Posts Tagged ‘Petit Manan’

It may be a little late since we left the island on August 10th, but it felt right to give one final glance back on the 2021 field season on Petit Manan Island. As you could imagine, the days after PMI have been busily spent reincorporating back into a ‘normal’ way of life and for many of us, getting ready to head back to school or for myself, navigating the open road of unknown I’m accustomed to after seasonal field work. 

As was predicated in previous posts, 2021 was not the year of years. Quite frankly, it was one of the worst on record in the past 20-plus years in regards to breeding success and productivity. Common and Arctic Tern productivity rates sat at a feeble 0.12 and 0.16 chicks fledged per pair while Atlantic Puffins barely tipped the scale at 0.10 chicks/pair. To put this in perspective, of the 85 tern nests we monitored with over 150 eggs, only 12 chicks made it and of the 87 puffin burrows, only nine fledged.

Fully feathered puffling, one of the last on island and ready to go.
(Note, under normal conditions, the chick would be much heavier.)

Things seemed to fair better for Black Guillemots and Common Eiders which fledged 1.03 chicks per pair for guillemots and at least 100 eider ducklings based on consistent high counts since we don’t directly monitor them. We also saw two Razorbill chicks fledge from five total nests which is another sign of hope more made it. 

Partially feathered Black Guillemot chick waiting for its day to fledge.

Reasons for the poor tern and puffin success are yet to be fully determined but from the looks of things, it seemed weather played the biggest factor for terns and prey availability for puffins. Terns maintained feeding rates of 1.08 and 1.86 fish/nest/hour for Common and Arctic Terns with hake and herring, the fish we like to see, making up over 70% of the diets for each species. What was most noticeable though is that after several bad weather events and in dense fog, many of the chicks got too wet and couldn’t thermoregulate and likely perished from exposure. Puffins fed less frequently and feeds we observed were often filled with low quality butterfish which were often found discarded during burrow checks. Oddly too, many of the pufflings exhibited slow or abnormal growth development which we termed ‘micro-puffins’ which is also indicative that food seemed to be the issue.

Interestingly enough, this season did however see high counts for many of the alcids with tallies topping out at 378 puffins, 316 guillemots, 75 Razorbill, and 24 Common Murre. Overall numbers of terns went up 32 pairs from 2020 census data so with such robust attendance and prospecting, the hope is that many of these birds return and start breeding on PMI in the years and seasons to come. One focus for the offseason is to build more artificial habitat to supply more suitable nesting areas for birds that may not have found a spot yet.

Given seabirds are long-lived species, the hope is that they will all rebound and have better luck next year unless what we saw in 2021 becomes the trend. The state of the ocean and global climate hang in intricate balance quickly tipping in the wrong direction for many of these birds and ecosystems elsewhere. There’s no saying this is just a blip or new normal but regardless, everything possible should still be done to optimize the chances for these birds into the future. 

As I have learned, these birds are indicators for many things for ourselves so if there isn’t want for them, there should be want for us. We can each do our part and simply following along with our blogs is one way for that as you have heard the story and can hopefully share it. We truly appreciate each and everyone of you that tune in once or regularly.

Three months of what ‘home’ looked like aside Petit Manan Light.

With that, the time to put a close on the season at PMI has officially come. I’ll forever cherish the many moments of my time there; all the new firsts, the chicks I grew most found of, the time with the crew, and the simplicity of being back under island-life. I look forward to carrying forward my experience and am excited for the many to come after us. My thanks to everyone who was a part of this season and made it possible, it was still very much worth it.

The final farewell as we sailed off the island.

PMI Supervisor, Ryan P.  

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Walking down the main house steps, it’s hard not noticing the almost eerie silence settling in across the island. Apart from the occasional high-pitched squeal of Black Guillemot chicks running under the boardwalk, there’s little to signal there were any birds left at all which certainly means the season’s end is not far off.

The field crew coordinating the never easy task of grubbing Black Guillemots chicks out from under the boardwalk.

Having come to the island in May before many of the birds started to arrive, the silence now mirrors those early days but still somehow feels different. The difference stems from the reality that in a few short days, our time on PMI will definitively be over and we’ll be faced with the return to the mainland and ‘normal’ life once again. The simplicity and joy of being within a seabird colony ends the moment we step aboard the boat following this coming weekend.

For the past few weeks, the number of terns on the island has dropped precipitously and aside from the one lone fledgling reluctant to leave our front lawn, we’re lucky to see or count 20 individuals any given day. Even given the fact puffins don’t make much noise, the rocky shoreline feel bare as more adults make their way out to sea where they’ll stay for the winter. The few birds that remain speckling the intertidal areas are surely the proud parents of the 25 or so remaining pufflings still making the final push to fledge.

An adult Atlantic Puffin perched after exiting from feeding its chick.

Having worked as part of many projects and seabird seasons before this, it’s the waning days when a nostalgic feeling sets as you look back on the time you had yet it carries the somberness knowing once you leave, you may never see these birds ever again. Looking back, it may not have been the vibrant season I had hoped for in regards to breeding success, but it has still held it’s wonderful moments and been special, memories and experiences to cherish forever.  

Island intern Jorja in from Ship Island enjoying getting to see a Leach’s Storm-petrel chick for the first time.

With the fact our boat ride back looms just over a week away, we’ll be busy our last remaining days closing out the little tasks like taking GPS points for every nest and burrow, cleaning up field supplies, and pulling down and putting away our observation blinds. There will be more yard work than bird work but thankfully we still have the few remaining puffin and guillemot chicks to check in on as they finish their own time on PMI time and fledge making the voyage out into the sea.

Ryan holding a near fully feathered puffling, the nemesis chick from burrow E14 which only his long wingspan can reach by a fingertip.

We’ve certainly enjoyed the time to write and share what has happened during our time here, and as I’ve learned before, never count out something incredible happening even in the latest hour so stay tuned as who knows what might still take place before we finally say goodbye to PMI!

-PMI Supervisor, Ryan P.  

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For three consecutive nights, we patiently sat upon the lighthouse deck waiting for a chance to see what may be one of the rarest occasions on Petit Manan Island. As dense fog rolled past and collected in tiny dew drops upon our pants, we squinted trying to see the shoreline below under the last remnant rays of daylight. The goal of our efforts was to catch a glimpse of our last Razorbill chick fledging from the island.

A lesser-known cousin of the Atlantic Puffin, the Razorbill (RAZO) is a hefty contrast of bold black and white with a bill apt for its established name. Although we’ve had high counts of 80 adults and consistently seen upwards of 20 around the island throughout much of the season, PMI’s breeding population sits at the low total of five individual nests at this point in time.

Adult Razorbill perched outside its burrow entrance.

A general thought for so few breeding pairs is from a potential lack of ideal nesting crevices across the island and, in some areas, high levels of competition with puffins jostling to use the best burrows. One hope for the off-season is to build and install artificial burrows specifically for RAZO using pieces of culvert tube covered in stone that they might prefer to try and help bolster the island’s breeding numbers, a project made possible through donor support.

One thing that makes Razorbills and a few other species of Alcids unique is that the chicks fledge and leave the island before they are capable of sustaining flight. Although it may seem counterintuitive, the need to travel above water isn’t as critical for them as the ability to travel in it where prey fish are. They aren’t exactly built for efficient flight either, but are profound swimmers that dive underwater in search of food much like penguins.

Adult bringing in a long Sandlance before its chick heads out to sea.

Once a chick is about 14-17 days old, an encouraging father tries to coax it out from the confines of its burrow around sunset to make the arduous scramble across the rocks into the nearshore water. After the pair reaches the ocean, they’ll stick side-by-side for the next month or two as the adult continues to feed small bits of food to the chick and teaches it how to forage until they part ways for the winter.

Approximately 12 day old RAZO chick just short of fledging.

You might now see our reasoning to stick out the cold, wet air to witness such a journey and cherish the moment of the chick’s maiden voyage. We missed seeing the island’s first chick fledge by a single day and sadly, luck wasn’t on our side for seeing the second and final chick walk out either. During the first night we watched we thought we struck gold as everything seemed perfect for it but the chick was reluctant to budge and stayed hunkered in its little ‘bat cave’.

Passing thunderstorms kept us from returning the following two nights out of safety concerns not being atop the lighthouse with lightning nearby, and as things would have it, the burrow was empty when I stopped to check this morning. BUT… our efforts weren’t entirely in vain, as a couple hours later we heard a faint cry beckoning off the water and saw little RAZO 5 swimming within eyesight. I want and like to think that just maybe it was it telling us it made it, the final goodbye.

Adult and fledgling pair parting ways with the island.

-PMI Supervisor, Ryan P. 

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After our most recent post about the poor breeding season for terns on PMI, it felt like the best follow up should be with better news and that shimmer of light I always like to find on a job.

Not to say that the rest of the birds on the island aren’t glorious in their own right, I know the one people probably want to hear most about is our beloved group of Atlantic Puffins. As one of only four islands in the United States on which puffins breed (all in Maine), the three of us working here consider ourselves very lucky getting to see and witness their playful antics almost daily.

Atlantic Puffin under the soft glow of sunrise.

Just over a week ago, I got to celebrate the momentous occasion knowing our first puffling (name for a baby puffin) was finally with us. As I sat there in the confines of the wooden observation blind during a tern provisioning watch, I happened to catch a glimpse of an adult puffin flying by with an obscure set of objects protruding from its bill. Taking a quick look away from my hungry terns, I noticed the bird had a beak full of fish and as soon as I got my binoculars on it, SWOOSH it went into a burrow and out it came a minute later, bill empty. I nearly hit my head on the roof and fell out of my chair I was so excited!

One of the island’s first pufflings for the season.

Since then, we’ve completed two burrow checks for other newly hatched chicks and started growth measurements on a small subset to analyze how they develop until they fledge. It’s pretty much a rite of passage for anyone on PMI grubbing their first puffin burrow, and there’s a certain energy to it when you know there is a puffling waiting there inside it. I will note we never grub when there are eggs and first use a burrow scope to check before we try a hand at it.

A young puffin having its wing cord measured.

Some of the greatest moments are when you’re lying there bent in half between two rocks, shoulder deep in a burrow, reaching to feel that fluff on your fingertips as the chick tries to evade your grasp or nip your hand. Having the longest arms on the island means frequently getting called over when no one else can reach and there’s a strange sense of pride being able to contort yourself in such a way to delicately pull out a chick you wouldn’t have been able to measure otherwise.

The glory of fieldwork – grubbing a puffin chick while simultaneously conducting a naturalist talk via radio.

With so few terns left, this is what the majority of our season will now consist of and we aren’t arguing against it. We certainly look forward to sharing more photos and stories along the way as our little puffling grow more and more each day!

– PMI Supervisor Ryan P.

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Just as you could expect an array of service and meal options at any local restaurant, much is the same during our tern provisioning watches here on PMI. Since the chicks started hatching, the three of us on island have been increasingly involved conducting diet surveys for the types and abundance of fish being brought back and fed to a small sample of nests within the colony.

Before eggs started hatching, each of us picked a cluster of five to seven nests to monitor in close view from one of the wooden observation blinds or the house window looking down onto the nearby lawn. Once the chicks hatched, the goal is to conduct three-hour stints in the blind, four times a week, observing the individual types of fish being fed to each given chick as well as the size of the prey item in comparison to the adult’s upper bill and the rate at which the adults return with repeated feeds throughout that period.

Adult Arctic Tern feeding a small hake to a young nestling.

Because terns carrying their prey whole crossways in their bill, you can readily ID and record the species of forage fish with a quick eye and keen observation skills. This allows wildlife refuge staff and other regional groups to gauge trends in relation to annual breeding success and to monitor and assess the general state of fisheries throughout the Gulf of Maine. Seabird diets act as a great indicator for the health and wellbeing of the nearby waters so if a lot of good, high quality fish like hake and herring are being incorporated into the chick diets, this usually might mean a better year for the birds and our own fisheries down the line when those small fish grow bigger.

Adult Common Tern flying into the provisioning plot with a decent sized herring.

As our crew has already seen, the variance between ‘service’ and dining options can vary greatly between any given day, nest, or area on the island. We have seen a lot of the good fish like big herring and an abundance of hake being flown in along with the occasional sandlance, pollock, and euphausiid shrimp as well as a few obscure moths as terns will occasionally feed on insects. As Joe and Gwendolyn have witnessed in their plots, times can get slow and have the somber flow of a fine dining atmosphere as adults may only bring a fish or two back throughout the entire monitoring period whereas I seem to have found the fast-food chain of dine and dash on the island with an astounding 69 feeds in a three-hour period. One nest alone had 10 feeds in an hour’s time which undoubtedly ranks near the top of adult effort and what I am going to hope is one fat, healthy little chick.

Two Common Tern chicks adamantly expressing their want for fish.

Time will tell if the good trends we’re seeing hold throughout the season and can give us any indication of the possible success for the chicks we’re seeing. Till then, we’ll continue enjoying the views, meals, and ruckus clamor of chicks begging for more while we sit in the confines of our observation boxes till the last chick fledges.

-PMI Supervisor, Ryan

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“Tern one!” “Got it!”

“Tern two, tern three!” “Alright, alright!”

If you happened to be on PMI for the better part of two days last week, these would be some of the loud audibles heard beckoning through the colony under the din of crashing waves and calls of terns flying overhead.

If you’re asking why, last week marked the annual GOMSWG (Gulf of Maine Seabird Working Group) census aimed at counting the total number of nesting terns, Laughing Gulls, and Common Eiders on the island which requires its own unique set of monitoring parameters.

To efficiently and effectively record the total number of nests on PMI, after the peak of egg laying, those of us on island are joined by a number of helping hands to walk transect lines from one side of the island to the other, documenting each and every nest we come across. Because adult terns don’t often stay at the nest as we approach, each nest is recorded for the number of eggs present (which helps give an estimate for average clutch size) and marked with a small popsicle stick to show it has been counted. Afterwards, a designated species ratio is applied to denote how many of the total nests we expect belong to Common or Artic Terns.

A ‘Tern two’ nest counted with a popsicle stick marker.

In a side-by-side line, the group walks down a 15-meter area calling out the nests they find to a data recorder who must then acknowledge they heard them back, hence the loud audibles. Once the group reaches the end of a grid line, we flip around the edge person and repeat the process in the opposite direction, dipping down again and again to place your sticks as you and your neighbor do your best not to double count the same nest.

Side-by-side transect line searching for Laughing Gulls within the tall grass area.

After the finely knit dance is finished, we are left with a better sense of the island’s annual breeding numbers which after preliminary calculations, hovers right around 1350 nesting pairs of adult terns, a small uptick from the 1300 counted last year. These numbers help document seasonal trends for how the population may be growing or shrinking year-to-year and is a critical measure as part of adaptively managing the colony when further compared to similar counts for other islands within the Gulf of Maine. Additionally, we counted 36 Common Eider nests and were able to opportunistically band a handful of adult females for future identification efforts.

PMI interns Joe and Gwendolyn banding a female Common Eider during a shoreline census sweep.

With the census over, this pretty much marks the mid-point of our field season and now begins the rapid change from eggs to chicks as our efforts shift to documenting forage fish deliveries and seeing just how many of those ‘Tern ones’ and ‘Tern Twos’ turn into young fledglings in a few weeks of time.

– PMI Crew, Ryan

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Quite possibly the greatest thrill or most awed over aspect of the work we get to do here on PMI lies in getting to see newly hatched chicks in their ever-adorable first days’ puffball state. There’s something delicately special in seeing a chick so small and helpless before it quickly grows to become just like the adults we have been watching all these weeks now.

Over the past week, we’ve wrapped up active burrow sweeps for our puffin productivity monitoring in the various shoreline Alcid Zones as well as erecting small fenced-in plots for select clusters of tern nests to to be able to start recording species, clutch size (# of eggs), and each egg’s fate up to when the chick hatches. Each of these efforts will give us an indication of the overall breeding success for the island as we look for hatching rates and fledging percentages to compare to previous years.

If you’ve never searched for puffin burrows, to give you an accurate idea of what it is like, there’s no better way to describe it than walking along the shoreline until you see a suitable hole between a few rocks, bending down to place your knee here, flipping upside down contorting your body there, craning an arm out to keep from hitting the ground, and then peering at every angle into the tunnel to see if you can see if there is an adult, egg, or nothing at all.

With practice and a keen eye, you soon learn some of the tell-tale signs of what might make an active burrow such as fresh poop or stray nesting material but even still, it sometimes it takes the use of a long-necked burrow scope to reach far into the depths of the dark abyss to see what’s inside. This is especially true for some of the multi-feet deep sod burrows a select number of puffins have dug long the grassy berm.

Thankfully with the terns, the search for nests isn’t as hard but because each chick will be mobile and not contained to the confines of its own individual burrow, we have to put up small fences to keep the birds we are monitoring from running off or mixing with other nearby nests where we can’t find them. After construction, each nest inside a plot is numbered and checked daily for the number of eggs to know when each egg hatches or eventually fails. As chicks hatch, we’ll apply metal identification bands to know who’s who and conduct growth measurements every other day to see how they’re faring until they are old enough to fledge as a young juvenile heading off into the big wide world.

With the bulk of birds on eggs right now, the next few weeks will heavily consist of monitoring each of our plots and active burrows which adds to our ever-abundant excitement of being on PMI with days like yesterday finding our FIRST TERN CHICK marking another highlight for the year! Of course this also means the number of times getting pooped on is hitting that exponential curve upward so from now till late July, we’ll be dawning our jackets and pulling the hoods on tight because a little ‘rain’ as they say ain’t going to ruin our season’s parade.

– PMI Island Supervisor, Ryan P.

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Hello friends, Hallie here from Petit Manan Island!

Life here on Petit Manan is going so well. Our tern chicks are hatched and getting close to fledging, our pufflings are fluffier and plumper than ever, and we even have our first black guillemot and razorbill chicks.

One of the cool things about working on such a small island like this is when you have a new avian visitor, you notice. We are up to 110 bird species recorded on Petit Manan Island this season, which is remarkable in itself. We have had everything from warblers to short-billed dowitchers to even a least bittern, a small bird that you typically find in marshlands on the mainland. And as well, we have had a lot of birds with interesting plumage show up to the island — like this Common Murre.


Leucistic Common Murre next to Razorbill and Atlantic Puffin

Common Murres are usually a dark chocolate brown, which is produced by melanin. This bird,  however, is silvery-grey — a result of a genetic mutation that inhibits melanin production. This result is called leucism, which is similar, yet very different to albinism. Regardless, it makes up for a stunning result — this bird very well may be one of the more beautiful I have ever seen. Whether or not male or female common murres also think so is up for debate — hopefully this bird’s unique plumage will not inhibit it from procreating in the future.

Melanin is one of many ways birds color themselves. The laughing gulls here use melanin to create that dark mask during the breeding season, which they use to deter other laughing gulls from their nests. You also often see birds with darkened wing-tips, like the terns, in which the melanin is used to strengthen the feathers and make them more durable.


Adult Atlantic Puffin showing the orange-red carotenoid coloration in the bill and eye

But what other colors do we see here on PMI that have significance in birds?  Since we have been catching puffins this last week, I have been captivated by the bright orange feet and bills that the puffins display during the breeding season.  Puffins, and many other birds, get this rich orange-red color from carotenoids — a color they metabolize directly from their food. Puffins use the intensity of this color to show potential mates and rivals how fit they may be. The brighter their bills and feet, the better at fishing and raising a chick they may be! You can also see melanin in the feet and the mouths of black guillemots!

Next time you see a color in a bird, its worth asking exactly why it is that way. Often even the most subtle of colors on a bird have such an immense meaning. I will be doing the same — sitting here wondering why we get tern chicks in two different colors. Any ideas?


Common Tern chicks from the same nest showing the two different plumage colorations

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Hello from Petit Manan Island, once again!

The breeding season here on the island has really taken flight since our last post, with the majority of the tern colony having laid eggs, as well as the Puffins, Guillemots, and even some Razorbills! I guess one could say that it is off to an egg-cellent start!

We have been focusing the majority of our efforts every morning on re-sighting birds that have been previously caught and banded either by biologists here at MCINWR, or at other colonies along the Atlantic coastline. We even are lucky enough to occasionally spot birds that were banded along their wintering grounds in Brazil and Argentina. But why is it that re-spotting these birds is so important?

One of the terns we work with, the Arctic Tern (Sterna paradisaea), is quite the world traveler. Once they finish breeding in Maine or along other locations across the arctic, they leave to embark on one of the longest migrations in the bird world, eventually ending up in Antarctica! One bird, tagged and tracked from the United Kingdom, was recorded to have migrated 59,650 miles in one year, making it the longest migration that has ever been recorded. Let me put this straight – this is the equivalent to the bird flying around the world twice, and then adding on another 10,000+ miles. Considering these terns live to upwards of 30 years, this bird will travel farther in its lifetime than most people.

And this is why re-sighting birds is so incredibly important! It not only gives us information like how old the bird is or potentially where it was born, but we can also piece together the puzzle of exactly where each bird travels to during these super long and intense migrations, and more importantly gives conservationists a better idea of which land to protect in order to assure that these birds are around for years to come. Definitely makes waking up at 5 am every morning only to sit in a tiny box for 3 hours a little bit better!

Pictured left to right: A sleepy Common Tern that we identified as an individual banded in Nova Scotia in 2013; Puffin nap time makes re-sighting bands a difficult but adorable job; an Arctic Tern with 2 bands that we identified as an individual born here at PMI in 2016

Happy band re-sighting!



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A new breeding season has begun here on Petit Manan Island. You take a step out the front door on a chilly morning, and the sky and ocean are filled to the brim with life. Little yellow songbirds- like Magnolia Warbler (Setophaga magnolia) and American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis)- are darting around the grasses. You hear a familiar song from a Savannah Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis) broadcasting his availability to the available females. A white bird swoops towards your head with a sharp call – it’s a Common Tern (Sterna hirundo), establishing its territory and assuring a predator free environment for its young.  And you look out at the sea – it is covered with little charismatic birds: Atlantic Puffins (Fratercula artctica), Razorbills (Alca torda), and Black Guillemots (Cepphus grylle) – the poster children for the island breeding colonies across the Atlantic.

My name is Hallie, and I have lived far from any form of civilization for quite a long time. I have been working with birds for a little over 5 years now, often in locations so remote that your best company often becomes the wildlife around you. Petit Manan, in a way, is my first time living in a metropolitan area in years – but instead of humans, its birds. There is the main crazy downtown here – Puffin Point, as we call it, which would be the avian equivalent to Manhattan. And then there is the lawn – Puffin Point’s suburbia – where you will find all of the terns scattered about fiercely guarding their nests. And out in the more rural suburban zones, you get the Laughing Gulls (Leucophaeus atricilla) and various songbirds. There is even a community underground: Leach’s Storm Petrels (Oceanodroma leucorhoa) which burrow deep down underneath the soil, right next to the roly-polies and the salamanders. The island is hustling and bustling with life, even at the dead of night, just like Times Square.

Puffin Point 

Here in bird city, love is in the air. I have quite enjoyed watching all of the different species of bird court one another. The terns are very playful – one will come back with a fish and flash it off to all of the birds around it, enticing them to chase it during a magnificent display of airborne agility. Sometimes the bird will give it to a potential mate, or sometimes it will devour the fish for itself.  The puffins are gentler – you will often see two mates nuzzling their bills against one another’s, or a male trying to catch the attention of a female by nodding his bill within her sight. And then there’s the guillemots, which will race around the female, dive head first into the water, and make high-pitched, almost song-bird like calls.

Every species of bird here establishes themselves differently: but they all have the same goal in mind. Right now on Petit Manan Island, its finding a mate, finding a place to nest, and getting started securing the future generations of their species. It is quite a magical time, and as chaotic as a metropolitan area can be, the island with its seabirds has its charm.

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