Reality TV on Seal Island

We call ’em the cams.

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In 2012, Seal Island was blessed with a handful of waterproof/not-so-poo-proof video cameras that were set in strategic locations around the island to observe the birdlife here, specifically the puffins, during the breeding season. We have two cameras set on puffin “loafing” areas, where these social alcids spend time catching up with their neighbors and sharing the news of the day, now for all the world to see. We also have also two burrow cams, one set down between the boulders in a puffin burrow and another in that of a resident black guillemot pair so viewers can see the underground lives of these birds as they raise their young. We did have another camera set on the southern end of the island on our cliff-nesting great cormorants but the equipment malfunctioned and, since cormorants are such a sensitive species, we couldn’t venture out to the colony to repair it for fear the colony would abandon their nests.

Viewers of the cams really are passionate about the birds, tuning in daily to share in the activity, take screen shots and video, comment on the various happenings, and discuss the birds and their behavior with one another.

Working on the island with the cams is interesting. Because of the implementation of these devices and the need to transmit the live feed back to the mainland, we now have wireless internet on the island! Some of us enjoy checking in on explore.org now and then to view what’s happening in the colony when we’re not out there at the colony ourselves and see what the commenters have noticed or whether they have questions or concerns. It’s fun reading the comments to see what catches people’s interest and see some of the beautiful screengrabs and comical captions.They are also the first to let us know when a rouge leaf or some well-aimed poo hinders the view of the camera.

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Sometimes they catch us when we’re working in the puffin colony, grubbing chicks out of their burrows to weigh and measure which we do every five days or so. I found this puffling handoff photo in the comments section one day after returning from the colony. We have viewers who check in regularly and have since the explore cameras first went up, particularly to follow the saga of puffin burrow #59.

A pair of puffins named Phoebe and Finn shared their burrow, famous #59, with one of our cams for three seasons in a row beginning in 2012 and viewers followed along from egg to hatchling to growing chick, persisting (although not always) against the constant battle

the-cams_28668258776_owith nature and the elements. The seasons have taken their toll and you can never predict what natural or unnatural events might affect a growing little puffin as it’s raised to fledging age, that very day when it first takes wing and flies off to sea. Viewers were given a first hand view of the trials of Petey, the chick raised in 2012 who succumbed to starvation when all that was coming in were butterfish, a coinlike fish far too flat and wide for a little puffling to swallow. The warm winter preceding the season provided sea temperatures warm enough for these somewhat more southerly fish to expand their ranges northward. Unfortunately, the parents kept bringing in these fish because the easier to swallow, lance shaped hake and herring that the puffins normally raise their young on had moved on to colder waters that had diminished off Maine’s coast that year. Chicks died next to piles of rotting butterfish all across the colony, with a successful fledge rate of a disappointing 31 percent.

Viewers were understandably upset at what they were seeing. Death in nature is cruel and painful and it’s a hard lesson to learn watching a darling puffin chick find that out alone in a dark burrow. As a seabird biologist in a nesting colony, you see it not just there, but everywhere, every day. I wouldn’t say we’re hardened against it, because of course we want every fuzzy chick to live, but that’s unrealistic. Trying to intervene with nature is not the way to help these birds. Studying them and monitoring them across decades is how we learn about why they’re struggling and what we can do to help these species as a whole, moreover, what we can do to help these ecosystems as a whole.

The viewers are helping us with that, capturing on screen the loafing ledge birds’ band numbers, which we can enter into our database and learn about where an individual was banded and resighted over the years. We’re learning more about metapopulations and how the greater tern and puffin populations move among islands throughout the Gulf of Maine. In one really neat example, we were alerted by viewers about a bird with a color band of C3 and, with the help of band-resighting extraordinaire Sammi, we got a lock on this bird and were able to determine its origin. This bird was grubbed (taken out its burrow) and banded as a chick by Puffineers on Eastern Egg Rock (when Keenan happened to be part of that team). And, what’s more, the father of this bird, C6, is the only known
bird to have raised its young with the help of TWO additional puffins, something only found in 3% of the entire Atlantic Puffin population. Now that C3 is old enough to start thinking about breeding, it seems it has left its natal island and has joined us to possibly raise a chick here on Seal at some point, maybe in another triad, who knows!

But back to burrow #59: We were as surprised this year as the viewers were to discover that the burrow had been taken over by a new pair of birds, one that was banded and the other unbanded. We determined the banded bird to be one we knew as “Toothless Willy” with the field readable band of AH/54. According to our database, Willy was banded as an
adult on Project Puffin’s Matinicus Rock (8 miles southwest of us) in 2002. It was first seen on Seal Island in 2005 and has returned every summer since. As this season has progressed, we realized the Willy and mate weren’t planning on laying an egg. Perhaps they were non-breeders staking out a future nesting burrow, who knows? But they continued (and continue) to use the burrow throughout the course of the season. Disappointingly, we weren’t able to “produce” an egg for our loyal viewers this year after a failed attempt at setting up a cam in another burrow that already had a chick. Unfortunately, the parents were not comfortable with the camera and wouldn’t come in to feed so we decided to remove the device (the chick is now thriving, we’re happy to report!). So meanwhile, we have Willy and “Unbandy” to observe for the duration of the season, and they’ve been affectionate and pretty darn adorable, calling to each other, billing (basically like an eskimo kiss!) and snuggling, shoulder to shoulder.

the-cams_28622597311_oBut! Another twist in the story! We found Phoebe (now known to be the mail of the Finn and Phoebe duo) in an adjacent burrow (#133..I placed a small rock on the boulder where it’s located for viewers to keep an eye on). Well, I we’ve been keeping an eye on it and it seems that Phoebe has shacked up with another lady. This one is unbanded and I saw it take fish into the burrow twice, earlier this morning (photos of this “imposter” to come!). So, as you can see, these cameras are really treating us to an insider’s view of drama in the life of puffins, stuff no one has even seen before or even knew was going on in the first place!

Speaking of drama, we had a lot of it in the guillemot burrow this year. Guillies are another charming species of alcid that breed here on the island in great numbers. They’re sleek black with pointed bills and a brilliant white wing patch. They make almost imperceptibly shrill high pitched “squees” and fly like the devil is right on their tail feathers. With what seems to have been a season of lean times, the offspring of this usually two-egg bearing bird (puffins only lay one a year) had to really duke it out for incoming food since it seemed to be coming in short supply. We monitor several dozen burrows and found that most of the “B” chicks died of starvation and/or siblicide. Nature is not nice. It was hard for some of the viewers (and us too) to watch the older, larger chick pecking at the helpless younger, smaller one until it finally succumbed to the harsh reality of nature. Meanwhile, an errant tern chick or fledger would occasionally fall into the pit-like burrow and have to undergo the wrath of momma (or poppa) guilly. Never a dull moment here on Seal Island!

But honestly, it’s really inspiring to see how many people out there are so interested and as passionate about these birds and learning about them as we are. When you’re on an island with only a handful of other researchers for three months straight, it seems like this is all there is in the world, but this connection is what reminds us that we’re not just here for the birds, we’re here for the love of birds. And it’s strong.

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About Stacey M. Hollis

Aspiring Environmental Field Journalist taking on the world of birds on an island 23 miles out to sea.
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6 Responses to Reality TV on Seal Island

  1. Thanks for another interesting report from Seal. I especially enjoyed reading your take on us cam viewers/commenters!

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  2. black6speed says:

    Yet again, an awesome post! Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Cheryl Price says:

    This is the first time I ever even knew there was a puffin cam. We’ve wanted to come to Maine, when the puffins were on Seal Island but can’t ever make it until September. Thank you so much for all the information you give about your stay on the island. One question – why is there a “pretend” puffin on the ledge? I have probably missed the explanation somewhere along the line.

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    • The fake puffin is a decoy which was historically used as a means of social attraction to grab the attention of breeding age puffins that had been originally raised as transplants (from Newfoundland) on Seal Island in the 70s. Project Puffin head honcho Steve Kress, who brought puffins back to Maine islands, was the first to use hunting decoys as attractants made to conserve and reestablish species to their historic breeding grounds. When the puffin chicks first fledge, they go out to sea for several years to eventually reach breeding age and return to their “natal” island to raise young of their own. Decoys like this one were meant to lure the breeding-age transplanted birds back to the island (hoping they wouldn’t go back to Newfoundland!) to ideally breed here (and it worked, we now have hundreds of nesting pairs here!). By putting out decoys, otherwise-wary puffins were given confidence to land on the island, believing that these are just other “puffins” before them which had arrived safely. These birds are more followers than leaders. We now keep one decoy up more as a nod to the olden days, but at this point the puffins are well established and have no problem arriving to the island at the beginning of the nesting season. If it weren’t for Steve Kress, none of us would be out here, and that counts for the puffins too!

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      • Cheryl Price says:

        Wow! Thank you so much Stacey. This has been so enjoyable watching the puffins in their burrough and on the ledge. I look forward to the day my husband and I can actually come to Maine during the time they are there. Our hats are off to all of you who have made it your duty to do this study.

        Liked by 1 person

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