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A sunny afternoon overlooking Eastern Brothers 

As we’re adjusting to our first week back from break, we thought to talk a little bit about how it is living on a seabird island for the summer. Although checking burrows, surveying for alcids, and keeping the island predator free takes up a majority of our time, we still find time to enjoy all the coast of Maine has to offer.

One would think being stationed on a small island would become somewhat monotonous, but we find that the little things keep it lively and help pass the time. When the weather cooperates, we enjoy taking walks around the island looking for more species to put on our list, mainly migrating songbirds and shorebirds.

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Chestnut-sided warbler 

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Magnolia warbler 

However, on those foggy or rainy days (sometimes lasting for a few days), we turn to books and cooking. Dawson is a trained chef when it comes to whipping up a batch of delicious Polish pancakes.

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A pancake waiting to be flipped

We also have identified a variety of wildflowers that are dispersed throughout the island, filling in the wet meadows and the sunny hillsides.

 

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Slender Blue Flag (Iris prismatica)

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Blue Marsh Bellflower (Campanula uliginosa)

Since we’re roughly 5 miles off the mainland, the temperatures rarely rise above 70 with a constant cool ocean breeze. However, on the days where the wind dies down and the sun’s out, the ocean water (~56 degrees) is quite refreshing.

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Nate meditating in mid-air

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Dawson mid-flip and dangerously close to a belly-flop

Lastly, we always end our days, usually cleaning up from dinner and watching the sunset and the moon rise. However the day goes, it always seems to end in a beautiful sunset overlooking the Englishmen Bay.

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A glowing full moon captured with our spotting scope

~Nate & Dawson, EBI 2016

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Armed to the teeth: by the end of our owl adventures, there were 15 padded leg-hold traps on perches stationed around the island. Not all of them worked out so well, though; the owl actually perched on the taller trap on the left without triggering it!

Most people who do bird work get into a rigidly defined schedule. More often than not, it involves waking up early– often hours before sunrise– and going to bed early to accommodate for our early-bird hours. Seabird work here on the Refuge is a bit nicer, with our day officially starting at a relaxing 7:00 am. For the past few weeks, however, the Ship Island crew has had to turn our schedule topsy-turvy, thanks to a dastardly nocturnal visitor: a great-horned owl.

Kelby first spotted the owl on an inauspicious morning in late June. We tossed up a first round of traps that very day, but the owl didn’t return for almost two weeks! When it did return, we knew it had discovered the tern colony from the number of bodies left behind. Over the next few weeks, we gradually increased nighttime monitoring, starting with midnight trap checks and escalating until we had somebody present in a blind during every single hour of the night.

Thankfully, our efforts paid off. At 12:17 am on 7/21, as I was tucking myself into bed after the 9-12 blind stint, I received a phone call from Kelby: we captured the owl!

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Handling raptors is a bit different than handling little seabirds. For one, terns don’t have knives on their feet…

Our adult and fledgeling terns face predation from various birds of prey, and not all of them are equally problematic. We have near-daily predation events from nearby nesting peregrine falcons, which accounts for dozens of casualties over the course of the season. This doesn’t seem to disturb the terns outside of the five minutes or so that the falcon is present, however. The same goes for merlin, northern harrier, and even the occasional Cooper’s hawk that finds its way out to Ship.

Terns and other seabirds have evolved a colonial defense against aerial predation, accomplished by banding together to evade capture in spectacular dread flights or by chasing off the predator altogether with brutal dive-bombing and excrement-shooting tactics. Nocturnal predation, however, is a different game altogether; the adult terns panic when they are threatened by a predator they cannot see, and will simply leave the colony for the night if they feel unsafe. If an owl is visiting for consecutive nights, fattening up on a steady diet of tern chicks and fledgelings, the adults will eventually decide not to return the next morning at all. That leaves the entire year’s worth of chicks to starve and fall victim to plundering by gulls.

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Built to kill: with long talons, powerful feet, and a toe configuration that can rotate to restrain prey, owls are well-adapted to surprise prey under the cover of darkness.

It turns out that this particular owl has been visiting more than just Ship Island for its nighttime escapades. A brief trip to Trumpet Island revealed at least five gulls recently killed, and we have heard nighttime disturbances from the birds nesting on nearby East and West Barge Islands at well. Even though we will only be able to see the positive effects of apprehending the owl here on Ship, we can rest easy knowing that the threat to the other nearby seabird colonies has been mitigated.

What happens next? Our big “friend” spent the night here on Ship but was picked up promptly the next morning. It will spend the rest of the week in a fancy flight cage with a local wildlife rehabilitator until it’s time to drive far, far inland. The owl will be released at a lush forest camp teeming with plenty of non-seabird prey, where he can live out his days hunting responsibly.

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Roger hurried out for an early-morning pickup. Here, he pushes the boat off with the owl (left) safe on board.

That’s all for now. We’ll have one last update on island news within the week. Closing is on 7/26 (!), but work will continue right until the end.

Meredith, Ship I.

Bonus bird fact: the great-horned owl’s closest North American relative is actually the striking snowy owl. While they may seem quite different at first glance, they share many morphological and ecological similarities. This even includes those striking “horns”; if you see a snowy in the right wind, you might catch a glance of its miniature ear tufts.

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More tern chicks are fledging with each passing day here on Metinic!   It is great to walk out into the colony and see the chicks take off into the air rather than running to the tall grass for cover, especially after a couple of weeks of limited food coming in.  Some of the older chicks are starting to venture out into the intertidal and over the water; we even saw a fledgling way down at the very southern end of the island when we walked down there one afternoon.

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A fledgling watching us carefully.  It took off as soon as we got closer.

The chicks aren’t the only ones venturing out.  This week during a provisioning stint, Mark spotted a roseate tern resting on a rock in the intertidal!  While this tern appeared to only be passing through and not a resident, this is still exciting because they are federally endangered, and so it is nice to see that they are at least in the area.  This brings our island species list up to 96!

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The roseate tern Mark spotted on the right, and a common tern on the left.  Roseate terns have a longer bill and tail than the Arctic and common terns.  Their bill is also mostly black and their body is paler in color than the other terns.

Earlier in the week we spent an afternoon searching for Leach’s storm-petrel burrows.  Previously, we had been doing this by smelling holes along the old rock walls as the petrel burrows give off a distinct scent that is described to be like old musty books.  After reading on a previous blog that the petrels could also be found by playing their call from our phones and listening for a response from the birds, we were able to find even more burrows.  So, a big thank you to our friends on Petit Manan Island for that suggestion, it seems to work well!  If you’re curious what a Leach’s storm-petrel sounds like, here is a link to website with audio recordings of them: Click here to get to the website.  We do have petrels burrowing underneath our house, so it is funny to hear this at night and periodically during the day!

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One of the entrances to a Leach’s storm-petrel burrow along the old rock wall. 

I’ll leave you with a fun thing happened this week as I was walking along the shore back to the house from checking burrows.  I came across a plastic water bottle that looked like it had something inside it, and to my surprise, it was a message in a bottle!  It’s true that you never know what you’ll find working out on the Maine coastal islands!  I will email whoever sent it out to let them know where we found it!

 

 

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Other than our continued provisioning, productivity, and guillemot burrow checks, that’s about it for this week!

– Helen

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Why band birds?

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How many chicks do you count in this nestcam still?

Hey again from Ship Island, where the summer’s swelter presses ever-onward. Since our first hatching on 6/16, the crew here has put out over 500 bands on emerging chicks, but even this is just a small fraction of the total number of young birds growing up on Ship. With an average overall clutch size of 2.35 and over 680 breeding pairs of terns, there could be over 1,600 chicks swarming Ship Island right now! …And that’s ignoring all of the non-seabird species our tiny chunk of land in Blue Hill Bay plays host to. Of course, it’s just about impossible to catch and band them all; after barely 24 hours of life, the downy chicks will start making their first forays away from the nest bowl, making them quite difficult to locate and catch.

Lately, tern wrangling hasn’t been the only bird research conducted at Ship! Last week, we had a guest researcher and technician from the University of Maine come ashore with mist nets in tow. They are pursuing an ambitious project looking at character displacement and niche partitioning in multiple populations of coastal sparrows, from generalists like song sparrow (Melospiza melodia) and Nelson’s sparrow (Ammodramus nelsonii) to specialists like the rapidly-declining saltmarsh sparrow (Ammodramus caudacutus). We had a great few days of intellectual exchange; Kelby got to learn all about passerine capture and handling, and our guests had the chance to get immersed in an aggressive common tern colony!

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We were very excited to learn that this male Nelson’s sparrow was not the only of his kind on Ship; he has a mate, and a nest that has fledged at least two young!

No matter what kind of biological research with wild bird you are conducting, be it conservation/management, behavioral ecology, population demography, migration dynamics, or otherwise, there is one core action taken with the birds that is a constant across all of these disciplines: banding the bird.

With this in mind, I thought I’d take a moment to answer the single most common question I’m asked by laypeople when doing fieldwork: “why do you band birds in the first place?

Like many questions, this one has both a short answer and a much longer answer. In its simplest form, bird banding serves one fundamental purpose: permanently mark an individual within a population.

An individual is typically marked with a federally-issued metal band that contains a unique combination of numbers (for example, most Ship Island bands this year lie somewhere between 1332-71600 and 1332-72000). Different countries issue different types of bands; here at Ship, we have resighted several common terns originally banded in Argentina. They have a totally different band format! There are hundreds of bird banding stations placed across the United States, Canada, and the neotropical wintering grounds of our many species; collaborative data collection from all of these stations gives us a detailed view of where birds are moving.

Federal bands aren’t even the only ones that you can use to mark birds; different varieties of field-readable bands allow researchers and birdwatchers alike to gather data on a bird without having to recapture it. A couple examples: the Refuge’s Arctic terns (Sterna paradisaea) receive metal field-readables with an alphanumeric code; numerous seabirds and waterfowl are labeled with colored field-readables with numbers or letters; songbirds everywhere are given colorful plastic color-bands in unique combinations to distinguish individuals.

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We were able to read this common tern’s band number from the blind using a camera, and learned that the bird was first banded on Ship Island in 1998!

These applications only brush the surface of all the research and management activities enabled by bird banding. If you think long enough about it, many more ideas spring to mind: hunters report banded ducks that they have taken; birders everywhere go out of their way to report field-readable bands; recapture data allow us to positively determine a bird’s age. The possibilities are nearly limitless, and all stem from the simple application of a small metal ring to a bird’s leg.

Back to the birds for me, now. The common terns on Ship are getting ready to fledge, and work presses ever onward.

Meredith @ Ship I.

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Although the majority of the first half of our field season has been nothing but blue skies and sunshine, this past week has given us enough rain for the whole summer. However, the terns and guillemots don’t seem to mind much. They’re growing more and more everyday; the terns chicks from nest # 2 already have most of their primaries in! While the guillemots may not be as further developed as the terns are, we’re finding at least a dozen new chicks every time we check the burrows; we almost have as many chicks as we have burrows (67 chicks and 73 burrows!).

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Dawson checking out the wings of a healthy black guillemot chick.

Now that we have all of our tern chicks hatched (8 in all), we have started our provisioning surveys. These are conducted 4 times a week for 3-hour stints at a time, recording the species of fish that the adults bring in to feed the chicks. The most common fish that are being brought in are sandlance and herring.

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Healthy “A” and “B” tern chicks from nest # 3.

We’re also beginning to see a wide variety of early migrants on the island, from shorebirds to raptors. Notable sightings include: spotted sandpiper, killdeer, semipalmated sandpiper and northern harrier. We’re adding more species to our running list everyday, with the northern harrier making it 43. The upcoming week is our break off the island, and we plan to do a lot of hiking and exploring around the area, taking advantage of the sun coming our way. We’re excited to see how much our chicks grow when we get back!

~Nate and Dawson, EBI 2016

 

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Hello everyone!  The main focus on Metinic this week was our chick provisioning watches.  Essentially what happens is we are watching to see what the adults are feeding their chicks.  To set this up, we select a number of nests in good visibility from our blinds and mark them with numbered and color-coded tongue depressors. We then find the chicks that belong to each nest, band them, and then color a specific part of their body according to the hatch order and corresponding nest.  The first chick to hatch is called the “A” chick and is colored on top of its head.  The second chick to hatch is called the “B” chick and receives color on its chest.  The third chick to hatch is called the “C” chick and is colored on its back.

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One of our provisioning nests.  The color on top of the “A” chick’s head corresponds to the color on the tongue depressor.  When the egg hatches, the “B” chick will get the same color on its chest.

During each provisioning stint we watch each nest for adults coming in with food for the chicks.  We record the nest number, the arrival time of the adult, which chick receives the food, the departure time of the adult, the number of prey items, and the species of prey brought in and its size.  Prey size is determined based on the bird’s bill length.  For example, a fish can be recorded as 1 bill length or 1.5 bill lengths; size is measured to the closest quarter of a bill length.  All of this is often determined within a few seconds as the adults swoop in and the chicks gobble down the food quickly.  Each provisioning stint lasts 3 hours and we try to total at least 12 hours a week each.  All of this information will give us an idea of the amount of food coming in and its quality.

Besides the provisioning watches, we have also been continuing our productivity monitoring.  It is amazing to see just how quickly our chicks are growing up!  Right now the majority of them are in the process of replacing their downy fluff with feathers.  Another interesting thing to observe is the range in development.  A few of the chicks have mostly feathers and seem like they will be fledging soon, while others haven’t even hatched yet!

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One of the older chicks in our productivity plots showing off its feathers.  It is getting so big!

Provisioning and productivity take up the majority of the week, but Mark and I decided to take one afternoon to head down to the southern end of the island to see if we could spot any new species to add to our island list.  As we were walking along one of the southern cobble beaches we came across a bird washed up on shore.  At first glance it looked like a small gull, but as we got a closer look we discovered that is was a tubenose.  Upon further observation and investigation, we were able to ID it as a Northern fulmar!  Our species list is now up to 92 with the addition of a great cormorant, lesser yellowlegs, and a semipalmated plover!

That’s about it for this week, we will be celebrating the 4th of July with our seabirds!  So far, we have been enjoying the various firework shows going on miles across the water on the mainland, and who knows, we may even break out the small grill this evening!

Have a happy 4th of July!

Helen

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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.

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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!)

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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.

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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.

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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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