Well, things are really wrapping up here on the island. Amid clouds of voracious mosquitoes, Frank and I finished taking down the last of the blinds. These somewhat rickety little enclosures, or hides, acted as my work cubicle for the summer and this island, my office.
Now as all the birds trickle southward, our purpose for being here is no longer necessary. The remaining cormorants on the southwest tip are becoming few and far between as the young venture further from the colony out to our side of the island and onward to other islands and locales. The great cormorants appeared to fare well this summer, in contrast to our terns and puffins.
There was only one corm nest that we knew of that abandoned and, now having the chance to walk the empty, cliff-bound nesting colony, there didn’t to appear to be any fallen chicks like those that litter the tern colony, lost to starvation and exposure. The fledger corms are inquisitive but shy. The white chins distinguish the greats from the double-cresteds and the juvie greats have white bellies with a defining partition on the breast between light and dark whereas the DCCO’s breasts fade more fuzzily from dark to white. As a rule, though, all the birds will turn away from you when you’re trying to count them and tell the difference among age and species, so all you see is dark bodies from the back.
With the thundering echoes of far-south tropical storm Hermine, the island has been enduring a near-constant pounding of thick swells that blast against our seaward-facing cliffs, shooting streams of frothy sea another fifty feet above the towering rock ledges. Endless swells march across the ocean, releasing their fury on our 66 acre island.
The Crack of Doom has been a great spectacle for the past several days as a portal through which the sea spews skyward, propelled by the force of the long-distant storm.
Aside from fog and a bit of wind, most of the power of the storm is water-bound. But when the fog finally relented, we were glad to reconnect with a wider world. We officially finished out puffin productivity a few days ago, finding all the burrows of the summer to finally be unoccupied. Unfortunately we are unable to satisfactorily call these burrows successful. Some of the empty burrows had, five days before, held still-fuzzy chicks. When suffering from starvation, alcids are known to emerge early from their burrows in search of food. Even if they were able to make it out to sea, the reserves that these small birds require out on the winter ocean to survive the coming months just didn’t seem to be achieved this season. In three or four years, it will be very interesting to see how many of the pufflings we banded this season turn up. Some, however, we know are sadly here to stay. We watched this burrow, 645, over the course of the summer as part of our all-day puffin feeding study. Once a week we would man Darning blind, each of the team taking one three-hour(ish) shift so as to be present for the entirety of the day, from 4:30 until just past sunset. We would watch for feedings to a handful of burrows spread out among the boulders scattered in front of us. We’d record every time a puffin flew in with fish, noting what burrow it went into, whether it was banded or not and when it emerged to get an overall idea of feed rate. The parents of 645 were very wary, as this burrow was closest to the blind and they could always tell when we were present. I’d duck down,
staying low until the shy bird, fish hanging from its bill, moved toward the burrow to finally shoot in last-minute. It didn’t care about landing near a human-occupied hide, moreso it seemed to not want to give away what burrow it was headed to. Here is where the balance between human study and natural behavior become a little fuzzy. Nevertheless, the little chick awaiting its meal, never emerged at the end of the season. We do productivity checks every 4-5 days and we checked this burrow as part of the observed burrows. Well, we saw that growing little chick on every check, but on Sunday, it was no longer peering curiously back at me when I peered into the depths of the burrow. It felt feather light in my hands.
Another expired little puffling to add to the list..
On a lighter note, now that the storminess seems to have abated, the birdwatching is lovely. Just this morning, sitting out on our lovely little porch that looks out across the island, Frank and I each had a scope positioned in front of our own chair for some serious Geri-birding (get it?!). I posted my first ebird checklist complete with photos of what we saw over the course of the morning. Loons warbled in the cove and were joined by a small pod of porpoises, a cape may warbler landed on the fruit hammock hanging above my head and gave such a start upon first noticing me it almost tripped over itself in the motion of darting away.
Our resident guilly fledger is continuing to enjoy remaining in the still calm of the Spooge Pool, refusing to truly fledge. I call him Squeaker.Hopefully his nickname doesn’t turn into Gull Bait.
We had great views of a difficult-to-identify flycatcher, they love hawking insects from the ropes that hold down the Thundermug (our composting outhouse..if you want to figure
out why it’s called that I point you to this lovely book, which I highly recommend).
A pair of orioles alighted on the ropes for a spell, too.
Small flocks of young PUFIs (much more fun to say than purple finches) and cedar waxwings flitted awkwardly among the tall grasses. A yellow warbler gave me a prolonged view as he preened furiously in the shrubbry (pronounced as spelled). One of the many red-breasted nuthatches that seemed to have rained down on the island weeks ago had no problem making my use of a scope entirely inapplicable.
A couple of loners hung out in the cove, an adult guillemot and a winter-plumage male eider. Most of the eiders are hanging out in huge rafts off the backside of the island, enjoying the motion of the ocean. The guillies are mostly gone except for this guy and Squeaker. As far as the puffins go, it seems as if the season is truly over.
So we’re closing up shop as we spend these final quiet days on the island. This spot in the world is one of the my favorite places to call home. Now we leave it to these guys for the winter:
Yep, Seal Island..would you have guessed it?..is home to one of the largest wintering colonies of gray seals in North America, serving as a prime pupping locale. And you can watch the goings-on live starting sometime in January on explore.org. I think the big guy pictured on the bottom of the above photo-mosaic is scoping out my tent site..
Fall sights on Seal:
I’m not signing off yet! Even once this summer ends, I’ll keep posting to feathersawry, so stay tuned..and thanks for tagging along!