Archive for June, 2016

Hello from the island!

This past week has been by far the most exciting and most busy we’ve had yet. Black guillemot chicks have started to hatch, finding new ones every time we conduct our burrow checks. Every three days, we check one half of the island for our marked burrows, looking for the presence of eggs or newly hatched chicks. If there are chicks present, we have to fish them out of their burrows (sometimes when the mom is in with them!) and take measurements. The first measurement taken is weight, and for that we have a special scale in which we clip a “bird bag” (fancy term for a small drawstring cloth bag) to a cylinder scale and record its weight on how far the indicator goes. The newly hatched chicks only weigh roughly 30 grams, but don’t let that fool you; we came back to a chick just three days later and it nearly tripled in weight! The next measurement we take is wing chord, or the length from the most prominent point of the wrist joint to the most prominent point of the longest primary feather. This is taken using a special ruler, but it’s easy enough to record. After the measurements are taken, and if the chick is big enough, we place a size four US Fish and Wildlife Service metal band on its right leg using a pair of modified pliers specifically made for banding birds. The bands don’t interfere at all with any of the birds daily functions, and makes it rather easy to identify the specific bird from exactly what burrow and what year it was found if it were to be captured or re-sighted in the future.


Dawson holding his 1st banded black guillemot chick on Western Brothers.

Our tern chicks have also grown considerably since our last post, more than tripling their weight and starting to get their primary feathers! But that’s not the half of it, we have five more healthy chicks! They are all very well fed by their parents, who really don’t care for us handling their babies, constantly diving and pecking our heads (and pooping on us if we’re lucky). However, the chicks don’t make it very easy for us to find them; they often hide in the vegetation around the nest and blend in rather well, so searching for them is a very careful and mindful process. When we do find them, they get weighed the same way the guillemots do but do not get their wing chord recorded, simply due to the fact that it would be impossible for all the other islands to record that much data- there’s only 7 terns for us to measure, compared to Petit Manan with over 1,000 breeding pairs! (with an average of three eggs per nest, you can imagine why!)


The “C” chick in nest # 1 posing for the camera.

As our chicks are growing more each day, there’s always someone that wouldn’t mind snacking on them, and here at Eastern Brothers that’s our new visitor: the peregrine falcon. We first were confused  when woken up by the terns going crazy on Saturday morning, chipping and calling from one of the ravines. We weren’t quite sure what they were on about, but after getting to one of our morning survey points, we found a dead adult black guillemot predated on by the falcon.


The peregrine falcon perched on Eastern Brothers Island in a ravine close to the alcid decoys.

We observed it flying from island to island with the terns fearlessly dive bombing it the whole way until it eventually left. We’ve seen it two other days after that, but it has been driven off the island quicker and quicker each time with no additional signs of predation. We’re hopeful that the terns keep on driving it away until eventually it moves on.


A black guillemot chick we found with a fish caught and drying on its bill! A rather odd sight, but we later safely removed it so it wouldn’t interfere with feeding.

Until next week,

~Nate and Dawson, EBI 2016

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Petit Manan Island is well known for its seabird inhabitants, most notably our Atlantic Puffins and Arctic Terns. However, a total of eight species of marine birds return yearly to nest on Petit Manan Island. Most of these birds have conspicuous nests, such as the terns and Laughing Gulls which lay their eggs on the ground’s surface. The Alcids, such as Puffins, Black Guillemots, and Razorbills, lay their eggs in burrows or rock crevices, but the adults are still easily observed on the rocks and surrounding waters. But Leach’s Storm-Petrels, the smallest seabird denizen of Petit Manan, are a little bit trickier to detect.


Jimmy holding an adult Leach’s Storm Petrel that was grubbed from a nearby burrow

Leach’s Storm-Petrels differ from the other seabirds on PMI in a variety of ways. Taxonomically, they are the only species representing a group of seabirds called the Tubenoses to be found on PMI. Also, they are nocturnal and nest in often long, twisting sod burrows.  The burrow entrances are smaller than the size of a fist, and tucked underneath rotting logs, debris and rocks. These life history traits make observing storm-petrels quite the challenge, and prevent accurate estimations of breeding pairs on nesting islands.

This summer we have been testing a new methodology to s
urvey for active storm-petrel burrows. Instead of just reaching as far into each burrow to feel for birds and eggs, we have been playing a recording of storm-petrel vocalizations outside of each potential burrow entrance. The results have been extremely exciting! The birds have been responding with their strange, goblin-giggling call from deep within their burrows. But more importantly, this method has allowed us to find more birds than just by feeling in the burrows. In fact, 63% of the storm-petrels we located only because we heard them – their burrows did not allow us to reach them. Overall, 93% of the adults we located using both methods responded to playback. Hopefully this monitoring technique will provide new insights into Leach’s Storm Petrels nesting on Maine coastal islands!


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It’s been a beautiful week on Metinic, with the warm sun providing for excellent hatching weather. More tern chicks show up every day in our plots and some of the older ones are getting their first wing feathers. Of the dozens of chicks in our plots, the color and pattern can vary considerably from sandy tan chicks with only a few black spots to almost snowy white speckled with dark streaks.

silver_gold siblings

We call these arctic tern chicks the “Silver and Gold Siblings”

We made the most of the weather early in the week to continue our trapping efforts, with a special focus on one particular bird. In 2010, Refuge staff placed geolocator data loggers on the legs of several arctic terns to track their annual journey from breeding grounds in Maine to their winter range in the waters around Antarctica. The geolocator measures the amount and timing of sunlight to determine the location of the bird. Most of the loggers were retrieved in 2011 or 2012, but a few were still missing. Luckily, Helen and I spotted this bird in May, and figured that it was breeding here. On Wednesday, Refuge staff Brian, Michael, Linda, and Sara came out to the island to locate and catch the bird. Between the six of us, we sat in our five blinds and watched for the bird. We quickly found the bird and its nest, but trapping efforts were to no avail. After a fruitless attempt on Thursday, Brian and Michael came back out on Friday and finally managed to catch the bird after a few hours of waiting with a bow net. It appears that the nest is being attended by three adult terns, which is unusual, but may account for the difficulty of catching the bird if it’s only spending a third of the time on the nest. The geolocator was removed and the bird released. Hopefully, the data on the geolocator can be retrieved and we can see where the bird has been!


The geolocator on the tern’s leg before it was removed

While the Friday tern trapping stint was ongoing, Helen and I went out to check on black guillemot burrows on the northwest side of the island in advance of hatching. June 27th is International Guillemot Appreciation Day, traditionally around when the first chick hatches. Guillemots, relatives of puffins, nest in rock crevices all along the Maine coast. We located several rocky burrows with eggs and a few with adults attending. Between the burrows, a few gull chicks were running around near their nests atop the rocks.

blgu on nest

An adult black guillemot incubates its eggs in a rock crevice

gull chick

Herring gull chick. Both herring and great black-backed gulls breed on Metinic.

At the southern end of the cliffs, we were checking a last couple of rocks when we were surprised to find our first guillemot chicks a few days early!

BLGU chicks

Black guillemot chicks are covered in dark gray downy feathers

Have a happy Guillemot Day!


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We can’t believe how far the tern and guillemot colonies on Eastern Brothers Island have come along in just three weeks! This week has been beautiful almost everyday, sunny and high 60’s! This amazing weather has allowed us to spend full days in the field and monitor the colonies, both tern and guillemot. Now for the exciting news… we have our first tern chicks! Our first nest has two healthy chicks, and we’re preparing to band them mid this week.

The process of hatching can be thought of in three stages. First, the adult will incubate the eggs, providing much needed warmth for development. Second, the egg will begin “staring”, which means fractures on the surface of the egg will become visible (sort of resembling a star, hence “staring”). Lastly, the chick will poke a hole in the egg, which we call “pipping”. Once this happens, the chick will most likely be hatched within 24 hours. Our second nest has both a pipping and staring egg, so we are expecting more chicks in the next couple of days! 


Our first tern chick, marked with a green sharpie on its head to distinguish it from its siblings

This week has also been a first for both razorbill and Atlantic puffin sightings on the island! Although we haven’t yet seen them land on the island, the razorbills are here almost daily, flying around and floating close to the decoys. Only one puffin was seen so far, floating and diving in the water just below both the razorbill and puffin decoys on the southern end of Eastern Brothers. We’ve also had a massive increase in common eider creches. A creche is a group of eiders (usually female) that float along with and protect a group of ducklings. They can be anywhere from just one hen and one duckling to several of each; the largest we’ve seen has been 13 hens, 20 ducklings and 2 males, totaling 35 eiders. It’s surprising watching the ducklings dive and forage all on their own, they’re still so tiny!

The old abandon sheep herders cabin located just a short walk from our current cabin is home to a number of barn swallows, where we found our first active nest!


A barn swallow nest with 4 healthy eggs, covered with gull feathers they’ve gathered to keep them warm

Not all our time is spent looking at birds, however; sometimes we gotta eat! The other day, we noticed a lobster boat with the crew checking their pots very close to the island. We were told no crew on the Brothers have ever flagged down a boat and bought fresh lobster, so we naturally took that as a challenge. After a few minutes of waving our hats in the air, they came a little closer and they told us they had lobster to sell. That was all we needed to hear, as we ran to our inflatable raft and hopped in the water, quickly rowing our to their boat. We bought two fresh 1 1/2 pound soft shells and came back and boiled them up for lunch. That and having so many island firsts this week has made it the highlight of the season!


Nate holding our catch of the day

Until next week,

~Nate and Dawson, EBI 2016


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The beginning of the week started out slow and rough as the weather was not cooperative.  High winds made it so we could not go out to the tern colony as we wanted the adults to stay on their eggs and keep them warm from the howling winds.  Finally the weather broke Tuesday afternoon and we were able to do some trapping and banding of adult terns.  We do this by selecting a couple of nests, replacing the eggs with wooden ones so they do not get damaged, and placing a chicken wire trap over the nest with the door open.  When the adult walks into the trap, they step on a trigger platform that closes the door.  As the adult sits in the trap incubating the wooden eggs, we walk up and take it out of the trap through a hole in the top.  The adult is then placed in a bag where it is weighed using a spring scale.  We then band the bird and measure its wing chord and head-bill length before it is released to return to incubate its eggs which we have switched back to the real ones.


A common tern checking out the trap


Measuring wing chord length


Measuring head-bill length

Wednesday we headed over to Matinicus Rock to help them with their tern census.  It was nice to get out to another island to see what was going on there; plus we got to see Atlantic puffins, razorbills, and common murres, three species that do not nest on Metinic.


Atlantic puffins on Matinicus Rock

The next day it was our turn to census!  With the help of a few guests, we were able to count 608 nests in our colony of arctic and common terns!  We did this just in the nick of time as we came across multiple hatched chicks with more popping up every day!  The rest of the week was spent securing our productivity plots which are circles of fencing surrounding a number of nests.  When the chicks within the plots hatch, we record the hatch date and band them.  Every time we visit the plots, we weigh the chicks and keep track of how they are doing until they fledge.


Pipping arctic tern egg


A hungry chick waits to be fed

Throughout the week we have also come across savannah sparrow chicks and fledglings, and spotted sandpiper chicks running around on the rocks.  An identifying characteristic of spotted sandpipers is they bob their rump up and down as they walk; it is funny to watch the tiny fuzzy chicks do this as well!  We are looking forward to more chicks showing up in the upcoming weeks!


A tiny spotted sandpiper chick

Until next week,


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COTE gettin trapped

An unsuspecting common tern parent walks calmly into a trap to incubate a clutch of wooden dummy eggs.

As the summer starts to pick up so does the tern activity here on Ship. At the end of last week we had some visitors from the Student Conservation Association  come to help us put up new productivity plots before our island is overrun with new tern chicks. The productivity plots contain 6-11 nests of varying sizes in different areas throughout the colony. These are put up so that when the chicks hatch we will be able to monitor their growth for the rest of the season. As of today we have a total of 6 productivity plots!


COTE adult in prod plot

Adult common tern  in one of the productivity plots.

This week we’ve also been trapping adult terns for banding and or recapturing. This is done by swapping out the eggs in nest with fake wooden eggs (we don’t want a parent to accidentally break their own eggs). We then place a wire treadle trap over the nest and set the trap. To set the trap we stick a wire attached to the treadle into the sliding door. Then we go hide (usually in one of our blinds) so the terns don’t see us, but so we can also see the trap. You can tell if the terns can see you because they will give you dirty looks and yell a lot.  From there its a waiting game. Some trapping stints were more successful than others, just like some birds were more cooperative than others.

COTE release

After banding, the tern is released to resume tending its nest– now with the real eggs safely back in the nest bowl!


Wednesday was the Gulf of Maine Seabird Working Group (GOMSWG) census day and our friends from the Student Conservation Association came to assist us in that as well. It was a successful census and a gorgeous day to do it on. During the census we also had a visit from a peregrine that we’ve been seeing on a regular basis. It came earlier this week and hung out on the back of our island. The peregrine allowed us to get fairly close, which was when we noticed it was pretty badly injured. Even though peregrines are a predator of common terns we hope it is able to recover.


The peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus) is a listed as an endangered species in Maine.

Finally one of the most exciting things began to happen yesterday as were putting up our last productivity plot. Yes that’s right, you’ve probably guessed it, its what we’ve all been waiting for. WE HAVE TERN CHICKS!! Two chicks hatched while we were putting up the final plot yesterday. This morning during our nest checks we found four more healthy chicks that were fully fluffed out and we were even able to band them!

We hope to have even more babies running around our island within the next few days!

Till next week.

Kelby Leary @ Ship Island




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As our fifth week comes to an end on PMI, the island is looking more and more like a seabird colony. More Arctic and Common Terns appear every day, and so do their nests. Last week our first Atlantic Puffin, Razorbill and Black Guillemot eggs were found!


Our first Black Guillemot eggs in a rather cavernous rock crevice


But this week I’d like to talk about something that is more ever present than the seabirds themselves- marine debris. It’s found all over Petit Manan- some so old that the ground has reclaimed it and the vegetation grows through it. It finds itself lodged between rocks impossible to retrieve, and even ends up in the burrows of the birds we are trying to protect. Although the islands on Maine Coastal Islands NWR are closed to the public during breeding season, trash still lines the shores as a constant reminder of our every day impact.


Buoys are a common item to wash ashore on Petit Manan, as well as plastic water bottles, chewing tobacco tins, rope, and bleach jugs. Some of this seems common to local boaters, but the majority of marine debris actually comes far inland and makes its way down through rivers.


In the first three weeks on Petit Manan, my co-workers and I collected 840 gallons of trash from the shore. This in addition to the 10 tons of marine debris that refuge boat operator, Jim Fortier, and local Maine volunteers remove annually from Petit Manan Point. Some of our most frequent items include disposable plastic water bottles and other single-use plastic bottles. One afternoon I counted to see just how many water bottles we were picking up, and it averaged out to two water bottles every minute. And they just keep coming ashore.

This isn’t just an aesthetic problem. Marine plastics are a growing problem, especially for our seabirds. Plastics don’t biodegrade or decompose into new material, but they do break down. They continue to break down until they become so small that you cannot see them anymore, these are called micro-plastics. These tiny plastics end up being eaten by seabirds, either because their food already has micro-plastics in it, or because of their feeding strategy like those who skim the surface of the water.

Last year the Oceans and Atmosphere Business Unit of Australia released a study warning that by 2020 99% of seabird species will have been found to consume plastics, and of those species 95% of the individual in each species will have consumed plastics. This news spells disaster for seabird species. Consumption of larger plastic items can lead to obstruction of the bird’s digestion system and death, while eating smaller plastics takes up space in the birds’ stomachs reducing their food intake and leads to decreased health conditions and starvation. This has also been shown to reduce the survival of fledgling and juvenile seabirds.

2311497027_e6df05aae4_o (1).jpg

This image shows all of the marine plastics that were extracted from a single Albatross upon its death. Image courtesy of Tim Zim

So marine debris is a real problem, and if nothing is done it is projected to only get worse. In the 11 years from 2015 to 2026 we are expected to create as much plastic, as all the plastic that has been produced since its creation. Fixing this is not just a matter of watching your trash on beach trips, but to reconsider what you buy and how you dispose of your waste. The majority of marine debris comes from trash that is transported from far inland areas by rivers.

So my challenge to all you seabird lovers out there is to make a positive change in your life. Take the time to clean up and collect recyclables in an area, because you never know if that trash will make it to the ocean. Use your consumer power and switch from disposable water bottles to a reusable one – by not supporting goods sold in plastic containers you are lessening the demand for those goods in the future.  Practice the waste management hierarchy- reduce, reuse, and recycle before ever sending something to the landfill.

Thanks for all your help in protecting in the seabirds we love!

For more information check out these links!

Till next time!


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