Kelly Hogan, an aviculturist from SeaWorld, Orlando, has worked for the past two years with penguins and puffins and has experience with observing puffin breeding behaviors, recording breeding pairs, checking nest sites and monitoring puffin parents caring for their chicks. She is currently in Maine assisting in the census of puffin and tern colonies, measure nesting success and conducting studies of foods delivered to tern and puffin chicks. This is her journal from her first week at Project Puffin.
Today was my first day and it was quite the journey to get here. I travelled out to the island with a mother/daughter pair of Project Puffin veterans. First we took a 90 minute ferry boat ride to an island where we got on a smaller boat. Two hours later we arrived at Matinicus Rock where we then had to row ourselves and our gear ashore. After arriving/ settling in we went out looking for Arctic Tern chicks to band. The chicks were pretty well hidden in the vegetation along the rocks so it was tricky finding them. When a chick was found, we measured it, weighed it and then placed bands on its legs so that it can be identified in the future. Here is a picture of one of the Arctic tern chicks.
Project Puffin Day 2
This morning we went puffin grubbing. Puffins make their nests in burrows so grubbing for puffins entailed squeezing into some tight spaces between the large rocks that cover most of the island. The purpose is to find chicks we can band. Banding these birds is important so we can identify individual birds and track them in the future. When a banded bird is re-sighted we can learn lots of info about that bird such as length of time before it returns to the breeding colony, whether the bird finds a mate, where it makes its burrow and how many chicks it raises. The puffin grubbing was a little disappointing though as we didn’t find many active burrows. Hopefully we will find more puffin chicks before I leave! Here is a picture of a puffin pair at SeaWorld.
After lunch I did a 3 hour Arctic Tern feeding stint. This involved monitoring 8 Arctic Tern nest sites and recording which parent fed the chick, which chick was fed (if the pair had more than 1 chick), and type and size of the fish fed. By monitoring what the chicks are being fed, it can shed some light on the health of the terns’ food supply and help explain why chicks may or may not be fledging successfully.
Project Puffin Day 3
This morning was my turn to do morning bird count which meant I had to get up early but it was nice seeing the island from atop the lighthouse. During morning bird count we count the number of birds of each species we see resting on the land or surrounding water. We later searched again for Arctic Tern chicks that were big enough to band. I’m starting to get the hang of it and found a few more chicks than I had the other day. In the afternoon we checked puffin burrows known to have eggs, to see if the burrows now had chicks. A couple of them did, so we will check them again once the chicks have grown some more and are big enough to be banded. We then started “grubbing puffins”, checking any potential puffin burrow for chicks to band and I got to band my first puffin chick! I volunteered to do morning bird count again tomorrow and I am finding myself very tired at the end of each day from climbing the large boulders that cover this island.
Project Puffin Day 4
This morning started out with morning bird count again, then I spent an hour in a blind re-sighting puffins. For those not familiar with what a blind is, it’s basically a box with a window, designed to blend into the surroundings and hide the human observers inside, so as not to disturb the birds being observed. When we spot a puffin with leg bands, we record the band numbers and then enter them into a database that contains all the puffins that have been banded in the Gulf of Maine since Project Puffin began back in 1973.
Later in the morning we went grubbing for Black Guillemot chicks and Atlantic Puffin chicks to measure, weigh and band. I got to name my first puffin chick which is pictured here. I decided to name it Sharon after my coworker who is taking care of my cat while I am here. I am surprised at how warm it’s been since I arrived. The island is windy and chilly at night but during the day it’s been almost as hot as where I came from in Orlando, FL.
Project Puffin Day 5
Today I thought I’d give a brief history of Matinicus Rock Island or “The Rock” as it is affectionately known here. The origin of the name Matinicus Rock is somewhat vague but it’s been suggested that it means either “grassy hills” or “place of turkey”. It is the southernmost puffin colony in North America and sits in the Penobscot Bay. In the past, puffins and other seabirds that bred on the islands of Maine were hunted for food and for their feathers, causing populations to drop drastically. It is believed that in 1900, Matinicus Rock was home to the last pair of breeding puffins in Maine. The island has been under the management of the Lighthouse Service, the Coast Guard and the Audubon Society. The Audubon Society came in the 1950’s to study storm petrels, another seabird that has a breeding colony on Matinicus Rock. The Rock’s diversity of breeding seabirds includes Atlantic Puffins, Razorbills, Black Guillemots, Leach’s Storm Petrels, Arctic Terns, Common Terms, Laughing Gulls, Common Eiders, Manx Shearwaters and occasionally Roseate Terns. It is the only known breeding area for Manx Shearwaters in the United States.
The island is enveloped in fog for approximately 20% of the year so in 1827 the first structure was built consisting of two lighthouse towers and a house for the keeper and his family. The lighthouse towers and surrounding buildings have undergone reconstruction and renovations throughout the years. The lighthouse still has a working foghorn which goes off about every 15 seconds. I’ve actually found it to be pretty peaceful at night with the sound of the horn blending in with the sounds of birds and waves.
Project Puffin Day 6
I started early in the morning with a puffin re-sighting stint. Using a spotting scope I hid in a blind and looked for banded puffins. When a puffin with bands was spotted I recorded band numbers. When I entered my data in the database I learned that one of the birds I re-sighted was 20 years old which is fairly old for a puffin (average lifespan is 20-30 years). Since a lot of us needed to catch up on data entry, we spent the rest of the day entering data and playing “Island Life” (a modified version of the game of Life). Tomorrow we are losing Sue and Ayla, the mother/daughter pair that came out here with me. They have taught me a lot about the island and were fun to work with. They will be missed but we will be getting a new volunteer named Sam.
Project Puffin Day 7
I started the morning with an Arctic Tern feeding study. The parents were bringing in lots of amphipods which are small invertebrates as well as some small fish called hake. The chicks are getting big and some are close to fledging. I even saw a couple chicks pick up insects off the rocks and feed themselves. We did a lot of puffin grubbing in the afternoon searching in known burrows as well as looking for new ones. I grubbed a puffin from a burrow, banded it and named it “Puddles” (shown here). Hopefully “Puddles” will be sighted again for many years to come. I have found that looking for puffin chicks takes a lot of patience; not like looking in the easy manmade puffin burrows at SeaWorld. Around 5:30 pm the boat carrying more food and supplies as well as Sam, our new volunteer, arrived and Sue and Ayla left us.
Fun facts about puffins: When they vocalize they make a growling sound. When feeding chicks they will fly into their burrows carrying a beak full of fish (the record holder was seen with approx. 60 fish). Chicks fledge at 38-45 days of age on average, and when they leave their burrows they leave in the evening and are completely independent.
Stay tuned for week 2 notes from the field!