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As the heat of July settles in on Metinic, our birds, especially all those chicks we have, all need ways to keep cool.

Like humans, birds need to keep their bodies at a specific temperature. However, birds lack one of the key ways humans keep cool: the ability to sweat . So how does an animal covered in feathers and/or down make it through the summer without suffering from heatstroke? (No, the answer isn’t air conditioning or lots of ice cream)

A guillemot chick, sporting a black down coat for the summer

A guillemot chick, sporting a black down coat for the summer

This isn’t that hard for swimming seabirds like Common Eiders. Even though these ducklings are dressed in down coats for the summer, they don’t run the risk of overheating because they hop straight in to the cold coastal waters, sometimes on the day they hatch! Adults and ducklings alike will spend almost all their time in the water, occasionally hopping up onto rocks to preen.

Four eider ducklings tag along with mom

Six eider ducklings tag along with mom

However, chicks that aren’t ready to swim on day one can’t just jump in the water for a nice cool dip. Black Guillemots have found one of the simplest solutions to keeping their chicks comfortable – keep them out of the sun. Along with providing protection from hungry gulls, a guillemot’s burrow is shaded and cool. The chicks won’t leave the burrows until they are ready to swim, and then they can chill like the eiders.

A guillemot parent and two chicks (one freshly hatched) in a nice cool burrow

A guillemot parent and two chicks (one freshly hatched) in a nice cool burrow

So what if you’re stuck on the land, without a shady burrow like, say, a tern chick? You start out getting a little help from mom and dad. When tern chicks are small enough, they can be brooded by their parents. This behavior does double duty: it keeps chicks warm on cold nights and mornings, and provides cool (or at least cooler) shade during hot days.

An adult Arctic Tern brooding a chick

An adult Arctic Tern brooding a chick

Some chicks still seem to want to be brooded even when they are far too big.

A patient Arctic Tern parent "broods" a chick

A patient Arctic Tern parent “broods” a chick

If the parents are off fishing, something they spend most of their time doing once the chicks are a bit bigger, the chicks have to keep themselves cool. The simplest strategy is familiar to anyone with a pet dog: panting. Adults and chicks alike can be seen panting on hot days.

A panting tern chick

A panting tern chick

Once mobile, usually just a few days after hatching, tern chicks can seek out shade on their own by escaping under a rock or into the cooler grass. It isn’t unusual for us to find “chick tunnels” marking the path chicks take back and forth between their nests (where they get food from their parents) and a safe spot in the grass. We also put out three-sided structures known as “chick huts” in more exposed areas without much natural shelter.

 

A Arctic Tern chick (colored for a provisioning study) takes shelter in a shady chick hut

A Arctic Tern chick (colored for a provisioning study) takes shelter in a shady chick hut

Hope all our readers are staying cool as well!

-Amy

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We’re up to our elbows in chicks out on Metinic. In my last post, I mentioned that our tern chicks have started to hatch. A week later, our little fluffy friends are growing up fast.

Arctic Tern Chick

Arctic Tern Chick

We can often see our older chicks testing out their wings, although they are still a long way from being airborne.

An Arctic Tern chicks, stretching its wings

An Arctic Tern chicks, stretching its wings

Our resident Savannah Sparrows also have chicks of their own. These buzzy-sounding birds build a classic cup-shaped nest in grass on the ground. It can be easy to miss until you see the five squawking mouths.

A nest full of Savannah Sparrow chicks

A nest full of Savannah Sparrow chicks

Spotted Sandpipers are Metinic’s only nesting shorebird this year, and our first sandpiper chicks have made an appearance. Despite their small size and their resemblance to a cotton ball standing on a pair of toothpicks, these chicks are up and running around by day one. They do have a parent around to keep them out of trouble though!

Spotted Sandpiper adult (left) and chick (right)

Spotted Sandpiper adult (left) and chick (right)

Finally, we found our first Black Guillemot chicks. It’s hard not to love these little black puffballs. Guillemots are also the only alcid to lay two eggs at once, so guillemot chicks usually come in pairs.

Our first pair of Black Guillemot chicks

Our first pair of Black Guillemot chicks

Of course, Syd and I didn’t want to miss out on the fun of Guillemot Appreciation Day, so we celebrated in the most delicious way we could!

Our tasty guillemot cake

Our tasty guillemot cake

More updates as our chicks continue to grow!

 

-Amy

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Arctic Terns have arguably the most impressive migration of any bird – they travel from the Arctic to the Antarctic and back again just about every year of their lives.  While we’ve known for a while where the terns travel, how they get there has been something of a mystery. Do they travel along the coastline? Do they take a direct route from Maine to the Antarctic coast? Do they do a marathon flight from pole to pole, or make pit stops along the way?  These questions were nearly impossible to answer until very recently, for the simple reason that following a single tern (or even a flock of them) is nearly impossible. Terns are small birds – a little over 100 grams, or 3.5 ounces – so they can’t be equipped with heavy satellite tags. They also do mostof their traveling over water, so the odds of spotting a tern on its migration are slim.

Enter the light-level geolocator, here to solve these problems and answer many of our migration questions

A geolocator, wrapped in a waterproof cover, attached to the leg of an Arctic Tern

A geolocator, wrapped in a waterproof cover, attached to the leg of an Arctic Tern

Four years ago, in the summer of 2010, the Refuge deployed 30 geolocator tags on 30 separate Arctic Terns. These tiny tags are lightweight enough that they don’t hinder the terns as they travel (in fact, they’ve been used on even smaller birds, like Purple Martins). They work by using detecting light levels and recording the time of sunrise and sunset every day. Since the length of day and the time of sunrise and sunset are slightly different at every point on the globe, this information can be converted into a rough map of everywhere the tag, and by extension the tern, has been.

A pretty miraculous little gadget, isn’t it? But there’s a catch: to reduce weight, the geolocators don’t transmit the data they gather, they simply record it. To get at all that information, the tag must be retrieved and physically attached to a computer. This means the tagged birds must be recaptured and the tags removed before they do us any good.

A geolocator (right) and a field-readable band (left)

A geolocator (right) and a field-readable band (left)

Recapturing a bird can be difficult. The best way to do so is to find the bird’s nest, and use a trap that springs while the bird is incubating. That, however, requires the bird to be able to find a mate. Last year on Metinic, Zak and I spotted a geolocator-equipped tern who had eluded capture for 3 years, but we couldn’t get our hands on him because he didn’t have a mate or a nest.  He spent all summer trying to court various female terns with fish, but there were no takers.

Hard to believe such a good-looking guy couldn't find himself a date

Hard to believe such a good-looking guy couldn’t find himself a date

This year, our lonely tern returned and found himself a mate. Syd and I set up a trap called a bow net trap, which is triggered by the tern attempting to incubate a set of fake wooden eggs (the real ones are safely stored in a blind so they aren’t crushed by a struggling tern). It took a couple of tries, but today we succeeded in capturing the handsome gentleman we have nicknamed Giovanni (Geo, for short).

Syd and Geo

Syd and Geo

Geo was released back to his mate and eggs, probably glad to be rid of his extra baggage. The geolocator will be returned to Refuge staff, who will hopefully be able to use it create a roadmap of Geo’s travels from the past four years. That could be up to eight traps between Maine and Antarctica – more than 70,000 miles!

Geo, free of the geolocator and sporting a shiny new band

Geo, free of the geolocator and sporting a shiny new band

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Hello from Metinic! I’m Amy, and If you’re a regular reader of this blog (there must be a few of you out there!) you might remember me from last summer.  This is my third summer working on a seabird island for MCINWR, and I can’t tell you how glad I am to be back on Metinic. Joining me this year is Syd, a recent University Maine graduate, and Maine native. This is her first summer living on a seabird island. Our first task on the island has been a bit of spring cleaning. Over the winter, trash and debris have a tendency to wash up into the colony, so Syd and I have been picking up bags of trash including the ordinary (plastic bottles, aluminum cans, a lost sandal or two) and the unusual (snow shovels, cans of cheez whiz, and a section from a car dashboard).  We’ve also rounded up some buoys. IMG959995 Lots of buoys. IMG953530 Our other job for the first few days on the island was to send Metinic’s year-round wooly residents south for the summer.   The sheep of Metinic normally have the run of the entire 300+ acres of Metinic, but during the summer, they are restricted to the southern end of the island so that they don’t disrupt the colony or accidentally step on a nest. Thanks to help from Refuge staff and volunteers, we managed to herd the whole group out of the colony and down to their summer home.

Syd helps a lamb that was separated from the flock

Syd helps a lamb that was separated from the flock

Our terns seem to be appreciating their cleaner surroundings. About 300 of them have been house-hunting and checking out potential nest sites

Common Terns going house hunting

Common Terns going house hunting

Best of all, a handful of birds have really settled in: we found our first eggs yesterday!

Our first egg!

Our first egg!

The countdown to chicks has begun! In the meantime, we’ll be sure to update you on the other happenings on Metinic, so stay tuned! –          Amy

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It’s the end of the season and migration time for all of us. Hard as it is to believe, Zak and I have already been off Metinic for more than week.  We’re not the only ones heading out – our tern chicks will soon be off on their own travels.
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Common Terns will head for South America, a pretty long haul for chicks only a few weeks old. The Arctic Terns have even farther to go – all the way to Antarctica! Lucky for them, they’ve got parents to guide them. Chicks will often complete their first migration by following Mom or Dad. This is because tern parents usually have lots of migratory experience – Common Terns can live to be twenty years old, Arctic Terns more than thirty, and they typically migrate every year.

 

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The rest of our feathered friends are getting geared up for migration too. Shorebirds that we haven’t seen since May are flying south from their Arctic breeding grounds and stopped by to say hi before we left. It’s only a matter of time before the songbirds head out, too.
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It’s been a pretty good breeding season for our terns, especially in light of last’s years troubles. The Arctic Terns in particular did very well thanks to good food, good weather, and few problems with predators. We hope this bodes well for future years on Metinic. We (or next year’s crew) will let you know, starting next May!

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Thanks for following along with our work here on Metinic. Zak and I have had a fantastic time out here and we hope you’ve enjoyed reading about what we and the birds have been up to.

Wish our terns chicks luck!

– Amy

(All photos by Zak)

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It’s almost the end of the season here on Metinic, and we’ve just spotted our 145th species: a Bonaparte’s Gull. A significant part of why we’ve been able to spot so many different species out on this year is that in addition to seabirds, our island is the breeding ground for many birds found in forests and fields. Previous years’ crews have caught some of these birds and banded them, but we won’t be running a banding station out here this year. However, that doesn’t mean we don’t appreciate our feathery friends in the woods! Here are photos of some of our local songbirds looking their best. There are too many to cover in a single entry, so I’ve picked out some of our favorites. As usual, click the photos to see a

Savannah Sparrows are without a doubt our most common songbird. They are found mostly in the relatively open portions of the island and build grass nests directly on the ground. We wake up every morning to their buzzy songs – one Savannah Sparrow in particular has claimed the top of our outhouse for his favorite singing perch.

Savannah Sparrow - Photo by Zak

Savannah Sparrow – Photo by Zak

A cousin of the Savannah Sparrow, the Song Sparrow is also quite common on Metinic. They’re a bit drabber – no flashy yellow eyebrows here – but their song is much more melodious.  Song Sparrows also prefer shrubbier habitat than the Savannahs.

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Song Sparrow – Photo by Zak

Our first truly forest-dwelling species of the day: a Myrtle Warbler. These lovely little birds are lumped together with the Audubon’s Warbler as a single species, the Yellow-rumped Warbler. These brightly colored “butter butts” (as some birders like to call them) are found throughout the Metinic woods, particularly around the edges.

Myrtle Warbler - Photo by Zak

Myrtle Warbler – Photo by Zak

Metinic is home to two champion singers: the Winter Wren and the Gray Catbird. The Catbird knows the most songs of any bird on the island – although some might say he cheats, since he’s a mimic. Listening to a Catbird you can pick out any number of other bird songs from his enthusiastic solo concerts. You might also hear the occasional cat-like “meow” that gives this bird its name.

Gray Catbird - Photo by Zak

Gray Catbird – Photo by Zak

The Winter Wren, on the other hand, composes and performs his own music. There may only be one or two Winter Wrens on the island, but we can hear them all over the woods.

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Winter Wren – Photo by Zak

 

Our last and smallest (but not least!) bird for today is the fiery-headed Golden-crowned Kinglet. These tiny birds make their home in Maine year-round – they’re one of the smallest birds to spend the winter this far north.  They’re even smaller than Maine’s ubiquitous Black-capped Chickadees! We spotted their cousin, the Ruby-crowned Kinglet, earlier in the season as well, but only the Golden-crowned decided to stick around for the summer. Check out that bright orange and yellow crown the kinglets use to attract mates and scare away competition!

Golden-crowned Kinglet - Photo by Zak

Golden-crowned Kinglet – Photo by Zak

The season may be drawing to a close, but you haven’t heard the last from Metinic 2013!

-Amy

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Zak and I got a tasty surprise yesterday from our neighbor Gene: a bucket of lobsters!

We threw them straight into a pot and had ourselves a feast. We’re usually not the most sophisticated cooks out here (after reading their latest entry, I’d say Petit Mana takes that prize!) – pasta, hot dogs, and rice and beans are typical Metinic meals – so we were extra happy with such delicious fare.

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I whipped up some lobster macaroni and cheese (my favorite food of all time), while Zak ate his straight off the plate (plus a bit saved for later).

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Topped with Ritz crackers – I was out of bread crumbs

Thanks again to our wonderful neighbors!

-Amy

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