Tag Archives: Atlantic puffins

The Atlantic puffin is already at the southern end of breeding range. Photographed at Green Lake National Fish Hatchery. Credit: Fred Yost/USFWS

Climate change and the future of Maine’s wildlife

Today you’re hearing from Bob Houston, a biologist and GIS specialist in our Gulf of Maine Coastal Program. He’s one of the authors of the report, Climate Change and Biodiversity in Maine, released today. The report identifies 168 vulnerable species of fish, plants, birds and other wildlife that could experience large range shifts and population declines in Maine as a result of climate change by 2100.

Today you’re hearing from Bob Houston, a biologist and GIS specialist in our Gulf of Maine Coastal Program. He’s one of the authors of the report, Climate Change and Biodiversity in Maine, released today. The report identifies 168 vulnerable species of fish, plants, birds and other wildlife that could experience large range shifts and population declines in Maine as a result of climate change by 2100.

Photo courtesy of Bob.

What will happen to the animals, plants and habitats for which we work so hard to protect? Will their environment change so much in the coming century that they will face hardships they can’t tolerate?

These and other questions were on my mind as I sat at a table with other scientists to discuss the future of ducks, seabirds, shorebirds and other bird species.

I have been very lucky to be a part of Maine’s Beginning with Habitat team from its early beginnings. The partnership, which includes state and local agencies and non-government organizations, was formed to share important information about plant and animal habitats with towns and land trusts to inform decisions about town planning and open space conservation.

The program has been a great success. But now we wrestled with questions about climate change and sea-level rise: How would it affect the plants and animals that are the focus of the Beginning with Habitat program? What will happen when the temperatures increase, rainfall and snowfall patterns change, non-native pests and plants expand their invasion, and the sea rises?

A sub-team of the partnership was formed to try to answer these questions and investigate the impact of climate change on Maine’s priority plants, animals and habitats. Led by Andrew Whitman of Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences, the team decided to rely on the expert opinion of many scientists throughout Maine and the Northeast.

More than 100 scientists contributed their expert knowledge and opinions to the process through an in-depth online survey and an intensive one-day workshop. It was at this one-day workshop that I found myself at a table with other wildlife biologists who have spent their lives researching and conserving all types of birds and their habitats.

As other groups discussed plants, fish, mammals, amphibians and reptiles and invertebrates (such as beetles and dragonflies), our group discussed the future of birds. I quickly found that we had no definite answers. The uncertainties were overwhelming at times.

The Atlantic puffin is already at the southern end of breeding range.  Photographed at Green Lake National Fish Hatchery. Credit: Fred Yost/USFWS

The Atlantic puffin is already at the southern end of its breeding range. Photographed at Green Lake National Fish Hatchery. Credit: Fred Yost/USFWS

For instance, Atlantic puffins nest on Maine’s coastal islands and feed on herring and other fish in the Gulf of Maine. But they also spend a considerable amount of time outside the Gulf of Maine – in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the Labrador Sea and other areas along the Atlantic coast. It is difficult to predict the effects of climate change on their food base in the Gulf of Maine, much less all the other areas that puffins rely on in a typical year.

We discussed these and many other questions that day. In the end, we identified 168 vulnerable species that could experience large range shifts and population declines as a result of climate change in Maine by 2100. They include Atlantic salmon, Blanding’s turtle, least and roseate terns, Atlantic puffin, red knot, saltmarsh sharp-tailed sparrow, American oystercatcher, piping plover, moose and Canada lynx.

The eastern moose may be vulnerable to outbreaks of moose ticks that survive mild winters well and can cause stressful hair loss and increased calf mortality. Credit: David Govatski/USFWS

The eastern moose may be vulnerable to outbreaks of moose ticks that survive mild winters well and can cause stressful hair loss and increased calf mortality. Credit: David Govatski/USFWS

We found that many of our existing habitat conservation efforts should succeed despite climate change. We also found that we might need new adaptive strategies—ones that put even more emphasis on connected habitats to allow plants and animals to respond to changing climate.

While only time will confirm our assessments, we hope this report will support decisions and actions that ensure a strong future for Maine’s natural heritage.

See the results of the vulnerability assessment.

A passion for puffins

Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge is a remote, 65-acre island located 21 miles south of Rockland, Maine. It is a treeless, rocky landscape previously used as a bombing target for the Navy from the 1940s to the early 1960s.

The Navy transferred the island to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1972, where today it is cooperatively managed by the Service and the National Audubon Society.

Its mix of grasslands, rock ledges and boulders offers prime seabird nesting sites for species like the Atlantic puffin, a sad-eyed seabird sometimes called the “sea parrot” because of its colorful beak.

Atlantic puffins

The numbers of Atlantic puffins may be on the decline in Maine because of climate change. Credit: USFWS

These days the island is targeted by conservationists as a kind of proving ground for efforts to restore seabird populations in the face of forces like climate change.

In the Gulf of Maine, scientists worry Atlantic puffins have been dying of starvation and losing body weight, possibly because of shifting fish populations as ocean temperatures rise. The warming waters might be contributing to a boom in the butterfish population, crowding out the herring that puffins need to feed their young.

Puffin tagging

In addition to monitoring productivity and living conditions, biologists also tag puffins to get insight about the flight patterns of the birds. Credit: Greg Thompson/USFWS

Monitoring the puffins’ productivity and living conditions, then, plays a key role in understanding ways to help safeguard them from these and other harmful impacts.

Enter Jenny Howard, the Seal Island supervisor for Project Puffin, a seabird restoration project of the National Audubon Society.

A recent segment of NBC Nightly News highlighted the work of Howard and her small crew of interns and volunteers as they spent hours counting seabird pairs. Afternoons were reserved for recording sea surface conditions, wind direction and air temperature.

From mid-May to mid-August, the crews live in tents perched atop 8-foot-wide wooden platforms, overlooking a rocky beach. There’s no refrigeration on the island, and with the exception of two solar-powered lights, there’s no electricity either.

Check out photos of seabirds at Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge

“You get really close to people really fast because you’re spending all your time with them,” Howard says.

The program billed the segment as “living simply to help save Seal Island’s puffins.”

In the battle to reduce impacts of global climate change and other landscape-scale threats, conservation sometimes still comes down to a few dedicated people willing to endure personal hardship and sacrifice for something much bigger.

And that’s the simple truth.

Check out this video to see how the Service, National Audubon Society and Canadian partners are using GPS tracking devices to track the location of puffins off the coast of Maine. 

Maine refuge practices sound science to study seabirds

Off of Maine’s rocky coast, you can find a network of more than 50 islands and coastal lands that are part of the Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge. With a primary focus of managing and restoring nesting seabird colonies, the refuge has worked with partners to gather valuable information about these birds. Hear from Refuge Manager Beth Goettel about how she and her staff are working to study a number of seabird species, some of which breed nowhere else in the U.S.

common tern

Common tern

Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge has long been involved in seabird restoration and management of nesting colonies, in partnership with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, National Audubon Society’s Project Puffin, and several universities.  The resulting long-term monitoring data has been valuable in understanding a great deal about these birds when they are on their nesting colony islands, but we know little about where they go to forage or their migration routes. In addition, the long-term monitoring data has provided evidence of ecosystem changes possibly due to climate change, as adult terns have been seen delivering southern fish species, which have not been seen before in the Gulf of Maine, to their chicks. In some years, herring disappear and chicks starve, a relatively new phenomenon.  Our biologists have been networking with oceanographers and fisheries biologists to try to explain some of these findings.

The birds face some additional challenges. The coastline of Maine has been ranked as an excellent or outstanding wind resource area by the Department of Energy and the State of Maine hopes to establish large arrays of near and offshore turbines by 2020.  We have been collaborating with partners to gather the data necessary to assist in guiding future offshore development so as to reduce potential impacts to sensitive habitats and species.

Seabird studies and the results

To learn more about the foraging habits and important foraging locations of seabirds, we have used small data loggers of various kinds.  In one study, biologists attached temperature depth recorders to the bands on the legs puffins to study their feeding habits.  This research revealed that puffins average 276 dives per day, and that most dives were less than 15 meters, although they occasionally go as deep as 40 meters.  Puffins usually foraged within 25 kilometers of the nesting area.  The surface water temperatures recorded were correlated with the sea surface temperature data from satellites to give biologists an idea of where the puffins could have been foraging on a given day.

puffin

Atlantic puffins. Credit: Rosie Walunas/USFWS

More recently, light nanotags have been placed on common and Arctic terns and guillemots.  Receivers placed on several islands near the nesting island were able to pick up the signals of individual birds as they flew nearby, allowing the biologists to learn a great deal about how long birds were on nests, how often they left, and how long they were gone on foraging flights.  In addition, we have data on ground-based observations documenting the flight direction of foraging seabirds, and boats have followed birds and found some feeding hotspots. Observers on whale-watching boats have documented the abundance and diversity of seabirds using different areas.

2009 manx shearwater 008

Tagging the shearwaters allows tracking of their movements on their extensive transatlantic migration from the Gulf of Maine, to the mid-Atlantic region, south to the west coast of Africa, across the Atlantic to the east coast of South America, and back across the Atlantic towards Africa.

Greater shearwaters, which breed off of Africa in our winter but feed here in the summer, are bigger seabirds which can carry more weight.  Their behavior and movements likely represent foraging hotspots used by other seabirds.  We have fitted these birds with global position system tags with batteries that last for several months.  The data is collected via satellite, allowing the tagged birds’ movements to be watched in real time. This gives researchers a better understanding of the birds’ global migratory path and stopover areas.

Arctic terns have been fitted with lightweight geolocators to track their migration routes in the Gulf of Maine and beyond.  Once a bird is recaptured the following year, and the device recovered and downloaded, the data collected throughout the previous year shows the migration path of that bird.  This has shown that Arctic terns, on average, travel almost 30,000 kilometers in 92 days in their fall migration to Antarctica and almost 17,000 kilometers in 30 days on their return trip.  It also showed several  areas where they concentrate to feed during migration and the winter.

Bat and songbird monitoring

Refuge staff are also involved in the songbird and bat monitoring, through the University of Maine-led Northeast Regional Migration Monitoring Network.  The refuge, the University of Maine, Acadia University and Acadia National Park collaborated, using radar, acoustic monitoring, banding stations, isotope analysis, nanotags and receivers  to try to document and understand more about bird and bat spring and fall use of Maine’s coast.  Collectively, the partners have banded nearly 30,000 songbirds of 130 species in the last 6 years, and are continuing to analyze what the data shows about broad-scale movements, movements of individual birds, food availability, and habitat use.

Recognized for scientific excellence

The staff at the refuge recently received the Rachel Carson Award for Scientific Excellence, awarded by the Service to one individual and one group each year.  The award recognizes the refuge’s biologists and support staff for their extensive research to understand bird and bat movements and habitat use throughout the coastal areas, islands and waters of the Gulf of Maine. Learn more

Matinicus Rock 09 004

Refuge staff have monitored seabird nesting colonies for over 25 years, helping to identify threats and protect birds like the Atlantic puffin, razorbill and Arctic tern.