And so do I..
Wow, this season has sure gone by in a flash of feathers.
The Seal Island Fearless Four came off the island on August 11th:
We sported three months worth of grime and sun-browned skin. As longtime area birdman John Drury ferried all of our gear, trash, recyclables and summer memories to Rockland, I scanned the mainland shore with my binoculars. The first and best thing? The trees. It’d been 12 weeks without them and their rich, silent beauty. The coastline was covered in them. First mainland bird? Rock pigeon. I was going for an osprey or turkey vulture but I couldn’t shut my eyes in time.
Back at base camp in Bremen, the place was a flurry of Puffineers, overloaded washing machines and a line for the shower. We related island stories and everyone got down to data entry (except Stratton island, who, even after losing all their data to a computer malfunction, still managed to get it all put in before coming off island!) and island reports, compiled by the supervisors. The GOMSWG conference was on the 13th on Hog Island (where the infamous eagle took the fledger osprey this year and both chicks last year, live on camera, much to the dismay of loyal viewers). The remaining two fledgers are still around the area along with their parents and I watched some combination of the four flying high above the outdoor portion of our conference, looking down upon a sea of seabird researchers.
The overall message of the season this year on Maine’s coastal islands (up into Canada’s Machias Seal, also located in the Gulf) was that food supply was abnormally low. When we banded adult terns at the beginning of the season, they were already low in weight. As the chicks hatched, their growth wasn’t great. Birds constantly were fighting over fish, sibling rivalry was high and terns were often seen chasing puffins with enticingly full bill loads as they flew toward their burrows. The agressive common terns would chasing them back out across the water until finally the puffin would hit the water and submerge, leaving a frustrated and hungry tern in its wake. Everyone wants to feed their babies.
What hit our tern colony the hardest this year was the two to three days-worth in July of misty foggy rain right when the chicks were still downy but too large to brood, protected under their parents from the elements. Wet chicks with already-poor fat reserves meant a great deal of death all across the colony. It was heartbreaking to see so many big chicks, that had made it so far into the season withering in their nests with no way to help them. Nature is a harsh, unforgiving force. Pair that with human impact through overfishing and climate change and you gotta feel lucky that you’re not that tiny chick in an exposed nest waiting for food that doesn’t come fast enough as the fog rolls in.
On a lighter note, I got to return to the island after the conference was over and the rest of the Puffineers re-entered the real world, off on their next adventures, many off to remote places to join field crews studying hares in the Yukon or hawk migration projects in the beautiful western United States, others to finish out college or pursue master’s research on climate change and grassland-obligate bird species. Me? I opted to stay on Seal Island for the post-season to provide a human presence (along with Stratton Island intern Coco for the first week and supervisor Frank who’ll join me for the final three weeks) which helps deter the bald eagles which like to come through and pick off our late-fledging Great and Double-crested Cormorant
colony on the southwestern end of the island. In the past, as soon as researchers have stepped foot off the island and turned around to bid goodbye to their island home, they’ve bared witness to an eagle landing on this very cabin, cockily declaring the territory now its own. We’ve kept up many of our blinds as these birds are smart and know to associate these prominent wooden erections with our presence and therefore stay away (for the most part..two days ago I was in one of them observing the Boulder Berm where many of our puffins nest when I noticed some gulls at the top of the empty hill where all our terns nest very upset and diving at something on the ground. I got out of the blind to investigate and flushed an adult bald eagle, which flew straight down the island toward our corm colony, flushing the remaining Greater Black Backed and Herring Gulls which nested down that way. The cormorants seemed unaffected, likely because the eagle wasn’t in predatory mode, having perhaps just eaten.Nonetheless, we’re hiking the mile down the island regularly to check on our birds and relay our presence to the looming predators.
While we’re here, we’re also keeping up with ATPU and BLGU (Atlantic Puffin and Black Guillemot) productivity and growth, meaning I’m still checking burrows that still have chicks every four days. Yesterday’s ATPU prod revealed 12 chicks left in burrows we’ve monitored over the course of the season, from egg to chick to fledging. These burrows are selected (a total of about 50) for their ease of access and whether we can see into them to observe the state of the egg or chick and, for growth burrows, whether we can hand “grub” them (grub as in, remove from the burrows to weigh, measure and, once they’re old enough, band) either by hand or with a grubbing stick.
Many of the burrows aren’t straightforward and we find ourselves in all kinds of angles and contortions to reach the birds. The majority of the burrows on the island we are completely unable to access. Imagine a bunch of boulders layered on top of each other and a puffin chick nestled down in an obscure crack, protected from the elements and predators and researchers alike.
Meanwhile the Seal Island live cams from Explore.org are still up and running. Our loyal viewers are glued to their screens every night as our remaining puffins fledge. Feathered-out chicks emerge for the first time from their burrows and tentatively make their way to the wide ocean where they will disappear for up to four years before they’re ready to breed. Some will return to this island in the future, others perhaps Matinicus or Machias Seal. These brave little puffs are starting out on an amazing journey after knowing only the darkness of their burrow for the entirety of their lives thus far. Alone, they’ll head out to the ocean and, hopefully, the seas will provide so that these birds can return fat and well-prepared for the trials and challenges of their own breeding seasons and the island life. Thanks to the vigilance of our passionate viewers, we have a great video here of a puffin fledger making its way across the berm and taking its first flight out to sea, scroll to 0:43 for that fateful leap into the air.
Thanks so much to Scott Sheidt for capturing and sharing this! And thanks to all the viewers for keeping an eye on our puffs this year on Seal Island. Can’t wait to see what next year brings!
For now, we’ll watch the rest of the birds trickle away and, before we know it, it’ll be our turn to officially depart from the island on September 15th. It’ll be a sad day, but what a summer we’ve had..