Living the seabird life

Okay, so aside from snuggling chicks, I promise we’re doing real work out here! So I figure I’ll just go ahead and give you an idea of a day in the life of a Puffineer. Actually, that’s impossible, no day is the same. Depending on the time of the season, we’re always up to something different. In the beginning we were mostly building and repairing blinds along with resighting Arctic tern leg bands. Banded birds have a BBL on the right leg, a Bird Stacebot 107Banding Laboratory-issued metal band with an 9 number identifying chain. It’s usually very hard to read, even using a high powered scope so on the left leg most BBL banded birds get a “field readable” metal band, which is two letters over two numbers engraved on opposite sides of the band. We sit in the blinds with burlap curtains covering all the windows except the one we’re looking out of and, in a 3x3x5 foot space we have a scope set on a tripod in front of us while we sit on an overturned bucket with a cushion on top. It’s a tight squeeze even for me, not to mention our backpacks with binoculars, water, snacks, clipboard for data, extra layers (it’s always colder in the shaded blind than out). But my fellow intern, at 6ft has much less space to deal with, the word cramped is putting it lightly!

So there we sit, alone with our clipboards and peering through a scope for two to three hours at bird legs. No bands? Move on. See some bands on that bird? You focus quickly but not fast enough, off he flies. How about that one? Well, for ten minutes she stands facing the perfect direction to get all but one figure in the FRB. And then she takes wing and Stacebot 067you’ll never know. The birds are very flighty, set off by gulls flying over or the resident red-billed tropicbird who likes to terrorize the colony. It’s like they know when you’re just about to get the final number. Nonetheless, I have a good time with it. It’s a total challenge and when you get one, it’s such a satisfying feeling. Then later you can type it into the Project Puffin’s Seabird Finder database and learn where the bird was banded, how long ago, how many other people have seen it and where, we even can sometimes find out how old it is, if it was banded as a chick. The data we obtain tells us a lot about how these birds don’t just stay on one island to breed, they move around, perhaps depending on the whim of a young bird searching for a suitable place to nest, the space available for nesting or it could even depend upon what island its mate was hatched on and who had the greater urge to return. Sometimes we see a tern that was banded in their wintering grounds in South America, reminding us the other half of the perilous life of a seabird.

We’re learning, with the help of these identifying bands, that birds that we see one season
but don’t the next needn’t be assumed dead, rather we are able to garner information
on whether they’re pairing up and nesting on the other islands that Project Puffin manages. If we didn’t manage these seven islands, so well suited for these nesting seabirds, and only monitored birds from Seal, we wouldn’t know anything other than the birds in front of us and the ones that happened to come back from the year before. All the other birds would be lost to our knowledge. But since we have banding and resighting efforts on all islands, we can learn about the greater Gulf of Maine breeding tern and puffin populations as a more complete whole. The varied locations suitable and available for our birds, thanks to decades of effort put forth by Project Puffin, are being put to good use.

To band these birds, we have some innovative techniques. One being the treadle trap, a wire box with a drop down door that falls when the bird walks through the entrance. The traps are set over an arctic tern nest after we switch out the real eggs with wooden replicas.

We keep the true eggs safe in a cardboard egg carton with tissue paper in the cups. Then we hide in the blind, hoping the bird is invested enough in its “eggs” to walk into a very unfamiliar wire cage. And they are! The birds don’t realize the eggs are fake and, while some are too wary to go in, others are so focused on sitting on their eggs, they’ll cross the threshold, the door will drop and they’ll nestle down upon the oblong wooden orbs. Sometimes they’ll sit for awhile, completely content and unaware of their circumstances, which gives the second trap a chance to do its job. The best is when you get a double whammy. The other method is a circular spring trap set around the nest (after the eggs are switched out) and you wait for the bird to sit and then, by pulling a string, a pin is released and the wire arch flips over the bird, capturing it in the net. Overall we caught over 85 birds in about two weeks of effort.

Once the chicks started pipping, using their egg tooth to free them of their calcium 13450855_626214171485_3580845687710313020_nconfines, we stopped trapping and started to find wet little chicklets. Helpless and immobile in their shallow nest scrapes, usually cuddled next to their egg-encased sibling (or two), they dried in mere hours and were soon impatiently awaiting food from their parents. So across the tern colony we have four fenced off plots in which we follow the productivity of the nesting terns, using this fraction of the colony to reflect the overall success of the tern nesting season.

We go out to check the prod plots as the chicks hatch and grow, banding new chicks and weighing and measuring them regularly. It’s fun to become 13507019_626471455885_895009917180233520_nso familiar with these little fluffballs as they change from fuzzy nuggets to awkward  tweens sprouting pinfeathers to irate teenagers with a startling long wingspan. The chicks come in all kinds of color morphs, gold, silver, blonde, white, always speckled and always difficult to locate among the growing vegetation. Stacebot 254As they get older, they roam farther from the nest, so gathering them up to weigh and measure ends up being a very involved Easter egg hunt! We do this every evening after the heat of the day has subsided and we can be assured that the chicks won’t swelter in the sun while their parents hover above and dive at us with sharp beaks and well aimed poo.

And then there are the puffins, razorbills and guillemots, much less raucous  and chaotic than the tern colony. These birds, alcids, nest in burrows among the boulders that line the 27808748556_9d331eb378_operimeter of the tern colony. They prefer the deep cracks between the rocks, protected from the flurry of action above ground. There they build nests of dried seaweed. While RAZOs and guillys usually lay two eggs that are speckled , the puffin lays a single, pure white egg. We do productivity checks on these birds too, every few days, to determine the hatch date of the new chick and weigh and measure them to follow their growth.
Stacebot 302This involves a lot of  squeezing awkwardly down between the burrows to see what kind of activity is going on, whether there are eggs, if an adult is incubating and, as we’ve seen as of late, if we have chicks. It takes awhile to do all the puffin burrows, the RAZOs and guillys that we follow are much less uppity, although if you do happen to find an adult in a burrow when you’re reaching for a chick, you’ll find that those monster puffin bills pack a lot of punch!

So we’ll track the growth of all our seabirds throughout the progression of the season, but along with that, we want to see what it is they’re eating. For the terns, we spend three hour stints in the blinds looking at one of our four feeding study plots where we’ve marked off around six or seven nests to be observed. Out of the four feeding studies, two are all ARTE (arctic terns) and the other two are all COTE (common terns). We have sheets that

we fill out as we watch adults come in with fish or invertebrates. For each provisioning, we note the nest number, which adult is the provider (banded or unbanded), the species of prey item, the size of the item relative to beak length, which chick receives the prey and the time of arrival and departure of the providing adult. All in a flurry of a few seconds! Sometimes you have wildly busy stints, like when adults have found a run of euphuasiid (basically krill) and are bringing them in every other minute. Other times it is slow and the chicks are begging at every adult that flies over with fish. We see a lot of hake, which is good protein for growing chicks, as well as lumpfish, sandlance, snipefish, amphipod and sometimes even chunks of larger fish, i.e. lobster bait.

While I haven’t done it yet, we’re also doing feeding studies for the puffins but different from the ones I remember doing back in ’05. We sit in a blind, looking out to sea and keep watch for puffins with fish. Then we get our high powered cameras ready. This is where the stints differ from the past. We’ll be taking photos of the birds as they fly in to determine, after the fact, what kind of fish they have and what size they are. It’s a lot harder to do this with just binoculars since they book it into their burrow as fast as they can to avoid kleptoparasitism by laughing gulls and COTEs. A mouthful of fish lost just because of a klepto scaring the puffin enough to make him drop them and flee. So in their haste, you can only really be sure of what they have if you can catch it on film. More on that when I can speak from experience!

So all in all, we’re busy with the birds here on Seal Island. They’re our life out here and it’s hard not to get attached. These are such beautiful birds that are more hardy, well equipped and determined to survive than they look, such elegant beings. Seeing into a part of their fascinating, chaotic, dangerous, beautiful lives is something few human have witnessed. It’s more than I could’ve imagined, each day is something new and absolutely magical.


About Stacey M. Hollis

Tropical guide and naturalist at Tranquilo Bay Eco-Adventure Lodge on Isla Bastimentos set within Panama's Caribbean Bocas del Toro archipelago. My aim is to share my passion for birds and the awesome biodiversity of the tropics while spreading the word about the importance of environmental conservation.
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5 Responses to Living the seabird life

  1. Pingback: Puffin Chat | feathers awry

  2. Pingback: eBird: Gotta catch ’em all! | feathers awry

  3. Pingback: A quiet island remains | feathers awry

  4. Rebecca Esch says:

    Loved reading this, Stacey! I miss my Seal Island life filled with beautiful birds and cool people. I hope everyone is doing well – enjoy a sunset for me.

    Liked by 1 person

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