Things are moving along smoothly out here on Seal Island. I think we will finish constructing our last two blinds today and the productivity plots will be ready for the terns by the end of the day as well. Terns are starting to spend more and more time around the island but, most are completely gone by about 8am. The 10th was the first day that they touched down on the island but, as expected that didn’t last too long. We did our first puffin productivity check on the 10th as well inspecting 74 burrows. 4 of them we confirmed eggs in and an additional 5 or 6 had birds that appeared to be incubating. Morning counts of puffins this spring have been the highest I have seen in my past two seasons out here with several days with around 700! Spring songbird migration is painfully slow but, we have had some nice birds. On the 6-7th we had some really nice “slingshot” conditions where relatively strong southwest winds blew birds of the coasts of New Jersey and New York who then got caught in more northeasterly winds off Cape Cod blowing them back west to the coast of Maine. Those weather conditions likely brought a mini fallout of early thrushes including over 40 Swainsons Thrush and among them at least 6 Gray-cheeked/ Bicknells Thrush (can’t reliably be differentiated in the field without song) and 5 Veery. In addition, we had some more southerly distributed species including Blue Grosbeak, Purple Martin, Kentucky Warbler, a very early and northerly record of a Saltmarsh Sparrow all of which likely resulted from those weather conditions. In addition, Troppy, our resident Red-billed Tropicbird, returned on the 7th!
On June 21st 1986 a young Arctic Tern chick hatched on Matinicus Rock Island and was banded by researchers working with Project Puffin. After this young chick fledged at the end of July it followed its family and other Arctic Terns north to the waters off England and then south along the coast of Europe and over the waters of the Atlantic off the coast of Africa until reaching productive feeding grounds along the ice pack of Antarctica. The Arctic Tern has the longest migration of any tern and it was a feat for this little tern to make it there. This was the last we knew of this little tern until this year on June 15th when it was captured on Seal Island. We were trapping Arctic Terns to better understand how individuals in the Gulf of Maine move between islands and to study the health of the population. Once captured unbanded birds receive a government issued bird band and birds that are already banded provide researchers with useful data. In the case of our little Arctic Tern chick banded on Matinicus Rock in 1986 we learned a lot! Here are some of the things we learned; this bird is 29 years old, one of the oldest Arctic Terns ever recorded. The oldest was a 34-year-old bird that also bred along the coast of Maine. It has likely flown over 800,000 miles in its lifetime and it is possible that is has had 26 nests! This little bird has seen a lot in its life and we hope to see it around the colony in years to come. It received a new band when it was captured: LA32. Good luck to our previous long lost friend!
29 Year-Old ARTE
Obviously you can’t send out paperwork to every tern nest on the island and expected to receive exact information on the number of parents and their eggs that are on the island. So, you may be asking how exactly do biologists living on Seal Island NWR get an accurate count of the number of terns nesting on the island? Each year between June 12th and 20th we form a line and slowly tip toe through the tern colony shouting out the number of nests and eggs that we walk past. We ziz-zag across the island as a designated recorder furiously writes down the information. Nearly the whole time we are counting terns are consistently pecking and dive-bombing at you head. (Can we some how put a link to the video that I sent you?). At the end of the long day we tally up our totals. This year we had a total of around 2200 tern nests on Seal Island! Around 900 Arctic Terns and 1300 Common Terns.
Arctic Tern on Nest
To get an accurate count on Puffins we must use a different method as they burrow deep into the boulder berm. Each year we follow a select group of puffin burrows to estimate the number of puffins breeding around the island. This is completed by looking into a select number of burrows, in addition to observational stints from bird blinds. To get a good look into the burrows you often have to contort your body into uncomfortable positions just to get a glimpse. It is hard to say exactly how may puffins are breeding this year on Seal Island but, last year we estimated around 492 burrows!
Checking out a Puffin Burrow
It just seems right to kick of this post with our beloved Atlantic Puffin. If you are familiar with our Explore.org Burrow and loafing ledge cams then some of you may be quite familiar with both the Puffin and their stunning pure white eggs. This species Eggs are slightly larger than your typical chicken egg and will sometimes show a weak chocolate colored spotting. On Seal Island ATPU generally lay their eggs at the beginning of the May. Our Puffin’s tend to select burrows deep under the boulder berms that surround the island and most pairs will use the same burrow year to year. Puffins almost always lay one egg per clutch with two eggs being an extremely rare case. Their eggs will take around 40 days to hatch into the little fluff balls that we have all come to know and love.
Atlantic Puffin Egg – Araks Ohanyan
Razorbills are fantastic stocky birds that belong to the same family of birds as Puffins called the Alcids. These birds look like penguins but are not related. On Seal Island Razorbills select similar nesting sites compared to Puffins but they are often slightly larger and a bit more exposed. Their egg’s are a tad larger than a Puffin’s, are usually white or greenish and usually have dark speckling covering the egg. Razorbills will usually lay one egg per clutch. On Seal Island Razorbills will start laying eggs around the middle of May peaking toward the end of May.
Razorbill Egg ~ Araks Ohanyan
The Black Guillemot is another one of our charismatic “Alcids”. Perhaps you are familiar with their red feet and classic squeaking noises. Guillemots like the Razorbills and Puffins nest in the boulder berms surrounding the island but they will also select crevices and cracks that are on the “inland” portion of the island farther away from the boulder berm and water. Their eggs are between a white and stunning light blueish color with dark colored spots or speckling covering the egg. The average clutch size is two eggs unlike the Puffin and Razorbill. Guillemots on Seal Island will start the laying process in the end of May with peak laying occurring in the first week of June.
Black Guillemot Egg
Common Tern & Arctic Tern
Seal Island is the summer home of two different tern species, the Common and Arctic Tern. Our terns usually arrive back to the colony in the middle of May and the egg laying process gets started in the last week of May. Their eggs are very difficult to differentiate but, they are about two-thirds the size of a chicken egg and can be buff, brown, green, blue, or gray colored. Most eggs will have heavy spacklings and/or splotching of dark brown or black. Peak tern laying is around the beginning of June and peak hatching around the third week of June. Common Tern clutch size averages between 2 and 3 eggs and Arctic Terns tend to lay only 1 or 2 eggs with the rare 3 egg nest popping up. They prefer open rocky or grassy areas where they will construct small nest cups with dried grass or small woody debris.
Arctic Tern Eggs
The Common Eider is a common nesting species on Seal Island but you likely don’t often see them on our cameras. They prefer to nest in the high grass and raspberry bushes that are in the center of the island. Unlike our other species females will incubate the eggs and care for the chick herself. Common Eider eggs are nearly twice the size of your average chicken egg and have an even oval shape. They are pure white and protected by a coat of feathers called down that line the nest to keep the eggs warm. Typical clutch size is between 3 and 5 eggs with the occasional 6 or 7 egg nest. Talk about a handful! Eiders usually start nesting in the beginning of May on Seal Island and we actually have already seen or first chicks of the season!
Common Eider Eggs ~ Araks Ohanyan
Until “Nest” time
The phenomenal migration this spring is slowly coming to a close but, we managed to see a few more highlights before heading back to the mainland on the 24th. An American Golden-Plover and a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher were two of my favorites.
The comical whining noises of the Gray Catbirds, angelic songs of the White-crowned Sparrows, and fun rarities like this Clay-colored Sparrow photographed below are unfortunately coming to an end. They will surely be missed! This pre-season we saw a total of 129 bird species including 22 species of Warbler! Our goal is 150 by the end of the season so I hope we can get the next 21!
Although the numbers of migrant songbirds are decreasing the breeding activity on the island is heating up. The number of active Puffin and Razorbill burrow are increasing! In addition, Tern eggs are seemingly falling out of the sky, making walking through the colony a stressful stroll to say the least. We are expecting chicks by the ides of June but, in the meantime I hope that you enjoy the Puffin Burrow and Loafing Ledge cameras that can be viewed on explore.org
The morning started off foggy and pretty gross so, after doing the morning weather data collection I dove back into my sleeping bag for a while. After I got back up the fog had cleared a bit and I could see that a good number of puffins were loafing on the rocks near the blinds. We ended up heading out and I chose Cadillac blind for my first stint.
It was a slowish stint in terms of number birds and since the terns were uneasy for most of the morning the puffins had a hard time settling in as well. But, I managed to get 14 band combinations which wasn’t too bad for a 2hr resighting session. My goal was to find some puffins that had been set up with geolocator tracking devices last summer so we could capture them and retrieve the unit. After we capture them we can connect the geolocator to a computer and see where the bird has been the last 10 months or so. Pretty cool stuff! Unfortunately, none of them were spotted this morning… But, overall it was a great first blind stint. One of the best moments of the morning was two Puffins copulating on the island. This was a first for me and is an unusual behavior considering Puffins usually mate in the water. Steve Kress the director of the project told me that this has only been observed a small number of times. Other courtship and pair bonding rituals were in full swing as well including some head bobbing and billing. Birds were also seen collecting nesting material!
Puffins Mating and nearby Puffins courting
Also, during my stint about 20 meters from the shore a small group of Harbor Porpoise were hunting a school of pollock. The pollock were brought the surface and it appeared as if the surface of the water was boiling. Ton of birds were attracted by the commotion including; Great and Double-Crested Cormorants, Puffins, Common Loons, Herring, Great Black-backed Gulls, a single unusual Lesser Black-backed* Gull, and Common and Arctic Terns. A very cool scene to watch for sure! Hopefully there will be more of this to come.
The boiling seas!
Harbor Porpoise and Puffins
Lesser-black Backed Gull
In addition to the blind stint this morning we conducted a Puffin Productivity check on 68 burrows and four of them had eggs! Hopefully our nest cameras will be up soon! I will post the link here when they are available to the public. Lastly, our annual visitor from the tropics a Red-billed Tropicbird fittingly named “Tropy” has returned to Seal Island for yet another summer!
Sorry for the late post. Work has been busy and by the end of the day I barely have the energy to open the computer. Anyways, Seal Island has been a wild ride so far. Temps are still averaging low to mid 40s at night and around 50 during the day. As I previously mentioned we have been picking up trash around the island. This is part of a grant through Toyota Together Green. Are “focal trash species” during the preseason has been lobster buoys and traps.So far we have filled over 50 contractor bags with buoys with most likely 100 more to go. We actually ran out of contractor bags and are currently waiting for a delivery. In the meantime we have been creating massive piles that will be picked up at the end of the summer by a fleet of lobster boats (hopefully…). Photographed below is our second largest pile on the island. Unfortunately you can’t see all 30+bags on the back side of the pile.
Spring migration has been incredibly diverse thus far, but unfortunately with low abundance. So far I have tallied 112 species as of today with my most recent addition being Ruddy Turnstone. Right now warblers are pouring into New England. So far I have seen 21 species to be exact! Highlights have included a surprising Orange-crowned Warbler (one of only a handful of spring records for this species in Maine), and several Bay-breasted Warblers. In addition to the warblers other unexpected birds have included four Bohemian Waxwing and a Clay-colored Sparrow. My warbler favorites are photographed below.
Black-throated Blue Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler
One of the things that I was surprised by out on the island is the amount that these migrants actually sing. Nearly every morning there is a small “Dawn Chorus” in which many of these warblers sing just like a typical forested habitat. Among the more common artists at work are the Ovenbird and Blackpoll Warbler. Below I have photographed a Blackpoll Warbler singing to try to attract the female of his species.
Blackpoll Warbler (Male)
Blackpoll Warbler (Female)
We are right in the heart of migration so get out there and enjoy this spectacle that often can even take place in your own backyard. The sights and sounds of these magnificent migrants will only be around for a few more weeks!
A patch of some unfavorable west winds put us out on the island a day late but we made it! Pulling up to the island I was simply amazed by it’s shear size compared to Eastern Egg Rock where I spent my summer last year. Upon arrival I was greeted by flocks of Razorbills and Atlantic Puffins that were loafing in the frigid waters (~40 Degrees) that bordered our shared summer home. I also enjoyed some Great Cormorants that were courting and starting to build their nests on the western head of the island also known as Area 5. When we pulled up to the landing I hopped into John’s dory and rode to shore. As I walked up the stairs I noticed how the cabin seemed to be in the middle of a barren wasteland. The tall grasses and bushes that will soon take over this island have been kept at bay this year do to the harsh winter’s snow, wind, and salt spray. I will be spending the next couple weeks preparing for our seabirds to start up their breeding season. Preparation duties include but are not limited to; erecting bird blinds, fixing productivity plots, cleaning up trash that has washed ashore (mostly lobster buoys and traps), and fixing tent platforms, stairs, and our cabin that has suffered quite a bit of damage over the winter.
In the meantime the spring migration of many songbirds is currently underway. Out here on the island may of the typical forest dwelling birds are seen on bare rock or in grasses as there are no trees on the island. The bird scene the past week or so has been dominated by sparrows such as White-throated, White-crowned, and Swamp Sparrows. Other migrants have included Palm Warbler, Hermit Thrush, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Black-and-White Warbler,
Other notable birds have included a Rusty Blackbird, Orchard Oriole and a Least Sandpiper that decided to Migrate back a little early. I am fortunate enough to have a great birding spot just outside our cabin. There is a large pool of water that attracts shorebirds and a really cool ridge known as the spine that migrating songbirds tend to really favor.
In terms of our breeding seabirds on the island Leach Storm Petrels have been heard and seen calling at night, Puffins and Razorbills can be heard calling and courting in the waters nearby the island, and terns have arrived a bit early despite the cold weather and have begun their display flights over the island.
In my next post I hope to include photos of our field site and specific study areas. Perhaps an insider look at some of the bird blinds and a little more on what puffin, terns and other seabirds are doing right now! Until then I hope all you birders are participating the Global Big Day being lead by eBird. I know I certainly will be!
May 1st is coming up incredibly fast! We will be hopping on the boat in Rockland to take the 3hr ride out to Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge. I will spend the summer working with the National Audubon Society’s Project Puffin in order to manage and monitor seabird populations. This year will be my first as an island supervisor and my goal is to share fun facts, updates about the field season, bird sightings and of course lots of cute bird photos. Stay tuned for more!
Razorbill and a decoy on Eastern Egg Rock