Notes from the field: Summer Undergraduate Internship on Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge

 Jul 24, 2017    by Rachel Bratton

This summer, I spent two weeks on a seabird research island as part of my internship with the Northeast Climate Science Center, Five College Coastal & Marine Sciences Program, and Audubon Project Puffin. Project Puffin, based out of Bremen, Maine is a seabird restoration program founded by the National Audubon Society in 1973. Each summer, Project Puffin sends volunteers to seven research islands to monitor nesting seabirds. I went to Outer Green Island, a Common Tern nesting-site located off the coast of Portland, ME.

Seabird research is particularly valuable in helping us to understand the far-reaching affects of climate change in marine ecosystems. In addition to altering and destroying crucial areas of nesting habitat through rising sea levels, climate change threatens seabirds in the Gulf of Maine by altering life-cycle patterns and availability of their prey; this puts the birds at risk of phenological mismatches with their foraging resources. Projects such as the one I am a part of--ecological and management implications of climate change induced shifts in phenology of coastal fish and wildlife species in the Northeast CSC region--examine long-term data collected on the seabird islands for patterns indicating shifts in the timing of breeding, migratory, and development patterns of various species along the Atlantic coast. As I joined this project over a year ago, visiting the seabird island and actually collecting some of the data I have been working with gave me a greater understanding of the importance of our overall research goals.

I arrived at the Project Puffin base camp in Bremen ME on June 20th, 2017, and spent the next few days preparing for my departure. This included packing my camping gear and assembling enough food and water to sustain three people for two weeks, in addition to enjoying the trails and scenic views around base.

           

A panoramic view of the island taken from the blinds. Photo: R. Bratton

 

On the day we went to Outer Green, Sue, Project Puffin’s outreach instructor, drove Adrienne, the other intern going to the island, and I to Falmouth, ME, about an hour south of base. There, we met someone from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who took us out to the island on his boat. It was about a 30-minute ride, and luckily it was a beautiful, flat day in the Gulf of Maine. On the way out, we saw seals, porpoises, and a bald eagle. Since the island is too rocky to land a boat on, we had to anchor just offshore and row our meager belongings on a small boat called a dinghy. It took several trips to get Adrienne, myself, and all of our food and equipment safely to shore, and while we unloaded, Kim, the island supervisor who stays there all summer, rowed the previous volunteer out to the boat to return to the mainland.

After unloading, we trekked our gear up to camp. Since the terns nest all along the shoreline of the island, this meant carrying our equipment through the colony, while being careful not to step on any of the nests while terns swarmed and swooped at us. Camp, and my home for the next 2 weeks, consisted of a large tent for cooking and dining, a second tent for storing equipment and washing dishes, three tent platforms for sleeping, a fire pit, and an outhouse. My first impression of the island was that it was very pretty and green, and that there were a LOT of birds there--way more than I had expected.

After unpacking, I was immediately trained in the first of our main research methods, a chick feeding study. For this study, each person sits in one of four blinds on the island, looking out over different areas of nests. For 6-8 designated nests, the observer watches to see when the parents bring food to their chicks, recording for each feeding the time, which chick was fed, and the size and species of prey delivered. Feeding stints last about three hours, and the best times to do them are in the morning and the evening, when the terns are most active. I was surprised to learn that terns feed their chicks whole fish, most commonly haddock, hake, pollock, and sandlance, from the moment they hatch.

Next I learned how to do a productivity study, the second area of our research. Each day, we went to designated nests in four fenced-in areas around the island, weighing and measuring the wing chord length of each tern chick and banded newly hatched chicks. We also monitored black guillemot burrows nestled in the rocks around the perimeter of the island, weighing and marking recently hatched chicks by painting their toenails sparkling purple and turquoise (I can now add seabird manicurist to my resume). Productivity surveys took 2-3 hours each day, and was one of my favorite activities because we got to explore the whole island.

Two newly-hatched Common Tern chicks sit in their nest along the trail. While Common Terns will lay up to 4 eggs per nest, most parents can only raise 2 chicks. Photo: R. Bratton

Lastly, I was trained how to do morning bird counts, during which, I would wake up at 6 am and would walk to a point on the trail where I had a panoramic view of the whole island. Then I counted how many species, and how many of each species, of birds I saw on and in the water around the island. A usual morning inventory consisted of cormorants, common eiders, black guillemots, and both black-backed and herring gulls. I also learned how to do a flightline study, the objective of which was to determine where the terns were foraging in the waters offshore. Crouched in the bird blind, I looked out each window for 15 minutes, while using a compass to record the direction birds returned from carrying prey in their beaks. We would usually do flightline surveys in the early evening, and I found this a pleasant way to unwind after a long day at work in the colony.

Aside from practicing on baby chickens at Project Puffin orientation earlier in the summer, this was my first time working hands-on with birds and learning these scientific techniques. Thankfully, most of the chicks were cooperative (and adorable) and I got the hang of things pretty quickly. Additionally, this was my first time camping for an extended period of time. It was an easy introduction though, as our camp was very comfortable, and I enjoyed aspects of island life like swimming, rowing, and stargazing. All in all, I had a great first experience doing field work, and look forward to similar work in the future. I saw lots of birds I had never seen before, including laughing gulls, roseate terns, sandpipers, a northern gannet, and one lone, lost looking merganser!

I will spend the rest of the summer at the Northeast Climate Science Center preparing and analyzing eggshells collected on the Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge for stable carbon and nitrogen isotopes. This work will help improve understanding of the pre-nesting diets of these highly migratory seabirds and serve as my honors thesis as I enter my junior year in the Environmental Science program at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.  For more information about Project Puffin, the Northeast Climate Science Center, and the Five College Coastal and Marine Sciences Program, visit the links below!

Links:

Project Puffin: http://projectpuffin.audubon.org/conservation/outer-green-island

NE CSC: https://necsc.umass.edu/projects/ecological-and-management-implications-climate-change-induced-shifts-phenology-coastal-fish

Five College Coastal & Marine Sciences Program: https://www.fivecolleges.edu/marine

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A newly hatched Guillemot chick about to be measured and weighed (pre-manicure!). Photo: R. Bratton.