Archive for the ‘Ship Island 2019’ Category

Greetings from Ship Island!

Bobby Brittingham here! As my time is coming to a close on Ship Island, I wanted a chance to post one more educational blog about our work before a farewell blog!

You may or may not have heard about “bird banding” before, it is an extremely common form of essentially tagging and releasing birds. Using specialized pliers, a small metal “C” shaped band is clamped shut around a bird’s tarsus (leg-like the shin bone equivalent to humans).


BBL size 2 band, with the identification number, these are the bands used on all of the birds on Ship.

The banding database provides a lot of information on each bird, where they have been seen, where they nest, where they migrate, or even if the bird is alive, as long as the bird’s band is seen and read correctly by another researcher. These bands are essential to distinguishing one bird from another to perform other research procedures or to distinguish which bird belongs to which nest. On Ship we had very late nesting, so Collin and I have been banding as many chicks as possible with our limited time so that these birds can be identified on where they go over the next year.

banding chick

Collin banding with specialized pliers, one of Collin’s first banded birds!

Bands vary in size and number of letters based on the size, type of band, and/or species of the bird. For the common terns on Ship Island, a single size 2 “BBL” band is placed around their right leg; these bands each have a unique 9 digit number.  These bands are then entered in an online database through the United States Geological Survey (USGS), and the “status” of a bird can be updated by individuals all over the world. For example, a tern was banded on Petit Manan this summer, and it has already been spotted by another researcher in Venezuela all the way in South America!

band on chick

The chicks do not mind the bands as long as they’re put on correctly. When they are put on right, they even look stylish!

For me personally, it is the most fun protocol we perform out here, nothing beats the feeling of getting to meet hundreds of chicks that I have the privilege to watch over every day on this island. Not only that, but it is crucial for research purposes. With the late nesting that occurred this year on Ship, it will be interesting to see where these birds could have possibly gone earlier this year by resightings of the chicks that we band this summer. Be on the lookout for one more blog from the Ship Island crew later this week!

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Hello everyone, this is Bobby writing to you from Ship Island with some breaking news.

The bird word must have gone around, because as of Thursday, July 11th, 321 nests have been found and marked with more being discovered every day! The chaos on the tern nesting beach area is beginning; the eggs laid in late June have begun to hatch this week. Soon our island will be filled with extremely adorable fuzzy chicks who love to run and hide in whatever grass or shelter they can find!

fuzzy boy

One of the first chicks on Ship, easily one of the softest objects one could ever hold.

These toddler-like chicks are extremely curious and will wander away pretty far from their nests if given a chance. With them running around all over, it can be difficult to tell how the colony chicks are doing health wise and how many of these chicks are surviving to adulthood. This is answered through a protocol that all of the islands perform known as productivity plots. This may sound like a fancy term, but essentially Colin and I determined a group of nests with eggs that were laid earlier in the season (in our case in late June) that neighbored each other and constructed fencing around them to enclose this area.


COTE on colins head

Colin (pictured) and I constantly had terns going at our heads to protect their nests while we constructed productivity plots. This one very nicely went feet first to our heads instead of the usual sharp bill first.

This keeps the chicks from our nests of focus from running all over the beach getting into trouble, that way we can determine how many chicks are surviving to adulthood and the size increases of each chick from each nest within our plots. To determine which chick is which, we put stylish metal BBL bands on their right legs that give them a unique identification number for life in a large online database. Colin and I then check each nest in each plot every morning to monitor the eggs and chicks. I am not a parent, but I imagine how I feel when we look for the chicks every morning it is similar to the stressful situation of a parent trying to find their misplaced kids, as Colin and I are really attached to our chicks in the plots. It has been amazing to see the transformation from egg to chick, and soon from chick to fledgling. Watching them grow up has been so special for Colin and I, and we can’t wait to see each chick’s journey continue. More updates coming soon!

wet baby tern

One of the many chicks hatching this weekend, this one hatched within the hour before this photo with a big world to explore!

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Hi folks,

I know it’s been a while since I have posted an update from Ship Island. As you know from reading Ship’s past posts that our tern numbers where very low. In fact when I went on my break we had only 9 active nests here on Ship. This Monday I returned to Ship to find that the number of active nests has more than quadrupled to a total of 67 with the very likely possibility of there being more laid as I write this. This is a very exciting time for Ship, and we are expecting a few chicks by the end of this week.

Tern Incubating

(Photo above: Common Tern incubating one of the many newly found nests)

I also got to help conduct a census of several islands in the blue hill bay which took most of Monday. It was a wonderful day on the boat with nothing by sunny skies, and the day got better when we found over 200 nests on a tiny island called connery nub. I even got to see my first tern chick of the season. We believe these the birds  normally nest on Ship, but for some reason they were more comfortable nesting there. The hope is that if the nests that we have now succeed then possibly next season more terns will choose to nest on Ship.

Tern Chick.jpg

(Photo Above: Jim holding Common Tern chick from Connery Nub.)Boat.jpg

(photo above: Jim driving boat around the Blue Hill Bay.)

Blue hill Bay.jpg

In the next week I hope to be able to report our first hatchlings here on Ship island.


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(Picture above: Tern Decoys)

It has almost been 3 weeks since Bobby and I began working on Ship Island. Unfortunately we are still not seeing as many terns as we should, and we don’t have a good explanation as to why. As Bobby explained last Thursday the refuge came out and installed a sound system and decoys in an attempt to lure more terns to Ship Island. In the meantime the past week we spent a considerable amount of time implementing invasive plant control on Garlic Mustard (seen in the picture below).

Garlic Mustard.jpg

(Photo above: Garlic Mustard. Photo Cred: Maine Dept. of Agriculture Conservation and Forestry)

This work is very familiar to me since all last summer I worked as a invasive plant control intern out in southern CO for the San Luis Valley National Wildlife Refuge Complex.  Garlic Mustard is a particularly nasty invasive since it is also allelopathic meaning it releases chemicals that can inhibit the growth of other plants surrounding it allowing it to grow out of control and take over huge areas of land that could otherwise been used by native plants that provide a service to the ecosystem. The method of control that we implemented with the refuges help last Tuesday was to first pull all flowering plants, and spraying  the area where the plants where pulled with extra strength vinegar which will hopefully kill any seeds that could be dormant in the soil. We also sprayed little roseate that would turn into flowering plants the following year. Bobby and I spent the next day scouring the island further to find as many of the plants that we could. We were pleased to find that the infestation at least this year was confined to only a few areas on the island instead of spread out. The work can be difficult at times trudging through fields of Cow Parsnip and stinging nettle both which can leave painful rashes on the skin, but trudge on we will.


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(A few of our first of hopefully many eggs on Ship!)

Hi folks!

Bobby from Ship Island here, as the cleverly constructed title suggests, we have eggs here on the island! A total of 13 eggs in 12 nests, which gives us hope that the birds are willing to nest for the breeding season on the island. Whenever Colin or I find a nest with an egg, we turn the egg to stand up, that way when we check the egg later on we can tell if it has been incubated (the egg falls back on its side from the tern sitting on it) or if it has not (egg is still standing up).  However, the number of terns that have been showing up since the last blog post has not been ideal. We have not seen more than 50 terns at once on the island for the past week and a half, at this time last year for contrast, there were 519 breeding pairs. It has become crunch time as we are using our final method to attract the terns back, creating our own tern colony.

This is done with two simple props, audio of a tern colony through multiple speakers, and using wooden decoys of terns (bird manikins essentially). These both simulate that a real colony is on the island and that it is safe to nest for the breeding season. Although it reminds me of The Truman Show in some ways, this method is the best bet to have the terns stay and nest immediately to allow them to be raising young in time for their migrations later in the summer. To paraphrase Princess Leia from Star Wars, the tern decoys may be our “only hope left”, but Colin and I are waiting confidently for our feathered friends to return. Don’t stop believin’ in Ship Island!


(Terns and the decoys, can you spot the difference?)

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(Photo Above: A pair of mallards we beleive to be nesting somewhere on ship island.)

Hi all before I begin I figured I would introduce myself. My name is Collin and I am from the meterowest area of Massachusetts where I study wildlife biology at Framingham State University.  This is my second field position, but my first position being able to work with birds which is an interest of mine. I am also working with one other tech named Bobby who will introduce himself in his own post.

We have just finished our first week here on Ship Island, and the primary focus has been preparing the island for the arrival of the terns who have been rather late compared to past years. We have yet to find our first nest or egg. Preparation has largely been in the way of preemptive predator control.  Due to the fact that too much predation on a colony can cause them to abandon their nests even if eggs are present which is a huge loss.



(Photo above: Goshawk trap which is used for catching owls. Acts like a heart trap for birds. That wood pole would hold the doors open, and when a owl perches on that pole the trap collapse’s safely trapping the owl for release on the mainland.)

.  A specific focus has been setting live traps for owls such as our foot hold traps, and goshawk traps(new this season). Another predation control method we have implemented was to make our two observation blinds displeasing to perching predators.  We have achieved this by trying rolls of chicken wire on top of the blinds to form almost a bouncy uneven surface that will hopeful deter the perching of predators.


(Photo above: Our homemade chicken wire perch deterrent on top of a blind.)

Other tasks have also included keeping gulls off the beach mostly by just walking these areas constantly. Gulls are worrisome since they like to eat tern eggs and hatchlings by the “beakfull”.

We hope to be able to report our first nests and eggs any day now.

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