It’s another foggy day, keeping us out of the colony so that we don’t raise the birds off their nests. So I’ll take this morning to bring this baby of a blog up to speed.
I got to Maine by way of my Momma who left me at Project Puffin’s base camp in Bremen, Maine on May 10th. I’d been invited for the preseason opening of the islands and had the opportunity to open Eastern Egg Rock, the place where it all began.
The history of the reintroduction of Atlantic Puffins to the United States is all around you on this 7-acre island in Maine’s Muscongus Bay. Chicks transplanted here from a healthy Newfoundland colony were raised in artificial burrows, which I spent an afternoon uncovering by way of clippers from under layers of thick grass. Tiny puff-balls grew up in these very sod burrows, to whom Steve and his comrades fed vitamin-fortified fish until they finally fledged at about four to five weeks. Puffins fledgers spend their first three to four years at sea, so researchers had to wait to see if the birds would return to breed on what they hopefully considered to be their natal island. After about thirteen years of effort, and hundreds of puffins fledged (with the help of puffin decoys which provided social attraction, encouraging birds to come ashore) adult puffins started showing up on the Rock and, when the first bird was seen bringing a fish up to the bouldery shores, they knew the birds found the island and determined it fit to raise chicks of their own. This was a landmark like none other, a rare story of environmental success.
While on Eastern Egg, I read Dr. Kress’s new book which was exciting since I was on the very island where all his adventures had occurred..luckily I haven’t followed in his seeming tradition of capsizing the boat with important people and important equipment. Poor Roger Tory Peterson..! (It’s an awesome read, btw). When we first rowed to land, we discovered just how awful the landing was, stacks of seaweed covered rocks which you had to time your jump out of the rowboat on to with the rolling of the waves while Seabird Sanctuary Manager Paula masterfully rowed as close to the rocks as she could without flipping the inflatable rowboat. My jump ashore was cut short when the wave pulled back and my forward momentum was lost along with it, I splatted upon the rockweed and filled one rubber boat with chilly seawater. Welcome back to the islands!
We hauled our equipment, food bags, blind-building materials, water jugs and batteries up the slick, rocky shore to the historical Egg Rock Hilton, a 12×12 cabin built for and by the early researchers.
The cabin was filled with blind materials, walls, doors and roofs, which we toted out to their respective locations among the awakening puffin and tern colony. The tern were busy with courtship flights and marched on the rocks, sharp bills held aloft and wings drooping in an amorous display to their mate in question. The puffins were still arriving from way offshore, as far east as the US Continental Shelf where they spend their winter, bobbing among the waves.
It’s nice to be on island in the early season before the birds get all defensive. Tern beaks are like long, sharp puppy teeth coming at you like a missile from above. When the birds have chicks they are, understandably, relentless. Masterfully aimed poo and sharp blows to the head make for an interesting season working in the colony. Poo shirts are essential as is a flag attached to the back of your cap, since the birds generally aim for the tallest point on you. It also helps to be a very short person (sorry Nick).
The Egg team set up 12 blinds in just over two days of beautiful weather. When I opened Seal back in ’05, the year of the Nor’easter, our proud work was decimated just days later thanks to 60+mph winds. We even found parts of one blind under a boulder the size of an automobile. This year was thankfully not (yet) the case.
We also tried to deter the nesting colony of upwards of a thousand laughing gulls. These birds (which are the very ones daring enough to try to grab that chip out of your hand while you lounging on your favorite beach) are so populous that they are happy to span out to islands like these where they can find easy protein in the form of tern eggs. These kleptoparasites also find it easy to scare a puffin out of it’s bill-full of fish meant for a hungry chick, then gathering the fallen booty to take home to their own chicks.
After about two weeks on-island, we battled the wave-ridden beach (Kelsey and Ellen, historic Egg Rock Supervisor’s expertise shined in the face of the rollers) and Seabird Sue Schubel rode us the half hour to shore for a much needed shower. This is the summer of grubbing it, living outside with no running water. Salt water does a good job, though!
For the next three days I did multiple loads of the same laundry while attending Project Puffin training, meant for the newly arrived interns, many of which just out of or still attending college. That was me back when! My eyes were just wide, if not wider. Fieldwork is like nothing else. You’re immersed in nature, the elements, the birds, the fellow researchers. There are happy days, sad days, experiences good and bad, you explore and discover new things together, share your lives and passions, become closer than many of your friends at home. You try to relate your experience to those who appreciate what you’re doing and maybe admire you for it but it’s so hard to completely explain this unreal experience. Sitting on the composting toilet with the door swinging wide open for a fantastic view out toward the colony with terns flying toward you, peering down and letting a startled squawk as you peer back up. You become protective of these birds. The gulls fly in and you can tell by the way you hear the tern vocalizations change and we run out to try to scare them off before they ravage another nest. They like to use the fog as cover for their hungry deeds.
At training we had various fascinating presentations about what Project Puffin has gleaned from the research conducted over the past four decades. The birds are doing well, the puffin colonies are growing (Seal added another two-hundred some burrow since I was here back in ’05!), but we’re seeing changes. Decades of weather and sea
temperature monitoring paired with feeding studies that give us information of prey species caught offshore have suggested shifts in population ranges bringing warmer water species such as the butterfish unusually far north. The unanticipated ripple effects are revealed when the terns and puffins, as in 2013, kept bringing in butterfish to feed their young but, while they’re a great source of protein, the size and shape of these coin-like fish are hard for even the adults to swallow. Many chicks starved to death next to piles of these fish.
With improved technology, birds have been fitted with transmitters to give us an idea where the mysterious puffins spend their winter. Data came back telling us that they went far out to sea, as far as the U.S. Continental Shelf which must be prime winter feeding grounds, important for the puffs as well as plenty of other marine species. By learning where these spots are, we can hope that this information provides recognition of key marine areas we need to protect.
Birds are fascinating. They are canaries in the coalmine and their unveiled lives can tell us so much about the world we live in. Sometimes I feel like a detective, sitting in a blind with my scope focused on the leg band of a tern and later entering it into the database to find out it was banded more than two decades ago. Think of all they’ve seen? The changes here on earth. I’ve banded many an arctic tern chick in the past and that means, when I resight one of those little buggers, they could very well have migrated more than 150,000 miles over the ten seasons or so since we parted ways. They fly from the northern hemisphere to the southern, spending their winters in the Antarctic before trucking back north to breed. That means a lot of resources and land that they rely on to be there and available to fuel their journey. The changes that we’re responsible for, as humans, here on earth affect everything that lives here with us. Here’s to another year of chicks, ready to take flight at the end of the summer and meet the world head on. Let’s be sure it’s sufficient for their needs by taking steps to tread lightly on this earth.