Tag Archives: terns

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.

A week with the terns: Great Gull Island

Today you’re hearing from one of the interns in our regional office, Rani Jacobson. Rani is in the Career Discovery Internship Program and will be a junior this year at Ithaca College, where she studies environmental science.

Rani Jacobson with a tern chick. Credit: Venice Wong

Rani Jacobson with a tern chick. Credit: Venice Wong

After an hour of flying across the water in a fishing boat, the small Great Gull Island came into view. After docking, terns flew above us, screaming, and I could not help but feel a sinking feeling of apprehension as we were dive-bombed.

That first night we were introduced to the tasks for the week. We were given a small book of numbers that identified the tern nests, and we crossed off all of the nests that had known pairs of terns. This information would be helpful in determining which terns are paired with which and the likelihood of tern chicks being reared toward adulthood.

The following day, I woke up just before 6 a.m. to start work. We learned how to trap and handle adult terns and how to record certain information, such as weight, beak length and band number. The next part of the day was devoted to banding tern chicks, which was a bit easier and much more fun. We used pliers to put bands on the legs of the chicks and recorded the band number and how many chicks and eggs were in the nest, all while being dive-bombed by the adults.

The first few days I was scared of the angry terns and of being pecked at; all I could picture was what I would do if someone was handling my children and I had no idea what they were doing. I know that I would be just as angry as those terns.

But, the other CDIP interns had no problem and looked like professionals as they calmly trapped, banded and recorded information. Often they helped me with the adult terns and coached me on the best way to take the bird out of the bag, and they did not hesitate to stick their finger in the tern’s beak so that they could get control of the snapping.

Rani Jacobson with a tern chick. Credit: Venice Wong

Rani Jacobson with a tern chick. Credit: Venice Wong

We were all also assigned the task of collecting the dead chick bands and reporting chicks which had died prior to banding. Over the week we collected and saw many dead. The coordinator of the Great Gull Island Tern Project, Helen Hayes, told us that this summer the birds were having a hard time finding fish, resulting in more chick deaths. So as not to stress the terns out even more, we did not go out when the temperature was very high in the late morning and afternoon. At about 5 p.m. every day, depending on the weather, we would go out again and trap the adults to find more pairs.

The Fourth of July was probably one of the most unique experiences I have had on that day. Usually, I go to barbeques, hang out with friends, watch the fireworks on the Charles River in Boston. This year, I listened to the Star-Spangled Banner in the morning, courtesy of YouTube, put up the American flag, and had an “all-American” meal with the rest of the Great Gull Island team. The best part of the day was watching six different fireworks displays on the mainland and the lightning across the water as another storm blew in.

Rani Jacobson and a fellow intern.

Rani Jacobson and a fellow intern.

I had a fantastic week on the island, but Helen was the most inspiring part of the trip. She started the Great Gull Island Tern Project more than twenty-five years ago and is still running it. The time and effort that she has put in over the last couple of decades to ensure funding through grants from the American Museum of Natural History and keep bringing in and teaching new volunteers every week has been extensive and incredible. I hope that the project continues to be funded, because it is an experience everybody should have.

Check out the New York Times article on Great Gull Island, or see more pictures from Great Gull Island.

UPDATE: Rani is wrapping up her summer internship with us, so check out her video about her experience.

Surveying nesting American oystercatchers throughout coastal R.I.

Pam holding an American oystercatcher. Credit: USFWS

Today, you’re hearing from Pam Loring, a biological science technician in our Southern New England-New York Bight Coastal Program office. She is finishing her master of science at the University of Rhode Island, where she used satellite telemetry to study sea ducks in southern New England.

Our office, the Southern New England-New York Bight Coastal Program, has monitored American oystercatchers for just over a year now as part of a collaborative effort to improve their status in the Northeast.

American oystercatchers are large, charismatic shorebirds with long orange bills that they use to shuck the shells of their favorite foods – clams, mussels, and oysters – to take advantage of nature’s ultimate raw bar! During the summer breeding season, oystercatchers nest in coastal habitats, laying two or three eggs into a nest scrape on the ground decorated with bits of shell, pebbles, or shoreline wrack (the seaweed and other matter that washes up on shore).

Among shorebirds, oystercatchers provide unusually extensive parental care to their young. Fluffy young oystercatcher chicks are entirely dependent on adults to deliver them food and to eventually teach them how to find and eat shellfish with their dark, stubby bills.

Oystercatcher parents diligently defend their nesting territories and chicks, delivering loud, rapid-fire alarm calls and circling display flights to ward off intruders. Despite their careful parenting, American oystercatchers are considered a species of conservation concern due to habitat loss from coastal development, disturbance, predation, and threats to nesting habitat from storm surge and sea-level rise.

Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences initiated this collaborative effort to improve the monitoring and management of American oystercatchers nesting in the Northeast. As part of this effort, our office has monitored the nesting of American oystercatchers throughout coastal Rhode Island with the goals of:

  • Surveying all known historic nesting sites for nesting pairs;
  • Monitoring nesting pairs to determine the number of chicks that survive an age of 35 days, at which they considered “fledged” (able to fly); and
  • Increasing public awareness for oystercatchers and protection of nesting areas at high-use sites.

During the 2011 and 2012 nesting seasons, we surveyed oystercatcher pairs nesting throughout Rhode Island’s nearly 400 miles of coastline, with the assistance of partners from Connecticut Audubon, Rhode Island National Wildlife Refuge Complex, The Nature Conservancy, and local volunteers.

Pam and Andrew Maclachlan, a biologist at Pam's office, surveying American oystercatchers nesting on islands in Narragansett Bay. Credit: G. Krausse

Pam and Andrew Maclachlan, a biologist at Pam’s office, surveying American oystercatchers nesting on islands in Narragansett Bay. Credit: G. Krausse

We discovered oystercatchers nesting within variety of diverse habitat, including rocky outcrops, sandy shorelines, marsh islands, and in among relic rip-rap scattered throughout the islands of Narragansett Bay.

In 2011, we monitored 27 nesting pairs that fledged a total of 22 chicks. This season, we are busy monitoring approximately 30 pairs, many of which have already fledged one to three chicks each!

This project has given us many opportunities to raise public awareness for oystercatchers through installing interpretative signage, temporarily fencing off nesting sites, and interacting with landowners and beachgoers about conservation efforts. These outreach opportunities have not only benefited oystercatchers, but a variety of other species that share Rhode Island’s prime coastal habitat, including common terns, least terns and piping plovers.

Pam will be going to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst this fall to begin doctoral studies in the Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship Offshore Wind Energy Program. She will work with our Division of Migratory Birds to track American oystercatchers and common terns throughout the Nantucket Sound in relation to proposed offshore wind energy development.