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Posts Tagged ‘Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge’

It has already been over two weeks since the Great Horned Owl roamed the surface of Ship Island looking for a late-night snack. You would think that over time, the terns would settle down and begin to behave “normally.” But that’s not the response we’re seeing. Even today most of the colony begins to sweep high above the island soon after sunset, then disappear quietly out over the ocean. It seems that small numbers do come back to warm their chicks and eggs, but the majority aren’t seen again until sunrise.

The owl caused full colony abandonment during the nights on the island. This occurred for over a week straight, which might have led to some long-term effects on chick physiology. Many of the eggs didn’t end up hatching since they weren’t incubated during the nights. But, some eggs were still able to make it. Typically, eggs hatch after 21-23 days of incubation. With the owl disturbance, incubation length increased, which is why our chicks arrived slightly behind schedule.

Although we have many healthy chicks all around the island, there are a select few that are showing what we assume to be the negative consequences of this over-exposure to the cold and wet nights on a Maine island. When terns incubate, they are constantly rotating the eggs around. This allows for even nutrient and heat distribution throughout the egg as well prevents the embryo from sticking to the shell, allowing it to float in the middle and develop successfully. Without this constant rotation, it’s possible that the chicks could have developed certain physical defects.

 

Not only are we seeing odd chick appearances, but we are also seeing a huge change in colony behavior. The terns have been extremely sensitive to any presence that might seem or sound threatening. This even includes species that are not considered predators. In order to protect themselves, terns often mob, dive-bomb, or attack the predator. They also might flee, just as they did with the owl. Their actions depend on the level they feel threatened themselves versus how threatened their young are. We’ve observed terns going after Common Eiders, Dowitchers, and Harbor Seals. They were even frightened by the sound of a nearby fishing boat. Although we can see that these species are here to do no harm, it’s still good to see the terns working hard and being extra protective.

These actions displayed by the tern colony isn’t uncommon among populations who are or were at risk of nocturnal predation. In fact, it has been witnessed in several other Common Tern studies where owls were present. Looking at a well-known colony observed by Monomoy NWR in particular, you can read how they experienced very similar results years ago (Nisbet and Welton, 1984).

It’s amazing how a single bird can influence an entire colony in only a few days. This owl left an impression on the terns to last the entire season. The fate of this years fledgling was greatly altered and we can only hope that next year the colony works to make up for this years loss.

On a better note, we’re still waking up to a few more chicks every day, and we’ve already seen a few fledge! Based off of our provisioning efforts and weight measurements, our current chicks are growing at a steady rate and being fed a healthy diet, which mostly consists of Atlantic Herring. Some chicks are being fed so much that they actually have to lose weight in order to lift themselves off the ground and fly! We’re glad to finally start seeing our chicks transform into successful adults!

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One of my healthy provisioning chicks. Not quite ready to fledge yet!

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Chicks that were recently born. Only a couple days old!

Only one more week until the island closes. This season really flew by! I’ll keep you updated on any more unusual or exciting events happening on Ship!

-Amanda

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This past week on Ship Morgan and I both took our short breaks off the island. While Morgan was away I was joined by Kelby from PMI to work on predator control, productivity plot management, chick banding, and more!

We’re starting to see more and more chicks every day! Usually when we’re checking the productivity plots we can see when they start pipping. This is when their little beaks start to break open the egg. This lets us know that the next day we will definitely have some new arrivals to weigh and band if they’re dry and ready.

Before we start provisioning, we still have some time to re-sight birds from previous years. Typically, they will have a small silver BBL band on their ankle which contains either 8 or 9 numbers. We can use a spotting scope to see these numbers and enter them into a database where we can learn more information about that bird, such as it’s age. To make re-sighting easier, we put up posts for them to perch on so they aren’t being covered by the vegetation and are closer for us to see. While I was re-sighting from the blind, I spotted a tern that hasn’t been re-sighted in 19 years! I also found one with an orange band. This means that it was banded all the way in Argentina, which I thought was pretty cool.

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An example of a BBL band that can be found on the leg of a Common Tern. As you can see they are very small, which makes them difficult to read.

Now that the owl is gone, we are starting to see more birds come back to the colony. Many of them left during the time he was here and abandoned their nests. Thankfully now they’re starting to scrape the ground and re-nest. Chick age distribution around the island will surely be scattered, but at least they’re not giving up!

Now that I’m back on the island, there’s a lot more chicks running around and much more work to do!

-Amanda

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