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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!

House

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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Although I may have spent the first few posts talking about songbirds and gulls, terns are our focus around here. These feisty seabirds are what bring us to Metinic, so it’s high time I let them have their “tern” as the center of attention.

Metinic’s terns, both Common and Arctic, had a rough season last year. Because of an unfortunate combination of bad weather and lots of egg-eating gulls, the terns were forced to abandon their nests shortly after they began laying eggs.

A Common Tern soars over Metinic - Photo by Zak

A Common Tern soars over Metinic – Photo by Zak

We were all holding our breath to see if the terns would take a chance on Metinic again this year. Even if they did, we had no idea how many would actually return.

After completing our annual tern census this week, we’re pleased to say we have 350 pairs of terns nesting on Metinic this year!

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An Arctic Tern on the nest – Photo by Zak

We’ve also had chicks of both species start hatching – more than fifty of the island’s most adorable residents have popped out of their shells. The adult terns are already hard at work bringing in enough fish to feed their new chicks. It will be about a month before these little fluffballs are ready to fly, so the adults have their work cut out for them.

ARTE w Silver Hake

An Arctic Tern brings back a fish for its chicks – Photo by Zak

These days, Zak and I are out banding chicks in our productivity plots so we can chart their growth. Unlike tern parents, we can’t tell chicks apart without some kind of marker, so all productivity chicks are banded within a day or two of hatching.

ARTE baby banding

Amy banding a tern chick – Photo by Zak

We’ve also been trapping and banding adult terns. As with gulls, the best way to trap a tern is on their nest. We replace the eggs with wooden dummy eggs and set a trap that springs when the adult returns to incubate. We then band the tern and take a few measurements before releasing it. The dummy eggs are removed and the real ones are put back in the nest.  The terns aren’t too happy with the process, but they always seem to return to the nest within 15 minutes of being released.

ARTE Banding

Banding an adult tern – Photo by Zak

By banding adult birds, we have a better chance of seeing the bands again – any breeding adult has already proven its ability to survive at least one migration, so it’s likely that it will survive another year. Some terns can live to be more than thirty years old, and every time we see the band we add another piece of information about that bird’s life.

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An Arctic Tern – Photo by Zak

You may notice us wearing some strange looking hats in our photos. While we’d like to pretend these are the very latest in high fashion, they’re actually a practical method of tern defense. When protecting their nests, adult terns aren’t afraid to peck an invader, be it gull or eagle or human, on the head. They typically aim for the highest part of the body, so adding a flag to the top of you hat is a good way to keep your head from getting pecked.

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Tern attack! Adult Common Terns defend their nests from an invading mammal (aka Amy) – Photo by Zak

We’ve got a few more terns stories coming up, plus an update on some of our other seabirds, like Black Guillemots and Leach’s Storm Petrels, so stay tuned!

-Amy

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It’s time to find out just what our gulls have been up to since we attached GPS tags.  In our first round of tagging, we sent out five tags on five separate Herring Gulls.  The tags we used are useful because they are lightweight, but they don’t transmit the data directly to us. Instead, we have to catch our gulls again.

We started by watching the nest. Both gull parents will help incubate the eggs, trading off throughout the day. The gull not on the nest generally heads out to forage for food. However, we only tagged one gull from each nest, so it’s important that we only set the trap up when the right gull of the pair is taking his or her turn at incubation. Thankfully, the GPS tags are easy to see from a distance.

Once we know the right gull is in the area, we set the gull trap up, just like before. We were hoping they wouldn’t get trap shy and refuse the sit on their eggs when the trap was present. Luckily, our first tagged gull was caught less than an hour after we set up the trap!

Success!

Success! A Herring Gull in a box trap

The tags were removed by cutting off the small tuft of feathers to which they were taped. Don’t worry – birds regularly replaced their feathers, so the cut ones will fall out and be replaced with new ones.

After downloading the data from the tag, what we found was pretty cool: our first gull’s foraging trips were more than 15 miles long. She stuck to the mainland coast, mostly between St. George and Rockland. Her trips sometimes took her more than four hours!

Gull 3 Map

The foraging routes of our first recaptured gull

In the end, we recovered three of the first five tags we sent out, and none of the gulls followed the same paths. One gull went straight up to Warren, ME several times over a few days. That’s a round-trip distance of almost 40 miles. We think he might have been looking for spawning alewives.

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Our second gull made a beeline for Warren every time!

The third gull stayed local and barely left the waters around Metinic Island – it looks like she preferred feasting on the spawning polychaete sand worms just offshore.

Gull 3 must have found plenty to eat in her own backyard

Gull 3 must have found plenty to eat in her own backyard

We also lost two tags – the gulls managed to pull them off, so it looks like we need to come up with a new way to attach the tags. Our next step is to design a harness for the tags that the gulls can’t rip or tear. Hopefully we’ll have more news about our wandering gulls before the season is over.

Metinic also has plenty of terns and guillemots – expect to start hearing about them soon!

-Amy

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You’ve seen them on docks. You’ve seen them on dumpsters. They eat fish, french fries, and everything in between. But where do all these gulls come from? And where do they go once they’ve finished their lunch?

 Gulls can be found just about everywhere there’s water (and plenty of places where there isn’t). There are plenty of them around, and they’ve gained a reputation as garbage-eating pests.  But there’s way more to a gull than dumpster diving.

Some gulls, like this Great Black-backed Gull, are actually quite handsome! - Photo by Zak

Some gulls, like this Great Black-backed Gull, are actually quite handsome! – Photo by Zak

First of all, gulls are actually cousins of the terns we’re working so hard to protect out on these islands, and these cousins have a lot in common. Both terns and gulls prefer to nest in large colonies, and lay their eggs in nests on the ground. They’re both strong fliers, capable of traveling long distances over the ocean (although nothing quite tops the pole-to-pole migration of the Arctic Tern).  Males and females of both tern and gull species are almost identical (although males tend to be a little bigger) and both parents work together to raise their chicks.

So why have gulls done so well when terns are in trouble? It all comes down to food. Gulls are opportunistic – they’ll eat anything. Terns are picky eaters – they generally only eat fresh-caught food they pluck from the water themselves. Like a tern, gulls also love fish. But they’ll also eat mussels, urchins, crabs, and in recent years, human refuse. They’ve learned to follow fishing boats, flock to open dumpsters, or sometimes snatch food right out of people’s hands. So gulls have thrived on these new abundant food sources, while terns have been struggling.

A Herring Gull, Metinic's most common gull - Photo by Zak

A Herring Gull, Metinic’s most common gull – Photo by Zak

But we and the Refuge have been wondering, where exactly do Refuge Island gulls get their food? Does a gull here on Metinic fly all the way to the mainland for a meal? Or do they stay local and snack in the intertidal zone? This year is the pilot year of a study to answer those very questions with the help of GPS.

So, what’s the plan?

Step 1: Catch a gull.

The best way to do this is on the nest. The setup is simple enough: the gull sits on a string tied to a wooden prop. The prop separates into two pieces and the box falls down, capturing the gull. We replace the real eggs with wooden ones so they won’t accidentally get crushed. Sounds easy enough, right? Maybe not.

Some people call gulls rats with wings – and it’s not a total misnomer. Both rats and gulls are a lot smarter than many people think.  It took us several hours of trapping to catch our first Herring Gull.

Catch me if you can!

Catch me if you can! AKA, Gulls – 3, Biologist-0

Step 2: Attach a GPS Logger

These little boxes, called igotU tags, are programmed to take a GPS reading every 3 minutes for about 4 days. To attach one to a gull, we put it in a waterproof casing then tape it to the gull’s back feathers with extra strong tape. The tag is light enough that it won’t hinder the gull when it flies, and hopefully the tape will keep the gulls from preening the tag off.

igotU tag getting taped to a Herring Gull's back - Photo by Amy

igotU tag getting taped to a Herring Gull’s back – Photo by Amy

We also band the gull and take a few measurements to determine if it’s a male or female.

Zak checks a GPS tag

Zak checks a GPS tag on a Herring Gull

Step 3: Release the gull!

Amy releasing a tagged and banded Herring Gull - photo by Zak

Amy releasing a tagged and banded Herring Gull – photo by Zak

Step 4: Trap the gull again.

To get the data from the GPS loggers, we have to trap the gull again and remove the tag. Stay tuned for Part 2 to see what we find out!

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A GPS-tagged Herring Gull on its way – Photo by Zak

– Amy

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