Posts Tagged ‘Ship Island’

This past week on Ship has been very similar to what has been going on at Metinic and PMI. Most of our days have been pretty dreary. On these foggy and rainy days we spend our time reading (A+ to Morgan for reading 8 books so far), eating snacks, catching up on sleep, writing letters, drawing, and staying updated on what’s going on in the real world. It is relaxing, but we’re anxious to get back out there and get a closer look on how our terns our doing.

When it’s not too foggy out, we are able to sit outside and watch the colony. We don’t sit too close because we don’t want to surprise or scare them. We’ve been doing this frequently to deter the Peregrine Falcon who has been stopping by from the island.

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Sunset view while watching for predators

Before the bad weather, we spent most days attempting to re-sight bands, making productivity plots, and trapping adult terns to band, measure, and weigh. To trap the terns we use a Treadle Trap. We first need to replace the eggs with fake eggs. This prevents the tern from damaging their eggs once he/she is trapped. After this we place a wired box over the nest with one end open. When the bird steps through the opening onto the pad, the door will shut and the tern is unable to escape. We quickly retrieve the bird to collect our data, put back the original eggs, set him free, and repeat. It was pretty cool when I got to hold and release my first tern!


One of our productivity plots

The results from our GOMSWG census indicated that we have about 620 nests in total. Hopefully we’ll start seeing some chicks soon!


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This weekend the Ship Island crew headed over to Pond Island to take part in a beach cleanup along the shore. Morgan and I, as well as several other volunteers, collected dozens of trash bags filled with lost buoys, cans, bottles, and more. This year is the first year the group will be able to actually recycle the plastic that was collected. Through the company, TerraCycle, our collection of plastics, no matter how dirty or broken they may seem, will be sent over to be thoroughly cleaned and re-purposed. Typically, most objects made out of recycled plastic only consist of about 30% reused material. Though it doesn’t seem like a lot, or maybe even not enough, if the concentration is increased then the new object becomes closer to the end of its lifespan and can no longer be reused. It was good to get off the island and spend some time with others working to keep our environment clean, but we’re glad to be back on Ship with our terns!



Section of a boat that was found washed to shore. We needed all hands on deck to carry this one over!


Beach Cleanup Volunteers

Back home on Ship, we’ve had problems with other birds predating on our Common Terns and their eggs. Currently, Great Black-backed Gulls, Herring Gulls, American Crows, Peregrine Falcons, and Northern Harriers are our main concerns. Almost every day we spend two hour shifts in the blinds to observe the tern behavior and keep an eye out for any of these predators that might pass by. During the evening we’ve been marking nests with predation sticks so we can notice if any eggs have gone missing. By doing this we are also able to get a good idea on how many terns we really have on the island. It doesn’t look like it, but so far we have counted over 500 nests, which means we have over 1000 terns! So far so good! In a few days we will be doing a GOMSWG census which will give us an even closer estimate on our tern population size. We’re excited to share the results with you next week!


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COTE gettin trapped

An unsuspecting common tern parent walks calmly into a trap to incubate a clutch of wooden dummy eggs.

As the summer starts to pick up so does the tern activity here on Ship. At the end of last week we had some visitors from the Student Conservation Association  come to help us put up new productivity plots before our island is overrun with new tern chicks. The productivity plots contain 6-11 nests of varying sizes in different areas throughout the colony. These are put up so that when the chicks hatch we will be able to monitor their growth for the rest of the season. As of today we have a total of 6 productivity plots!


COTE adult in prod plot

Adult common tern  in one of the productivity plots.

This week we’ve also been trapping adult terns for banding and or recapturing. This is done by swapping out the eggs in nest with fake wooden eggs (we don’t want a parent to accidentally break their own eggs). We then place a wire treadle trap over the nest and set the trap. To set the trap we stick a wire attached to the treadle into the sliding door. Then we go hide (usually in one of our blinds) so the terns don’t see us, but so we can also see the trap. You can tell if the terns can see you because they will give you dirty looks and yell a lot.  From there its a waiting game. Some trapping stints were more successful than others, just like some birds were more cooperative than others.

COTE release

After banding, the tern is released to resume tending its nest– now with the real eggs safely back in the nest bowl!


Wednesday was the Gulf of Maine Seabird Working Group (GOMSWG) census day and our friends from the Student Conservation Association came to assist us in that as well. It was a successful census and a gorgeous day to do it on. During the census we also had a visit from a peregrine that we’ve been seeing on a regular basis. It came earlier this week and hung out on the back of our island. The peregrine allowed us to get fairly close, which was when we noticed it was pretty badly injured. Even though peregrines are a predator of common terns we hope it is able to recover.


The peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus) is a listed as an endangered species in Maine.

Finally one of the most exciting things began to happen yesterday as were putting up our last productivity plot. Yes that’s right, you’ve probably guessed it, its what we’ve all been waiting for. WE HAVE TERN CHICKS!! Two chicks hatched while we were putting up the final plot yesterday. This morning during our nest checks we found four more healthy chicks that were fully fluffed out and we were even able to band them!

We hope to have even more babies running around our island within the next few days!

Till next week.

Kelby Leary @ Ship Island




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hoppin on

A banded common tern (Sterna hirundo) returns to the nest for incubation. This image was remote-triggered on a hidden camera, toward which the terns are very tolerant!

Common tern activity levels on Ship have made an about-face, going from mostly quiet to positively booming! For the past 10 days or so, the birds have been active virtually all day long, courting their partners and tending their nests. At the time of writing, well over 150 nests have been established on the island. Of 100 nests being monitored for early-season predation, only 4 have been lost– and 3 of the 4 were taken out by the highest tide of the month. If you’re more of a visual learner, check out the figure below; a legend is available by rolling your mouse over the chart. If you want, you can even click to zoom in on any of the images.

In simple terms: things are going well. Breeding savannah and song sparrows have begun to hatch, as have the common eiders, gulls, and double-crested cormorants on our neighboring islands. It should be a matter of days before our nesting spotted sandpiper fathers will escort their chicks to safe foraging, as well.


Between seal pups, tern eggs, and the numerous fuzzy chicks emerging all around us, we have plenty to observe at Ship. Later this week we hope to establish our productivity plots for the season and begin adult trapping efforts in order to band new birds recapture known individuals. Our projected first hatch date is June 19th, so knock on wood and stay posted for the big news in a couple of weeks!

fuzzy COEI peeps

A fuzzy creche of six common eider (Somateria molissima) chicks escorted by two hens! We hopefully theorize that the small number of adult birds escorting this creche is due to rampant nesting success of all the other eider hens out there on Trumpet and East Barge Islands.

As if all these babies weren’t enough, spring migration somehow persists on Ship. Our long-awaited Nelson’s sparrow (easily identified by its song, which sounds remarkably like a match being lit) has finally taken up residence on the island, along with an alder flycatcher that can be heard singing daily; the vocalization (a burry “fee-beeoh!”) of this bird is just about the only thing that sets it apart from its doppelganger, the willow flycatcher.


In birding parlance, focusing in on a single area to frequently document its species is known as “working a patch”, and that’s certainly what every Maine Coastal Islands seabird crew does. Because a daily birdwalk is part of our essential duties, we become very familiar with what species to expect on a daily basis and can quickly recognize oddities. In working our teensy patch called Ship Island, we have managed to document some 68 birds, including such bizarre wintertime lingerers as long-tailed duck, Bonaparte’s gull, and even a single black-legged kittiwake! And that isn’t even mentioning all of the freshly-molted warblers that continue to stream through in their alternate plumage.

That’s the news from Ship Island this week. Hopefully our industrious tern colony will continue to grow despite gloomy weather! In the meantime, we’ll be counting birds and huddling in the warmth of our tiny cabin when it gets too miserable out.


Bonus bird fact: did you know that the scientific name of the common eiderSomateria  molissima, literally translates to “very soft woolbody”? An apt name, considering how the seaducks are prized for their luscious down! And if you’ve ever had the pleasure of feeling an eider’s feathers, you’ll know this to be true.


Until next time!

Meredith Miles @ Ship Island

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The first common tern egg of (hopefully) many.

It seems as though Wednesdays are the most eventful days here on Ship Island. Last Wednesday  was spent scouring the island for Garlic Mustard plants. This Wednesday was a whirlwind of events. Not only did we find our very first tern nest but it also contained our first egg! Along with that our island supervisor Meredith spotted a roseate tern while we were sitting in the blinds.

Aside from this tern excitement we had two seal encounters right on the shores of our island! I found this so exciting because usually when observing the seals we must do so with a spotting scope to see them on the East and West Barges. However during our blind observation on Wednesday we had an adult seal haul out on to our beach and spend a little time sunning itself.

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Adult western Atlantic harbor seal on Ship Island tern beach (P. vitulina concolor)

In our area we have two species of seals, western Atlantic harbor seals, and grey seals. The best way to tell them apart is by looking at their heads. Harbor seals have more of a smaller dog nose with not much of a neck and grey seals have larger ‘horse like’ faces and a more pronounced neck. The seals I’ve most often observed were the western Atlantic harbor seals on East Barge. This is also what we had come visit us Wednesday morning.        Later in the day when all the work around the island is complete is when  I enjoy observing our seals– mainly because right now is their peak pupping time (mid May to July), so we seem to have new pups arriving everyday. On this ever so faithful Wednesday evening I got the privilege of observing a very new harbor seal mom with her pup (I could tell he had just been born as some of the birthing organs were still attached).

What surprised me most though was this new mother promptly lead her new pup into the ocean. This is surprising because everything I’ve read about harbor seals says the pups can’t swim till at least an hour after birth, and here this moms bringing her pup in minutes after birth. Almost immediately after entering the water our new mom brought her pup further into the water (toward Ship I.). This was in order to bring her pup further away from the other seals. So I packed up my things and headed back to the cabin assuming the days excitement was over. Upon returning to the cabin I saw that Meredith had left on a photography adventure. A few minutes after that I received a text from stating there was a pup on our shore. Sprinting to meet her, she showed me what she had found: sure enough sitting atop the seaweed was a pup.

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Newborn western Atlantic harbor seal pup on back side of Ship Island (P.vitulina concolor)

Shortly after looking at the pup longer, and seeing a small piece of umbilical cord, I realized this was the seal pup I had been watching only 20 minutes prior. Meredith and I proceeded to sneak away as not to scare off the mother wherever she may be. Most of the time mothers don’t leave their pups because they need to be together for 4-6 weeks so the pup can nurse. Pups can also be vulnerable to some predators. After dinner Meredith and I went along the islands edge to check up on our young visitor. What we found was his mother hauling out of the ocean to retrieve her new baby. We quickly snuck away so we didn’t disturb them, thus ending another successful Wednesday on Ship Island.

Till next week,

Kelby Leary                                                                                                                                                           Ship Island Crew Member



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In addition to our home base of Ship Island, we are tasked with monitoring three surrounding islands: Trumpet Island, East Barge, and West Barge.

Trumpet Island is the biggest of the three surrounding islands, similar in size to Ship itself. At the core of the island is a small hill, covered with low vegetation. Around the hill, a rocky beach extends in all directions, growing much larger at low tide with several prominent spits and sandbars. Common Eiders nest up in the vegetation and can be seen swimming in the surrounding waters as well as resting on the rocks and beaches. Gulls, both Herring and Great Black-backed, have their nests at the top of the rocky beach. Their growing chicks are quite visible from afar, roaming around the beach during our weekly scope surveys.

Trumpet Island

Trumpet Island as seen from our cabin

East Barge is fairly small, with a central grassy hill protruding above a rocky ledge. Aside from a few nesting Great Black-backed Gulls, we can’t see any other nesting species from Ship, although the numerous Black Guillemots nearby suggest that they may be nesting on the opposite side. Common Eiders and dozens of harbor seals haul up on the rocks for a respite from the cool water. In addition to our weekly bird count, we conduct a low-tide count of the seals once every two weeks on both Barges.


East Barge as seen from Gull Blind

West Barge is similar in size to East Barge, little more than a small rock outcrop jutting up out of the bay. Steep, rocky ledges reach up from the surf, forming a plateau beyond the reach of the waves where a few hardy bushes and grasses have gotten a foothold. Along with some nesting Great Black-backed Gulls, there is a colony of Double-crested Cormorants along the edge of the plateau. With more than one hundred nests, this colony occasionally draws in the local Bald Eagles, who can easily pick off a cormorant or cormorant chick for a quick meal. In spite of the predation, the cormorant colony seems to be doing well, with the chicks growing closer to fledging every week.


West Barge as seen from Gull Blind

One of our local Bald Eagles with its lunch

One of our local Bald Eagles with its lunch

Until next time!


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Greetings from Ship Island! As one of the researchers normally stationed on Petit Manan Island, I had the privilege of island-sitting Ship island for just over a week while the regular crew had their break and visited Petit Manan. Visiting other islands gives us new insights into seabird biology as each colony behaves in their own way slightly different from all the rest. Plus, who wouldn’t want to check out the Puffins?! In 2013 I spent the summer here, so when I stepped out onto the warm, sandy shore, it was a bit like visiting an old friend.

Lazy sunset on the beach.

Lazy sunset on the beach.

With me came Shelby, a young student just learning the ropes of being a biologist. We had a fun time learning what birds, plants, and insects live on the island. Every morning we went “birding” to conduct the morning bird count, learning where each bird family lived and what theirs songs sounded like.

Common Yellowthroat with a little morsel for his chicks.

Common Yellowthroat with a little morsel for his chicks.

Spotted Sandpiper

Spotted Sandpiper “defending” his nest as we attempt to find it.

During our time here the chicks started hatching en masse, so Shelby also got to band quite a few birds! Banding is a very delicate process so first we practiced in the house several times, but she did great.

Shelby banding one of her first chicks!

Shelby banding one of her first chicks!

We even got a bonus with this adult Tern I caught out of the air.

Adult Tern caught by hand!

Adult Tern caught by hand!

Tomorrow we go back to where we belong – me to Petit Manan, and Shelby to her home on the mainland. It has been a great week on Ship with beautiful weather and many laughs but we are ready for whatever’s next!

– Julia

Our favorite sandy-color chick.

Our favorite sandy-color chick.

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