Few people, if any, have the opportunity to visit a refuge bird colony, and this past week I had just that experience while working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
My mission was to visit national wildlife refuge Petit Manan Island, one of the Maine Coastal Islands National Refuges, and document what Fish and Wildlife scientists were up to. The focus of service biologists in the Maine Coastal Islands is the restoration of colonial seabirds and to provide a place of refuge. Petit Manan Island is an important and unique refuge as it has historically been a place of seabird colonization, and on it rests a fully functioning historic lighthouse.
My boss and I set out for the island Tuesday morning, after spending the night in Ellsworth, Maine, which doesn’t have much going on. We took a boat loaded with camera gear, sleeping bags, and food for four meals from Milbridge, Maine to the island. The forty-minute boat ride was brisk and refreshing after enduring unbelievably hot and humid weeks of heat in western Massachusetts. And we saw seals off one of the islands along the way, which added to my Maine coastal experience.
When we hit land at Petit Manan Island, we were greeted by the biologists, most of which were still in school, working on their wildlife degrees and the like.
The seabird restoration team lives on the island all summer without running water, or a “proper” Internet connection. They have a propane stove, get electricity through solar panels, and use an outhouse and a composting toilet.
Daily tasks for the restoration team include provisioning, capturing birds, documenting information about the birds, taking samples to get tested, predation control, banding, and keeping track of pretty much everything the birds do.
Immediately stepping foot on the island, one shouldn’t be surprised if they get pooped on by the massive numbers of Terns flying merely a few feet above (it’s like the Hitchcock movie). Also, don’t be surprised if they start dive bombing one’s head. Luckily, I sported a baseball cap which sheltered my soon-to-be-even-more-dirty hair from the single poop that hit the top of my head.
But, the biologists are even more hardcore, adorning poop splotches on their hats, shirts, and pants. They often boasted about how the occasional plop would make it into their hair or the side of their face. Imagine all that and only being able to take a cylinder shower once in a while. But getting pooped on is like an initiation process, it’s bound to happen.
Bird monitoring is something the team does a lot of. They do this often from the lighthouse and blinds built around the island. They communicate to each other with walkie-talkies and write down data as they see it.
Pretty much every day for about three hours, the team conducts provisioning. Each member takes a hidden post, looks through binoculars, and jots down information on the Terns feeding their chicks. How much fish is being feed to each chick? How big is the fish? How often? Etc.
These sort of tasks seem monotonous, but the team really loves the birds. Even when they go in the house to take a break or eat dinner, they are always on watch through the windows, whether they are looking out for what the chicks are up to or whether they are watching for predators such as falcons, which often fly over from Acadia National park. When such predators come around, the team scurries to where the birds are squawking in chaos. They watch with binoculars, eager to know what will happen.
The team monitor’s Puffins just as well as Terns. On Wednesday, the the biologists got up at 4:30 a.m. to start capturing Puffins at 5 a.m. Once Puffins were captured (harmlessly of course), team members used walkie-talkies to communicate to one another that a Puffin entered the capturing device. The young woman heading this work would run out to where the Puffin was located and bring the bird back to where documentation of the bird was taken, it was tagged or received a new tag, and was quickly and carefully released.
The team has also began tracking the Puffins and what they do with the implementation of GPS units. The units weigh around 3% of the bird’s body weight and are made waterproof to endure whatever elements the puffins may encounter. The reason for the GSP units is because few know what Puffins actually do when they are not in human site or are at sea as they are pelagic animals.
My time spent on Petit Manan Island was truly an experience. Besides everything that I learned about Terns and Puffins, I learned about the awesome dedication the team has towards studying and conserving the birds of the island. And I also learned that living on a somewhat remote island with hundreds of birds, and the simplicity of rocks and grass is not something I could handle, while I could handle using the outhouse and lack of running water. I do love the comfort of be able to walk away from a place like the island with millions of miles ahead of me.
We finished our supreme video-photo documentation Wednesday afternoon and took the boat back to the mainland, where I hit the sheets at 7 p.m. after a hot shower and fell asleep at 9 p.m. in the excessive comfort of a hotel bed.