Tag Archives: seabirds

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. 

Closeup of an American oystercatcher. Credit: Pam Loring, UMass

New study following Atlantic seabirds to help siting of wind turbines

An American oystercatcher released.

By following Atlantic seabirds, federal agencies will obtain important information on bird movement and migration. Here a researcher from the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences, a study collaborator, releases an American oystercatcher with a backpack-style VHF (very high frequency). Credit: Pamela Loring/USFWS.

Most of this post is from an article by Bureau of Ocean Energy Management‘s Jim Woehr and Marjorie Weisskohl, originally published in the May/June 2013 edition of ECO magazine. We are managing the study, which is funded by BOEM and led by the University of Massachusetts.

University of Massachusetts student Pam Loring is the principal investigator for the study (see a post written by her last year). Photo courtesy Pam Loring.

University of Massachusetts student Pam Loring is the principal investigator for the study (see a post written by her last year). Photo courtesy Pam Loring.

In making decisions on where to permit construction of offshore Atlantic wind turbines, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is engaged with offshore wind energy permitting as well) will need information on the movements of priority bird species such as common terns and American oystercatchers up and down the east coast, from Massachusetts’ Nantucket Sound south throughout the mid-Atlantic region.

The movement patterns of these two species are not well documented and, although they are not protected under the Endangered Species Act, they are species of high concern.

To help fill the information gap, BOEM recently awarded a $292,000 study to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to research the movements of these birds over the next 12 to 18 months using VHF (very high frequency) backpack transmitters.

Biologist Caleb Spiegel working on New Providence Island. Credit: USFWS

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Caleb Spiegel is heading out this week with Pam this week to capture and tag American oystercatchers at Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge. Caleb says, “The study, which our migratory bird program helped design, will test the ability of cutting edge technology, called NanoTags, to track offshore movements of the birds off southeast Cape Cod and Nantucket, with possible expansion of the work pending success of what is essentially a pilot season. Credit: USFWS

The Service, in partnership with the University of Massachusetts, will capture up to 15 American oystercatchers and 75 common terns during the nesting season, and will attach external backpack VHF NanoTag transmitters that send signals to receiving stations in and around Nantucket and southeastern Cape Cod.

Because the common tern in Nantucket Sound is commonly found in mixed flocks with the endangered roseate tern, the common tern could serve as a surrogate for that endangered species in future research.

Information gathered will improve BOEM’s ability to discriminate between sites potentially suitable for wind energy development and sites that are unsuitable because of local activity of birds of high conservation concern.

The study is scheduled for completion in 2014. For more information, read the BOEM study plan (p. 175).


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.


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.