Archive for the ‘Petit Manan 2011’ Category

A group of puffins at the "condo" -- an area of highly concentrated borrows (each marked with green and yellow numbering)

Around the 4th of July, we began noticing puffins delivering food to their burrows, which can mean only one thing… chicks are hatching! Puffins feed small fish to their young. Here on Petit Manan, their diet mostly consists of butterfish, herring, and the occasional sand lance or hake. They can carry numerous fish in one beak load – as many as 10 – with the helps of backward-pointing spikes inside their bill and on their tongues. The record number of fish carried in the bill of a puffin is 62!

Puffin chick!

After an incubation period of around 42 days, puffin chicks begin to hatch. Each pair of puffins rears a single chick in a rock or sod burrow. The chick spends all of its time in the depths of the cool, dark burrow, until it is around 38 days old and almost ready to fledge. To get an idea of the number of chicks that are hatching and how their growth and development is progressing, two or three times during the season we go puffin grubbing!


Refuge biologist, Sara, and PMI crew member, Christa, measuring the tiny wing of a puffin chick

So far this season we’ve found 21 puffin chicks. For the first few weeks, they’re hardly recognizable as puffins – they’re teacup sized fluff balls with dense, black, down. Unlike their parents’ colorful and elaborate bills, puffin chicks have modest, black bills that are reminiscent of a raven.

Captured puffin

Sometimes when we stick our arms into burrows we’re met with an unpleasant surprise: a sharp bite from the powerful bill of an adult puffin! We take measurements on the adults too: weight, wing and bill dimensions. And if they’re not already banded, we do that too.
Check back soon for updates on our other Alcid buddies: the razorbills and guillemots!

Christa and Andrew processing a captured adult puffin

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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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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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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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Tern on an egg (through the spotting scope)!

Life and death unfolds at an alarming rate here on Petit Manan Island. Thousands of eggs hatch every summer. At the peak of the season, Common Terns, Arctic Terns, Atlantic Puffins, and Black Guillemots (just to name a few) can be found on almost every surface and in every crevice on the island. But a whole host of predators are fully aware of this phenomenon – in June, PMI is ripe with adult birds, chicks, and eggs all ready for the picking. Peregrine Falcons, Bald Eagles, Harriers, Greater Black-backed Gulls, Herring Gulls, and Laughing Gulls are just a few of the predators that have already found a few meals on PMI this summer.

The Crew (minus Christa) painting popsickle sticks

The PMI Crew (minus Christa) painting popsicle sticks

In all this madness and mayhem, the research team is trying to get a gauge on the effects of predation on some of the species nesting on the island – especially Arctic and Common Terns. How many eggs are being laid and how many are being predated for each species? With several hundred nests already established, it’s a little difficult to keep track of such details! So over the years, the Refuge staff has devised a method of labeling nests with small wooden stakes – more commonly known as Popsicle sticks!

Stake indicating the nest number, species (COTE = Common Tern), date inserted and number of eggs, and the number of eggs at the check date

While observing the tern colony from the blinds scattered around the island, whenever we notice a nest we place a Popsicle stick (which we paint purple so that we can easily spot it on the ground) nearby that indicates the stake number, the date that the nest was discovered, the tern species, and the number of eggs in the nest. As that number changes (because more eggs are laid or because of a predation event), we update the stakes accordingly. At the end of the season we use this data to calculate success rates for each species.

Arctic tern on its nest, marked by a purple stake

The stakes will also come in handy when we do the big island-wide census, which is coming up soon! Check back for updates!

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Sunset during the evening perimeter walk

During our evening perimeter walk today, we spotted the first Common Tern egg of the season!

Common Tern egg

This little speckled beauty is about the size of a walnut and is amazingly well camouflaged. The creamy base color of the egg matches the minimalistic dry-grass nest perfectly, while the soft-toned speckles help it blend into the shadowy substrate.  Tern eggs are predated by Herring Gulls, Black-backed Gulls, and Laughing Gulls, all of which frequent PMI, so this cryptic camouflage is critical to the survival of the little tern-to-be. Keep checking back for updates, because you know what comes after eggs……… chicks!

Common Tern preening

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Petit Manan Island is a great place to watch spring migration as birds travel through the Gulf of Maine heading northward – many of them on their way to breeding grounds in boreal forest, taiga, and tundra habitats. We’ve sighted many exciting migrants in the past few weeks, especially warblers including: American Redstarts, Black-and-white, Yellow-rumped, Common Yellowthroat, Magnolia, Wilson’s, Yellow, Blackburnian, Black-throated Green, Black-throated Blue, Blackpoll, and Chestnut-sided Warblers. The fog has been heavy for the past few days, so many of the birds that stopped over on the island have delayed their departure, which means we have had extra time to view these distinct, colorful avian wonders. The Black-throated Blue Warbler pictured has been fastidiously feeding on insects at the north end of the island for at least three days now while waiting for the weather to break.  The migrating passerines have kept us on our toes and the binoculars glued to our faces. Stay tuned, we have a full season ahead!

Black-throated Blue Warbler fluffs his feathers

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