic this year!


An Arctic Tern on the nest – Photo by Zak

We’ve also had chicks of both species start hatching – more than fifty of the island’s most adorable residents have popped out of their shells. The adult terns are already hard at work bringing in enough fish to feed their new chicks. It will be about a month before these little fluffballs are ready to fly, so the adults have their work cut out for them.

ARTE w Silver Hake

An Arctic Tern brings back a fish for its chicks – Photo by Zak

These days, Zak and I are out banding chicks in our productivity plots so we can chart their growth. Unlike tern parents, we can’t tell chicks apart without some kind of marker, so all productivity chicks are banded within a day or two of hatching.

ARTE baby banding

Amy banding a tern chick – Photo by Zak

We’ve also been trapping and banding adult terns. As with gulls, the best way to trap a tern is on their nest. We replace the eggs with wooden dummy eggs and set a trap that springs when the adult returns to incubate. We then band the tern and take a few measurements before releasing it. The dummy eggs are removed and the real ones are put back in the nest.  The terns aren’t too happy with the process, but they always seem to return to the nest within 15 minutes of being released.

ARTE Banding

Banding an adult tern – Photo by Zak

By banding adult birds, we have a better chance of seeing the bands again – any breeding adult has already proven its ability to survive at least one migration, so it’s likely that it will survive another year. Some terns can live to be more than thirty years old, and every time we see the band we add another piece of information about that bird’s life.


An Arctic Tern – Photo by Zak

You may notice us wearing some strange looking hats in our photos. While we’d like to pretend these are the very latest in high fashion, they’re actually a practical method of tern defense. When protecting their nests, adult terns aren’t afraid to peck an invader, be it gull or eagle or human, on the head. They typically aim for the highest part of the body, so adding a flag to the top of you hat is a good way to keep your head from getting pecked.


Tern attack! Adult Common Terns defend their nests from an invading mammal (aka Amy) – Photo by Zak

We’ve got a few more terns stories coming up, plus an update on some of our other seabirds, like Black Guillemots and Leach’s Storm Petrels, so stay tuned!


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Hello from Ship Island! The beginning of summer marked not only the start of a new season here on Ship, but the start of something that has been highly anticipated for over a month now: the arrival of Tern chicks!! These tiny bundles of life began hatching yesterday, June 21, and now we have over 30. With each nest having typically 3 eggs, and with at least 436 nests, we are looking forward to seeing many baby Terns in the coming days! We knew they would be arriving soon and found “pipping eggs” a few days prior to hatch. Tern chicks possess an “egg tooth” at the end of their bill to help them break out of their shell. They poke a small hole near the top a day before they hatch which we call a “pip.” Once they hatch, the chicks are wet and have bits of shell stuck to their down, but soon dry out into fluffy little babies.


A “pipping” egg that will likely hatch tomorrow.

New Chick!

A tiny, still-wet chick! Hardly bigger than the egg he/she came from.



Two fluffy chick siblings!

In additional news, the island was visited the other day by two very important guests: Least and Roseate Terns! Ship island is at the northern end of both species’ ranges, and both are State Endangered while Roseates are also Federally Endangered. Both came in pairs, and both were landing on the beach repeatedly and integrating themselves into the colony. After an hour or so the Leasts flew on again, but the Roseates were seen courting with fish on the beach and searching for nesting sites in the grass. We believe they stayed the night, and were heard the next day, but have not been seen or heard today. We hope that they come back and decide to make Ship Island their home! Since they were here only briefly, and to minimize their disturbance, I was not able to get photographs of them, so will substitute photographs I have taken in the past from another protected Maine seabird island. And lastly, I couldn’t resist sharing a photo of the Summer Solstice Sunrise from the beach!

– Julia


Least Tern

Least Tern in flight.


Roseate Terns

Roseate Tern parent with a fledgling chick.


Summer Solstice Sunrise

Summer Solstice Sunrise by Bernard Mountain.

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While the weather continues to present us here on Eastern Brothers Island with, what could be referred to as, unpleasant conditions, I am coming to believe that it is for a couple of reasons.  One of those reasons is: bad weather is good for the social community.  If there wasn’t sloppy weather, I dare say that some Mainer’s wouldn’t have much else to talk about.     Fog, rain, and stiff north winds, while easy to complain about, are what makes us tougher.  Here is a photograph of what it’s like on the island in foul weather.


Eastern Brothers Island in foul weather

Now this is the more important reason why I believe we have gray days: foul weather makes you appreciate the good days more.  After spending a day inside a 12 by 16 foot cabin staring out into a gray abyss and then going outside periodically only to completely drench my attire, I found that once the sun did shine the island was even MORE glorious than before.  Here is my proof:


Eastern Brothers Island in all its glory

On our good days over the past week or so we have spent hours scanning the seas for alcids and have also become familiar with some of the local lobster boats.  Eastern Brothers Island is an island that Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge is hopeful in establishing a razorbill, puffin, and tern colony on.  We have seen quite a few razorbills in the adjacent waters, including 40+ foraging, but more typically see one or two closer to the cliffs.  While not scanning for alcids, we are also working on learning to identify our islands plant community.  Essentially we live on a bog.  Western Brothers is covered, literally covered, with cranberries.  We also have cloudberry, white cotton grass, and Artic Blue Flag irises; species associated with northern climates.  


A hand full of mouth-puckering goodness straight from our bog


Looking an iris in the eye


Black Guillemot eggs in crack on Western Brothers Island

On a parting note for this week, we just got back from a black guillemot burrow search and were very excited to find eggs in cracks and crevices and tiny dark holes all over the cliffs.  Above is a typical burrow crack.









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It’s time to find out just what our gulls have been up to since we attached GPS tags.  In our first round of tagging, we sent out five tags on five separate Herring Gulls.  The tags we used are useful because they are lightweight, but they don’t transmit the data directly to us. Instead, we have to catch our gulls again.

We started by watching the nest. Both gull parents will help incubate the eggs, trading off throughout the day. The gull not on the nest generally heads out to forage for food. However, we only tagged one gull from each nest, so it’s important that we only set the trap up when the right gull of the pair is taking his or her turn at incubation. Thankfully, the GPS tags are easy to see from a distance.

Once we know the right gull is in the area, we set the gull trap up, just like before. We were hoping they wouldn’t get trap shy and refuse the sit on their eggs when the trap was present. Luckily, our first tagged gull was caught less than an hour after we set up the trap!


Success! A Herring Gull in a box trap

The tags were removed by cutting off the small tuft of feathers to which they were taped. Don’t worry – birds regularly replaced their feathers, so the cut ones will fall out and be replaced with new ones.

After downloading the data from the tag, what we found was pretty cool: our first gull’s foraging trips were more than 15 miles long. She stuck to the mainland coast, mostly between St. George and Rockland. Her trips sometimes took her more than four hours!

Gull 3 Map

The foraging routes of our first recaptured gull

In the end, we recovered three of the first five tags we sent out, and none of the gulls followed the same paths. One gull went straight up to Warren, ME several times over a few days. That’s a round-trip distance of almost 40 miles. We think he might have been looking for spawning alewives.

Gull 4 Map

Our second gull made a beeline for Warren every time!

The third gull stayed local and barely left the waters around Metinic Island – it looks like she preferred feasting on the spawning polychaete sand worms just offshore.

Gull 3 must have found plenty to eat in her own backyard

Gull 3 must have found plenty to eat in her own backyard

We also lost two tags – the gulls managed to pull them off, so it looks like we need to come up with a new way to attach the tags. Our next step is to design a harness for the tags that the gulls can’t rip or tear. Hopefully we’ll have more news about our wandering gulls before the season is over.

Metinic also has plenty of terns and guillemots – expect to start hearing about them soon!


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Common Tern on Nest

Common Tern sitting down gently on her clutch of eggs.

Hello again from Ship Island! Last Friday, the 14th, we conducted an island-wide Common Tern census to determine just how many birds and nests we have here on Ship. Conducting a census involves several people walking together in a line, looking for and recording every active nest. At the completion, we took turns guessing how many there were and came up with numbers like 300 and 350. To our astonishment, after all the corrections were applied, we ended up with a whopping 436 nests! This is 185 nests more than last year, and they are still laying. Needless to say, the Ship Island colony is growing and thriving. We even spotted a four-egg clutch! Normally, Common Terns lay between 1-3 eggs, so finding a 4-egg nest is unusual. 

Four-egg Clutch

Four-egg clutch! We have very productive Terns.

In other exciting news, we have seen 3 clutches of Mallard ducklings already, and yesterday spotted our first Common Eider ducklings! I stumbled upon some mallards in the marsh and couldn’t help snapping a quick photo before letting him run off after his family. 

Mallard Duckling

A wet little mallard duckling from the marsh.

Yesterday we had an Osprey fly right through the tern colony with a fish in his talons. Osprey don’t prey on terns, and he was already packing his lunch, but the terns mobbed him away just the same. He hurried right out of there as fast as he could go!


Terns chasing away a startled Osprey!

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You’ve seen them on docks. You’ve seen them on dumpsters. They eat fish, french fries, and everything in between. But where do all these gulls come from? And where do they go once they’ve finished their lunch?

 Gulls can be found just about everywhere there’s water (and plenty of places where there isn’t). There are plenty of them around, and they’ve gained a reputation as garbage-eating pests.  But there’s way more to a gull than dumpster diving.

Some gulls, like this Great Black-backed Gull, are actually quite handsome! - Photo by Zak

Some gulls, like this Great Black-backed Gull, are actually quite handsome! – Photo by Zak

First of all, gulls are actually cousins of the terns we’re working so hard to protect out on these islands, and these cousins have a lot in common. Both terns and gulls prefer to nest in large colonies, and lay their eggs in nests on the ground. They’re both strong fliers, capable of traveling long distances over the ocean (although nothing quite tops the pole-to-pole migration of the Arctic Tern).  Males and females of both tern and gull species are almost identical (although males tend to be a little bigger) and both parents work together to raise their chicks.

So why have gulls done so well when terns are in trouble? It all comes down to food. Gulls are opportunistic – they’ll eat anything. Terns are picky eaters – they generally only eat fresh-caught food they pluck from the water themselves. Like a tern, gulls also love fish. But they’ll also eat mussels, urchins, crabs, and in recent years, human refuse. They’ve learned to follow fishing boats, flock to open dumpsters, or sometimes snatch food right out of people’s hands. So gulls have thrived on these new abundant food sources, while terns have been struggling.

A Herring Gull, Metinic's most common gull - Photo by Zak

A Herring Gull, Metinic’s most common gull – Photo by Zak

But we and the Refuge have been wondering, where exactly do Refuge Island gulls get their food? Does a gull here on Metinic fly all the way to the mainland for a meal? Or do they stay local and snack in the intertidal zone? This year is the pilot year of a study to answer those very questions with the help of GPS.

So, what’s the plan?

Step 1: Catch a gull.

The best way to do this is on the nest. The setup is simple enough: the gull sits on a string tied to a wooden prop. The prop separates into two pieces and the box falls down, capturing the gull. We replace the real eggs with wooden ones so they won’t accidentally get crushed. Sounds easy enough, right? Maybe not.

Some people call gulls rats with wings – and it’s not a total misnomer. Both rats and gulls are a lot smarter than many people think.  It took us several hours of trapping to catch our first Herring Gull.

Catch me if you can!

Catch me if you can! AKA, Gulls – 3, Biologist-0

Step 2: Attach a GPS Logger

These little boxes, called igotU tags, are programmed to take a GPS reading every 3 minutes for about 4 days. To attach one to a gull, we put it in a waterproof casing then tape it to the gull’s back feathers with extra strong tape. The tag is light enough that it won’t hinder the gull when it flies, and hopefully the tape will keep the gulls from preening the tag off.

igotU tag getting taped to a Herring Gull's back - Photo by Amy

igotU tag getting taped to a Herring Gull’s back – Photo by Amy

We also band the gull and take a few measurements to determine if it’s a male or female.

Zak checks a GPS tag

Zak checks a GPS tag on a Herring Gull

Step 3: Release the gull!

Amy releasing a tagged and banded Herring Gull - photo by Zak

Amy releasing a tagged and banded Herring Gull – photo by Zak

Step 4: Trap the gull again.

To get the data from the GPS loggers, we have to trap the gull again and remove the tag. Stay tuned for Part 2 to see what we find out!

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A GPS-tagged Herring Gull on its way – Photo by Zak

– Amy

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The field crew here on Petit Manan just concluded two days of Alcid burrow searching along the rocky perimeter of the island. Alcids (Atlantic puffins, razorbills and black guillemots here on PMI) are a group of seabirds that have exchanged some of their flying skills for superb swimming and diving abilities. They nest in natural crevasses and cavities in rocky berms and cliffs and, in the case of puffins, in dug out burrows in sod.

During our search for burrows we discovered a beautiful willet nest on the northwestern side of the island. The nest contained 4 gorgeous eggs; hopefully we can find the chicks when they hatch!


Locating Alcid burrows gave us a good idea of where the puffins, razorbills and guillemots are concentrating their nesting efforts. In a week or two we should start to see the first puffin chicks.


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Petit Manan in the foreground and Green Island, connected to PMI by a rocky bar at low tide.

Petit Manan in the foreground and Green Island, connected to PMI by a rocky bar at low tide.

Last Tuesday, the crew headed over to Green Island, joined by biologists Linda, Sara, and Christa, and two SCA students, to survey the seabirds nesting there. After being dropped on the Northeast side of the island, we were all issued “egg rings,” PVC pipe connecters that are sized to allow herring gull eggs to pass through but not great black-backed gull. We formed a line going from the berm through the vegetation and headed west counting gull and common eider nests as we went along.

Egg ring for determining whether a nest belongs to a Herring or Black-backed Gull

Egg ring for determining whether a nest belongs to a Herring or Black-backed Gull

Common eider nests are hidden in the vegetation and beautifully made from the mother hen’s down feathers. She incubates her clutch of 2-9 eggs for around 25 days, only taking breaks in the evenings to drink and feed. After the first week of incubation females are reported to stay on the nest night and day unless disturbed. They go up to 3 weeks without leaving their clutch!

An eider nest lined with down.

An eider nest lined with down.

Skirting the western edge of Green Island, we found the first great black-backed gull chicks of the season and a Canada goose gosling. As we headed back to Petit Manan along the bar from Green Island we spotted two oyster catchers in the cove. In years past they have nested on Green Island, we are hoping they do so this year as well.

Andrea holding a Black-backed Gull Chick.

Andrea holding a Black-backed Gull Chick.

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After a tough summer last year, we’ve been giving the terns of Metinic a little extra space. Zak and I have been minimizing our time in the tern colony itself so that the terns can feel safe and undisturbed. This leaves us with some free time on our hands, so we’ve been keeping busy and satisfying our love of birds by looking for migrating birds in the Metinic woods.

Black-throated Green Warbler - by Zak

Black-throated Green Warbler – by Zak

Reports from previous years included a list of all the species seen on Metinic during each season. We counted them up and found 131 species was the previous record. However (drumroll please)…

As of today, we’ve got a new record: 135 species!

Many of these species are migrants that stop over on Metinic on their way to more northerly breeding grounds. On one single rainy day, we saw 90 species, most of them warblers and other small songbirds in a “fallout” from the bad weather.

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Northern Parula eating a fly – by Zak

To celebrate, here are some of the best photos of our visiting feathery friends. Wish them luck because they’ve still got quite a ways to travel – some are headed all the way to the Arctic!  (Click on the pictures to see them more clearly)

Scarlet Tanager - by Zak

Scarlet Tanager – by Zak

American Oystercatcher - by Zak

American Oystercatcher – by Zak

Black-billed Cuckoo - by Zak
Black-billed Cuckoo – by Zak

Lincoln's Sparrow - by Zak

Lincoln’s Sparrow – by Zak

Yellow Warbler - b y Zak

Yellow Warbler – by Zak

135 birds, and we’ve still got a month and half on the island. We’ll keep you posted as our list grows!


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Gray skies over Eastern Brother’s Island

Greetings from Mary and Jake on Eastern and Western Brother’s!  This is the first summer for both of us working with the Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge and we are really excited to be here on “our” island.  We were launched out from Jonesport, Maine on a truly downeast day:  rain pelting our faces, swells rolling across the bay, and fog blanketing the coast.  The Refuge staff helped unload our gear, gave us a quick tour of the islands, and then waved good-bye with haste as the weather was only going to deteriorate.
The storm that then moved in created 10 foot southerly swells that crashed like huge geysers up the 60-70 foot cliffs on Eastern Brothers.  We survived the storm and here we are two weeks in to exploring and marveling at the beauty our islands have to offer.

Through our morning counts, alcid watches, tern stints and personal explorations we have discovered a lot already about our island habitat.  First and most prominent, our black guillemot colony is thriving.  Daily we watch the hundreds of birds circling and nodding in courtship behavior.  We have found several burrows with eggs and it seems as though the “big push” is still to come.


Black Guillemots in the fog

Also to note, the single common tern (known as Reggie) that has resided in the tern colony previous years has returned.  While he seems more than content loafing on the rocks and foraging huge fish for himself, we are slightly worried that he might have an existential breakdown.   “Why don’t they fly with me?  Why are they never hungry?” These can only be the questions Reggie asks himself day to day.


Reggie on decoy’s head

Here’s to a summer full of seabirds and many more beautiful sunsets on the coast of Maine!  ~Mary and Jake


Jake taking in our first sunset

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