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Archive for the ‘Ship Island 2015’ Category

Greetings and salutations from Ship Island! It is getting down to the last couple of days. The majority of our chicks have fledged; after checking them today, we have only 9 chicks total in our productivity plots (from 73 hatched). We conducted our remaining bird surveys of Trumpet and the Barges and counted lounging harbor seals for the last time. The next few days will consist of taking down empty productivity plots and slowly packing up our gear. I am eating my way through these unhurried days.

One of Ship's first chicks!

One of Ship’s first chicks. Going to miss these fluffy babies.

A tern I discovered after Mark told me to survey the Barges. Hmm.

A tern I discovered after Mark casually reminded me to survey the Barges.

The nightly shorebird walks have become a focal point of entertainment. Familiarizing myself with the migrating shorebirds is fun in its own right, but the walks coincide nicely with dusk settling over Blue Hill Bay. When you’re working every day, it’s surprisingly easy to forget you’re living on a beautiful island. I’m making sure to take in everything here for the last time.

Ruddy Turnstones spicing up the shorebird walk

Ruddy Turnstones spicing up the shorebird walk

The Common Tern colony on Ship Island increased significantly this year, from 393 nests counted last year in the GOMSWG Census to 673 this year. The productivity rate for our colony (the number of chicks to fledge per nest) has been estimated to be at least 1.27, meaning that more than 850 chicks have successfully fledged this year so far. Hopefully the colony will return in such numbers again next year and for years to come. It’s been an incredible process monitoring the terns. This was my first season with seabirds and words can’t really describe how much this summer has meant to me. It’s hard work and long hours, but it is the most rewarding job I’ve had. Looking back at Ship Island for the last time will definitely be a somber, reflective moment. But, I’m also looking forward to eating my weight in ice cream.

COTE in flight

COTE in flight

That’s it for this season! Best of luck to our fledglings!

-Sarah

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With the end of July hurtling towards us and our colony, our tern chicks have transformed from little balls of fluff to fledglings. By this point, the chicks have completed the awkward phase of growing out their downy feathers and now have their sleek adult feathers. The feathers on the upper wings, however, are a patchy gray-brown and the black caps seen on adults are more of a thick ring around the base of the head.

Chick wing with adult feathers coming in

Chick wing with adult feathers coming in

For a week or two now, we’ve seen them stretching out their wings, hopping as high as they can. Every once in a while we’d see one attempt a feat worthy of praise, only to tumble adorably (and without injury) to the ground. These chicks are tenacious and it serves them well. For what starts as a few moments off the ground turns into a brief aerial journey of a couple feet. Now we’re seeing them fly throughout the colony! Although not as graceful as their adult counterparts, they’re gaining confidence in their abilities. It’s really an amazing process to witness and be a part of every day.

Fledgling in flight! Go lil buddy!

Fledgling in flight! Go lil buddy!

We’ve attempted “sweeps” of the colony. While Julia was taking care of Ship in our stead, she banded over a hundred chicks in one stint. Mark and I are picking up where Julia left off, chasing down older chicks that have not yet been banded. It’s a lot of digging through grass, running and sliding, sometimes for an already banded chick or a chick that can fly but only chooses to do when you’ve already sprinted halfway down the beach. While catching your breath and picking the rocks out your shoes, you can’t help but smile as you see the little birds flying away.

That’s it for this week! See y’all next Sunday!

-Sarah

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In addition to our home base of Ship Island, we are tasked with monitoring three surrounding islands: Trumpet Island, East Barge, and West Barge.

Trumpet Island is the biggest of the three surrounding islands, similar in size to Ship itself. At the core of the island is a small hill, covered with low vegetation. Around the hill, a rocky beach extends in all directions, growing much larger at low tide with several prominent spits and sandbars. Common Eiders nest up in the vegetation and can be seen swimming in the surrounding waters as well as resting on the rocks and beaches. Gulls, both Herring and Great Black-backed, have their nests at the top of the rocky beach. Their growing chicks are quite visible from afar, roaming around the beach during our weekly scope surveys.

Trumpet Island

Trumpet Island as seen from our cabin

East Barge is fairly small, with a central grassy hill protruding above a rocky ledge. Aside from a few nesting Great Black-backed Gulls, we can’t see any other nesting species from Ship, although the numerous Black Guillemots nearby suggest that they may be nesting on the opposite side. Common Eiders and dozens of harbor seals haul up on the rocks for a respite from the cool water. In addition to our weekly bird count, we conduct a low-tide count of the seals once every two weeks on both Barges.

E_Barge

East Barge as seen from Gull Blind

West Barge is similar in size to East Barge, little more than a small rock outcrop jutting up out of the bay. Steep, rocky ledges reach up from the surf, forming a plateau beyond the reach of the waves where a few hardy bushes and grasses have gotten a foothold. Along with some nesting Great Black-backed Gulls, there is a colony of Double-crested Cormorants along the edge of the plateau. With more than one hundred nests, this colony occasionally draws in the local Bald Eagles, who can easily pick off a cormorant or cormorant chick for a quick meal. In spite of the predation, the cormorant colony seems to be doing well, with the chicks growing closer to fledging every week.

W_Barge

West Barge as seen from Gull Blind

One of our local Bald Eagles with its lunch

One of our local Bald Eagles with its lunch

Until next time!

-Mark

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Hello again from Ship Island! Mark and I are back at home base after visiting beautiful Petit Manan Island! While saying goodbye to puffins is not easy, we are excited to come back to a thriving population of Common Tern chicks. These little bundles of fuzzy feathers are just delightful and it’s hard to keep a straight face every time you see them scampering around the colony. With chicks, however, comes hard work.

Mark bands our first chick!

Mark bands our first chick!

Before the chicks began to hatch, we set up productivity plots. Productivity plots are essentially a group of nests that have fences around them. These plots allow us to closely monitor a subset of tern nests, which gives us insight into the success of the colony this season. On Ship we have six plots with a range of 5 to 11 nests in each plot. We visit the plots every day, monitoring nests that have yet to hatch, taking daily weight measurements of and banding chicks. From time to time, we see eggs that never hatch and chicks that don’t make it. While sad, this is part of why these plots are important. Our productivity plots let us know the effects of severe weather or can clue us in to potential predators. With this in mind, we’re very happy to report that we have a strong and growing chick population this year on Ship!

Common tern with herring

Common tern with herring

With so many chicks running around, we’re able to begin our provisioning studies here on Ship Island. These provisioning (feeding) studies are set up by designating several nests that are easily seen from the blinds. As the nests hatch, chicks are banded and colored according to nest number and chick order. For example, Nest 1 is green, so the A chick is marked green on its head, the B chick green on its breast and the C chick green on its back. Each nest has its own color and the chicks are marked in the same pattern. Once the provisioning study is under way, we wait for adults to return to their chicks with food in their bills. When they arrive, we record what they’re bringing in and who they’re feeding it to. Identifying the fish isn’t difficult; trying to see what it is before a hungry chick swallows it whole is the hard part! So far we’ve seen plenty of herring coming in, some hake and sandlance, and the occasional pollock. Again, all good news for the colony and its chicks!

B and C chicks beg for food while A chick gobbles down a herring

B and C chicks beg for food while A chick gobbles down a herring

That’s all for now! Hope you’re enjoying the weather and we’ll be back next week!

-Sarah

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Greetings from Ship Island! As one of the researchers normally stationed on Petit Manan Island, I had the privilege of island-sitting Ship island for just over a week while the regular crew had their break and visited Petit Manan. Visiting other islands gives us new insights into seabird biology as each colony behaves in their own way slightly different from all the rest. Plus, who wouldn’t want to check out the Puffins?! In 2013 I spent the summer here, so when I stepped out onto the warm, sandy shore, it was a bit like visiting an old friend.

Lazy sunset on the beach.

Lazy sunset on the beach.

With me came Shelby, a young student just learning the ropes of being a biologist. We had a fun time learning what birds, plants, and insects live on the island. Every morning we went “birding” to conduct the morning bird count, learning where each bird family lived and what theirs songs sounded like.

Common Yellowthroat with a little morsel for his chicks.

Common Yellowthroat with a little morsel for his chicks.

Spotted Sandpiper

Spotted Sandpiper “defending” his nest as we attempt to find it.

During our time here the chicks started hatching en masse, so Shelby also got to band quite a few birds! Banding is a very delicate process so first we practiced in the house several times, but she did great.

Shelby banding one of her first chicks!

Shelby banding one of her first chicks!

We even got a bonus with this adult Tern I caught out of the air.

Adult Tern caught by hand!

Adult Tern caught by hand!

Tomorrow we go back to where we belong – me to Petit Manan, and Shelby to her home on the mainland. It has been a great week on Ship with beautiful weather and many laughs but we are ready for whatever’s next!

– Julia

Our favorite sandy-color chick.

Our favorite sandy-color chick.

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Our efforts on Ship Island focus so heavily on tern monitoring, that we seldom mention the other species that spend their summer on the island. We made an earlier post about migrants, but I’d like to outline some of our everyday, non-tern sightings.

Two species of warbler are our brightest residents, their brilliant colors visible even through the growing foliage. Yellow Warblers, as their name implies, are a fantastic yellow hue throughout, with some red or brown markings on the breast. We have at least one pair in the grove, where the female was gathering nest material earlier in the season. A few Common Yellowthroats’ “Wichety-wichety-wichety” can be heard around the island, with them making an occasional feeding foray just outside the cabin window.

Male Common Yellowthroat outside our cabin window

Male Common Yellowthroat outside our cabin window

While not as striking as the warblers, three sparrow species make their homes on Ship, with at least two of them breeding here. Our two dozen or so Song Sparrows are one of the most common streaky sparrows found throughout much of the U.S. and Canada. Their reddish caps and tails set them apart from our equally numerous Savannah Sparrows. Savannah Sparrows are smaller and have a bright yellow spot right above their eye. A more recent arrival has been the Nelson’s Sparrow, of which we have seen only two. Smaller even than the Savannah, the Nelson’s have a strange call somewhere between a hiss and a sigh that we can often hear near the small wetland in the middle of the island.

Nelson's Sparrow calling from atop our solar panel

Nelson’s Sparrow calling from atop our solar panel

Terns are often lauded for their aerial acrobatics, but we have at least one pair of nesting Bank Swallows which can match them zig for zag. Much smaller than the terns, the swallows zip around the island gulping up small flying insects and turning on a dime. Their nest is near the top of the bluff, where they have excavated a small hole.

Several shorebird species make use of the island’s tideline for foraging, but only one species, the Spotted Sandpiper, nests here. Their peeping call and constant tail-bobbing set them apart from other species. We have found two nests and suspect that there are at least three more, hidden under tufts of grass.

Spotted Sandpiper nest with 4 eggs

Spotted Sandpiper nest with 4 eggs

No island bird post would be complete without mentioning our Mallards. A well-known and common duck throughout North America, we have at least three females currently roaming the island with clutches of ducklings.

Female Mallard with her ducklings

Female Mallard with her ducklings

Until next time!

-Mark

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While monitoring and managing wildlife is the priority of the Fish and Wildlife Service, plant management is an often overlooked facet of the process. Common Terns nest on and just above the narrow gravel beach of Ship Island, eschewing the dense, shrubby vegetation found higher up. In recent years, the colony has been periodically inundated by extreme tides and storms, so there has been a push to get the terns to nest further above the tideline. In addition to the construction of the restoration plots mentioned in last week’s Ship Island post, the refuge staff have conducted prescribed burns to deter dense vegetation growing near the beach. The terns seem to be happily building nests in the area that was burned earlier this spring, even with the patchy plants popping up around them.

07N

Area near the beach that was not burned

07S

Burn area near beach

Another plant project on the island is the ongoing battle against invasive plants. Maine Natural History Observatory, along with the refuge staff, has been experimenting with different treatments to remove garlic mustard and garden valerian. Hand-pulling, followed by the application of salt water and concentrated vinegar has been our method for garlic mustard control earlier in the summer. While we managed to eliminate most of the large patches, there is likely some garlic mustard still lurking beneath the waist-high cow parsnip.

A final plant management project is mostly for our benefit. Our trails around the island require plenty of maintenance to prevent them from getting overgrown. As the weather has warmed, the plants have grown ever higher, faster and faster. Regular weekly mowing has allowed us to keep our trails clear, even as the surrounding vegetation has grown up. The trails aren’t just for us; mallards, sparrows, and sandpipers also use the cleared trails.

Mallard in the trail

Mallard in the trail

Until next time!

-Mark

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While the beginning of June was a little dreary here on Ship Island, we’re very excited to share that we have an established Common Tern colony! Our first egg was found last week and the number of nests keeps growing. Today, Mark counted 347 terns within the colony. Between now and the next few weeks, we’re hoping to see the colony expand to over 800 terns with more than 400 nests. We still have a little ways to go, but we have plenty of work to do in the meantime!

Common terns flush around Eider Blind

Common terns flush around Eider Blind

Our daily tern counts are conducted from our two blinds overlooking the colony: Eider Blind and Gull Blind. When we first approach the blinds, the terns rise up and swarm around, clearly agitated by the presence of a potential predator. We count the number of terns located throughout the colony after they have settled, taking note of the number above the high tide line, nest incubation and any courtship behaviors. The location of the nests is important for the ongoing success of the tern colony; any nests located too close to the high tide line are at risk of being washed away during storm events or extreme high tides. The beach is narrow and the amount of suitable nesting substrate is somewhat limited, so the Refuge has built two beach-imitating restoration plots above the beach. During our time in the blinds, we monitor these restoration plots to see if the terns are taking to them (they have and nests have been seen). Should these plots be successful, the colony will have more space to nest and will hopefully expand in the years to come.

One restoration plot from inside Gull Blind, Eider Blind in distance

One restoration plot from inside Gull Blind, Eider Blind in distance

As seabird technicians on the island, our main goal for the summer is to monitor and maintain the colony. We’ve mentioned before that we watch for predators constantly, but we simply can’t have eyes on the colony 24 hours a day. To make up for this, we marked 50 nests with tongue depressors with the date and number of eggs, which we will check again at a later point. Ideally, there will be the same number of eggs or more in each nest. If not, we will know that there are likely predation events and will have ample time to come up with a solution to further protect the colony. Tern chicks are still several weeks away but it’s important to stay on top of monitoring the colony every day. The more we catch potential problems as they arise before the end of the month, the smoother it will be once the madness of chick season arrives.

A Common Tern incubates its nest

A Common Tern incubates its nest

That’s all from us here on Ship! Until next time!

-Sarah

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Hello again from Ship Island!

Summer is almost here and the terns are sticking around more and more every day. We’ve noticed the number of terns visiting the colony is increasing as well, so hopefully within the next week the colony will be formed and full of nesting Common terns. In the meantime, Mark found our first tern egg! The colony is on its way!

Common Tern Egg

Common Tern Egg

Many of you may be wondering what life is like when you’re living on a seabird island. Our days here start early; at 7 AM we conduct daily surveys of any and all birds on the island. These surveys typically include songbirds, waterfowl, and any marine birds. We get new avian visitors to the islands almost every day so these surveys are a fun and interesting way to start the day.

Female American Redstart

Female American Redstart

The rest of the day is weather dependent. Aside from the important and almost constant roles of monitoring general movements of the tern colony and keeping an eye out for any predators visiting both Ship and Trumpet Islands, some tasks cannot be completed in rain or dense fog. Days when we are stuck inside (such as today- rain and wind gusts up to 30 mph!) typically include lots of reading, card games, checking up on emails and listening to the radio. We will venture outside for a quick survey of shorebirds at high tide and dusk, but the day is low key and relaxing. When the weather is cooperative, one of us will spend some time in the blinds observing the terns. The rest of the day is filled with completing projects for the Refuge staff. These can range from trail maintenance to removing invasive plant species to marking the 30 meter grid plot around the whole island. Once our main goals for the day have been accomplished, we take the time to enjoy the day. Exploring the different fauna on the island is always fun and there is usually time to squeeze in some beach chair lounging. It’s always great to spend an hour or two sitting outside, listening to all the birds calling, watching the harbor seals play and observing butterflies as they go about their days.

Red Admiral Butterfly

Red Admiral Butterfly

Starting the day at 6:30 AM means we’re usually done with dinner and looking to get settled down for the night at around 8:30. Doing the dishes and sweeping are mundane activities typically, but there’s usually a beautiful island sunset to accompany you. This is my first time living on a seabird island and it is a beautiful, interesting and tiring experience all in one. I’m learning new things every day and looking forward to the round the clock work that goes into monitoring a seabird colony!

Until next time!

-Sarah

East Barge on a Beautiful Day!

East Barge on a Beautiful Day!

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Many bird species migrate south every autumn to escape the frigid winters of northern North America. As the snow melts and the plants begin to green in the spring, millions of birds flow back to their summer breeding grounds. While Common Terns and a few other species will breed here, other birds only make a short stopover on or around Ship Island before resuming their northward flight. We’ve had the pleasure of catching a glimpse of a few of these passersby.

Common Loons, Long-tailed Ducks, and Black Scoters overwinter on saltwater. Loons breed on inland wooded lakes during the summer, while the ducks nest in northern Canada. Some of these waterbirds around Ship may have spent the winter in Blue Hill Bay, but others are probably working their way up the coast from further south.

Shorebirds, such as Black-bellied Plovers, Least Sandpipers, and Short-billed Dowitchers spend the colder months along the southeastern and Mid-Atlantic coast. Foraging along the tideline of Ship Island, these birds can refuel for the rest of their trip to their Canadian breeding grounds.

Short-billed Dowitchers

A small group of our 57 visiting Short-billed Dowitchers

Bird watchers throughout the country revel in the annual springtime flurry of songbirds, especially the colorful warblers. We on Ship are no different, chasing half a dozen warbler species around our small grove. Several Yellow Warblers and Common Yellowthroats will remain for the summer, but others are on their way to breeding grounds in mainland Maine. Magnolia, Blackpoll, and Chestnut-sided Warblers, along with a Northern Parula have all visited the island, gleaning small insects from the cherry trees.

Magnolia Warbler

Magnolia Warbler in the grove

Chestnut-sided Warbler

Chestnut-sided Warbler checking out the camera

No migration post would be complete without making mention of the Snowy Owl that visited the island before the summer crew arrived. Two volunteer island-sitters were lucky enough to spot this Arctic predator flying around the island before its northward departure. As wonderful a sight as it would have been, it is probably for the best that it continued its journey before the arrival of most of the owl-meal-sized terns.

Until next time!

-Mark

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