Scientists ask bird oglers to help study puffins

In this photo made Friday, Aug. 1, 2014, an Atlantic puffin flies back to its burrow after catching a beak full of small fish to feed its chicks on Eastern Egg Rock, a small island off the coast of Maine. The Audubon Society, which maintains three web cameras on another island, wants bird lovers to contribute research to a project scientists hope will help save Atlantic puffins in Maine. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

In this photo made Friday, Aug. 1, 2014, an Atlantic puffin flies back to its burrow after catching a beak full of small fish to feed its chicks on Eastern Egg Rock, a small island off the coast of Maine.  (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

The Audubon Society wants bird lovers to contribute research to a project scientists hope will help save Atlantic puffins from starvation in Maine.

There are about 1,000 pairs of the seabirds, known for their multi-colored beaks and clownish appearance, in Maine. Audubon says the number of puffin fledging chicks has declined in the last two years, possibly because their key food source, herring and hake, are leaving for cooler waters. Puffins are on the state’s threatened species list.

Audubon maintains three web cameras on Seal Island, a National Wildlife Refuge in outer Penobscot Bay, one of the key puffin habitats in Maine. Volunteers are being asked to watch the puffins and answer questions about their feeding behavior, said Steve Kress, director of the National Audubon Society’s seabird restoration program. Continue reading

Biologists tracking Maine seabirds in advance of offshore power

Jake Shorty (from left) and Christa DeRaspe, both field technicians for the Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge, work with seabird biologist Linda Welch to set up noose carpets to trap razorbills on Petit Manan Island on July 25, 2013. They are attaching satellite transmitters to 11 razorbills to track the birds and gain insight on seabird flight patterns

Jake Shorty (from left) and Christa DeRaspe, both field technicians for the Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge, work with seabird biologist Linda Welch to set up noose carpets to trap razorbills on Petit Manan Island on July 25, 2013. They are attaching satellite transmitters to 11 razorbills to track the birds and gain insight on seabird flight patterns

Razorbills, puffins, terns, guillemots — thousands of seabirds flock to Maine islands each summer. They socialize, lay eggs, feed their chicks, and as the summer cools into autumn, they depart.

Biologists have witnessed this natural cycle for decades as they’ve worked to restore seabird colonies off the east coast. Yet little is known about what happens when the birds leave the islands, in the hours that they forage for their chicks and during the winter months, when they migrate.

This lack of information about seabird flight patterns has become a concern to biologists as plans for offshore wind energy development come closer to fruition.

In response, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has recently begun using a combination of radio and satellite telemetry to trace seabird migration patterns and pinpoint crucial foraging and nesting areas.

“What we’re trying to do is be more proactive and gather information to help identify areas that are really important to seabirds, then provide that to [wind power station] developers,” said USFWS biologist Linda Welch, who studies seabirds on the 58 islands of the Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge.

An Atlantic puffin breeding on Petit Manan Island is found in a manmade burrow by Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge biologist Linda Welch on July 25, 2013, during burrow checks, which is conducted by Petit Manan Island field technicians three times during the breeding season. The bird wears a numbered tag that is recorded in the U.S. Geological Survey Bird Banding Laboratory.

An Atlantic puffin breeding on Petit Manan Island is found in a manmade burrow by Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge biologist Linda Welch on July 25, 2013, during burrow checks, which is conducted by Petit Manan Island field technicians three times during the breeding season. The bird wears a numbered tag that is recorded in the U.S. Geological Survey Bird Banding Laboratory.

“We’re concerned that [seabirds] could fly into the turbines, particularly if it’s really foggy,” Welch said. “These birds are already traveling long distances, and if they have to fly around a wind turbine array — some of these they’re proposing are hundreds of turbines — will they have the ability to make the same flights, or will this be too much for them?

“We’re hoping we can find a place that will be good for wind development that will also not be harmful to seabirds.”

Maine seabirds become high tech

Since 2010, Maine biologists have used three types of devices to track the movement of seabirds — geolocators, nanotags and satellite transmitters. Each device has its benefits and downfalls.

A geolocator costs about $180, according to Welch, and records the approximate location of a bird — give or take 110 miles. Its weighs just 1.6 grams and determines the location of a bird based on the length of daylight and the time of sunrise and sunset.

“Geolocators can track migration, but they aren’t very accurate,” Welch said. “They give us a general idea of where the birds are spending time, but it’s not accurate enough for us to identify foraging grounds or a colony they’re visiting.”

A tern chick cries for food on July 25, 2013, while being held by Linda Welch, a biologist for the Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge, on Petit Manan Island. Since 2010, migration and foraging behavior of Maine's breeding terns have been tracked by geotlocators and nanotags.

A tern chick cries for food on July 25, 2013, while being held by Linda Welch, a biologist for the Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge, on Petit Manan Island. Since 2010, migration and foraging behavior of Maine’s breeding terns have been tracked by geotlocators and nanotags.

In 2010, Maine Coastal Islands NWR, in collaboration with the National Audubon Society, deployed 30 geolocators on Arctic terns breeding on Maine’s Metinic Island and Eastern Egg Rock. The following year, they recaptured the terns to recover the data, which is stored inside the devices. The project confirmed that Arctic terns have the longest known annual migration, an average of 55,250 miles. Arctic terns can live for over 30 years, so during their lifetime they may fly an equivalent of 66 times around the Earth or three round trip flights to the moon, according to the USFWS.

Putting a price on wildlife

In 2012, the USFWS biologists in Maine received a federal grant of $94,000 to collect more specific information about seabird flight patterns by using nanotags and satellite transmitters. The grant proposal specified that this information would be used to inform wind power station developers of areas that are important to seabirds such as Maine’s beloved Atlantic puffin.

Satellite transmitters, costing about $3,000 each, provide instant and accurate coordinates of their carriers globally, making them ideal for tracking both migration and foraging behavior.

A razorbill loafs on a Maine's Machias Seal Island in July 2010. Maine is the only state in the U.S. with a breeding colony of razorbills. Maine biologists are tracking 11 of the birds with satellite transmitters during their 2012-13 migration.

A razorbill loafs on a Maine’s Machias Seal Island in July 2010. Maine is the only state in the U.S. with a breeding colony of razorbills. Maine biologists are tracking 11 of the birds with satellite transmitters during their 2012-13 migration.

This summer, Welch is deploying solar-powered satellite transmitters on razorbills, a fairly large black-and-white seabird in the Alcidae family, the same family as the Atlantic puffin. And they bite hard, Welch said.

“It’s the first time this project has ever been attempted,” said Welch. “And we already have 10 [out of 11] tags out.”

Razorbills are listed as a threatened species in Maine, where an estimated 650 pairs currently breed on six islands. Since Maine is the southern limit of the razorbills’ breeding distribution, it is the only state with a breeding population.

“Nobody had attached a tag like this to a razorbill,” Welch said. “One of the amazing feats of razorbills is that they can dive up to 100 meters to find food, and so we were really worried about [the tag] changing the aerodynamic shape of their bodies and influence their ability to find food. So I worked with the developer of the tag to try to make it as small as possible and to kind of curve the front of the tag to try to make it as streamlined as possible. So far, so good.”

Welch began capturing razorbills on Matinicus Rock and Petit Manan Island in June. She uses a simple but effective trap called a noose carpet, handmade with a bait bag, cardboard and monofilament fishing line. She weighs the noose carpet down with bricks at the mouth of a razorbill burrow or along ledges, then sits in a blind to wait for the bird to walk over the trap and its legs to become ensnared in loops of monofilament.

Welch attaches the satellite tag to the skin on the bird’s back with sutures that will dissolve within 12 months.

“Hopefully we’ll learn a lot about this bird — where it goes in the fall, where it spends the winter, when it starts to return to Maine in the spring,” Welch said. “And then hopefully we’ll see it again in its burrow next summer.”

The public can track the tagged razorbills online at www.seaturtle.org/tracking/index.shtml?project_id=881.

Small tags for small birds

One of the chief reasons razorbills were selected for satellite tracking is they’re large enough to carry the transmitters. Other seabirds, such as Atlantic puffins and terns, are too small, and the transmitters would hinder their movement.

For these smaller seabirds, biologists are using nanotags, coded radio tags that work with automatic radio stations.

“It’s a new technology where the receiver automatically scans for them, and you can pick up like 500 tags on one frequency,” Welch said.

Nanotags (about $175 each) have a limited range, making them ideal for collecting data about foraging behavior when birds are nesting in a colony.

As part of a pilot project to test this technology, the refuge tagged 21 incubating seabirds — Arctic terns, common terns and guillemots — on Petit Manan Island. The refuge also established automated receiving stations on Petit Manan Island, Petit Manan Point, Jordan’s Delight and Nash Island. Each station cost about $3,000, Welch said.

So far, biologists have learned a great deal of specific information about seabird foraging behavior from these tags. For example, they learned that one common tern nesting on Petit Manan Island made eight foraging trips to the Jordan’s Delight region in a 10-hour period while feeding two chicks.

Tracking birds the traditional way

In May, four young field technicians stepped onto Petit Manan Island, their home for the next 10 weeks while they conducted research on the island’s nesting seabird colony.

“Petit Manan is historically one of the most important seabird colonies on the coast of Maine,” said Welch.

The treeless, 16-acre island is the breeding grounds for Arctic terns, common terns, roseate terns, Atlantic puffins, razorbills, black guillemots, Leach’s storm petrels, common eiders and laughing gulls; and so far this summer, field technicians have identified 101 bird species that have at least visited the colony.

The island is also the location of Maine’s second tallest lighthouse, which the field technicians climb each morning to count birds from above.

In addition to Petit Manan Island, the refuge employs researchers to live on the Maine islands of Metinic, Eastern Brothers and Ship. And through a partnership, the National Audubon Society’s Project Puffin employs researched on the islands of Matinicus Rock, Seal and Pond.

On each island, they conduct an annual census of all nesting seabird species, monitor what adults feed to their chicks and record how many chicks survive to adulthood. Their presence on the island also helps deter predators.

“A lot of our monitoring we really try to be hands off and unobtrusive. We try to do mostly observation in silence, far away, through spotting scopes or binoculars,” said Christa DeRaspe, a field technician who has worked two seasons on the island.

However, on three special days each summer, the field technicians visit the nests and burrows, first to count eggs, then later in the season to secure leg bands on chicks and gather information hands on.

“It’s kind of the pinnacle of the whole field season,” said DeRaspe. “This is one of the rare days when we really get to dive in and get our hands dirty and actually be able to handle the birds.”

A unique number on each band gets recorded at the U.S. Geological Survey Bird Banding Laboratory.

“So if that bird is ever observed anywhere, people will know where it was banded and when it was banded — how old it is,” Welch said.

DeRaspe says that the field technicians call the chick-banding day “Christmas.” So this year on Petit Manan Island, Christmas landed on July 25.

Mapping out the future for seabirds

Today, when field technicians climb to the top of Petit Manan Lighthouse to observe the colony below, they have to duck under wires and maneuver around antennas and solar panels.

“It kind of ruins the view, but it’s important,” said Welch.

The historic lighthouse now doubles as a nanotag station, recording every tagged bird that flies by.

Eventually, the information gathered by these stations and satellite transmitters will be used to develop foraging habitat maps for seabirds, which will be used to guide wind turbine development away from areas that are important to seabirds.

This year, 11 razorbills will contribute to the project as they carry satellite transmitters during their migration.

“We’re hopeful we can get that last tag out next week,” said Welch. “And then we can monitor the birds through the rest of the summer, and hopefully for the next 12 months as they migrate to their wintering grounds and then come back to Maine, the breeding colony, next summer.”

Source: Bangordailynews.com

 

Puffin protection hopes for native red fescue grass

A puffin carries off sand eels. The natural return of native red fescue grass on Craigleith Island is tackling tree mallow. Picture: Jane Barlow

A puffin carries off sand eels. The natural return of native red fescue grass on Craigleith Island is tackling tree mallow. Picture: Jane Barlow

FOR years armies of volunteers have battled a prolific alien plant which threatens the survival of one of Scotland’s best-loved birds.

But now scientists believe they may have found a far easier and permanent way of stopping tree mallow from blocking the nesting burrows of puffins than endlessly ­cutting it back.

A breakthrough study has found that a gradual natural return of native red fescue grass on Craigleith Island in the Firth of Forth is significantly breaking down mallow seeds, preventing the growth of new plants.

Researchers at the University of Aberdeen now plan to conduct trials to find out whether deliberately sowing more native grass will speed up its return and could eradicate the tree mallow altogether on Craigleith and nearby ­Fidra.

Conservationists hope that the discovery will help to protect puffin colonies in the Forth, as well as saving millions of pounds around the world currently spent on programmes to combat a host of invasive plant species.

Dr René van der Wal, an ecologist at the Aberdeen University’s Centre for Environmental Sustainability, who led the research, said: “Millions of pounds are poured into invasive plant species control and it’s always from cutting or spraying without looking in any great detail at what is ­happening.

“The spirit of many programmes dealing with invasives has been to get the [previous native] vegetation back but [what has not been realised is] that in itself starts to break down the seed bank of mallow.

“On Craigleith the problem is that we could continue indefinitely [to cut down the mallow] because there are hundreds of thousands of seeds per square metre which you are battling against.

“We have found that the ­native grass has started to come back naturally and that is changing the soil composition and breaking down the mallow seeds, which are decomposed by fungi and bacteria. We had not known before that that was so effective.”

Van der Wal said native grasses were reviving naturally but very slowly, over decades. “Half the island is already in a good state because the native grasses have grown back but the other half has been influenced so badly by mallow that there is almost no other vegetation. We want to do trials to see if sowing seeds of red fescue can replicate that effect to see if it is worth planting native grasses [to eradicate mallow altogether].”

Tree mallow is a Mediterranean-Atlantic herb which is thought to have reached the Scottish islands from gardens on the mainland.

It can grow up to three metres tall and forms dense stands which force puffins to abandon areas where it has invaded because they cannot get into their ground burrows.

Between 1999 and 2006 numbers of the seabirds on Craigleith island plummeted from 28,000 pairs to just a few thousand as the plant took over the ground.

In 2007, organisations including Aberden University and the Scottish Seabird Centre at North Berwick used a £250,000 landfill tax funding award to establish a five-year project called SOS Puffin, recruiting hundreds of volunteers to cut down the plant so the birds could return to breed.

Results were swift, with tree mallow cover back down to 28 per cent later that year and 96 per cent of burrows re-occupied by puffins, compared to 30 per cent in areas where tree mallow had been left to grow.

But the prolific nature of the plant, which produces 4,000 viable seeds per square metre of ground, meant that the task was an endless one. Groups of around ten volunteers go out between 15 and 35 times a year to repeat the job, which costs £2,000 to £3,000 annually in equipment and training.

Scottish Natural Heritage, which has funded the Aberdeen University research, said a better solution would make a big difference to the conservation effort.

Michael Thornton, SNH operations officer for East Lothian, said: “It’s important to try to make significant inroads into removing invasive plants because we have internationally important populations of breeding seabirds in the Forth, especially ground nesting birds.”

However, he added: “We still don’t know how long it could take to eradicate tree mallow fully.”

Scottish Seabird Centre trustee John Hunt, who co-ordinates the SOS Puffin project, gave the study a more cautious welcome. He said: “It would be a bit premature to say it will work. We’re happy to accept that it would be worth a trial but there is a question mark as to whether sowing native grass seed will eradicate mallow.”

source: scotsman.com

Number of puffins remains the same despite weather

The number of puffins in the North Sea has stayed the same despite the death of thousands of birds due to severe weather at the start of spring.

In March around 3,500 puffins, including breeding adults, were found dead along the coast of eastern Scotland and north-east England.

The puffin population of the North Sea coast has remained constant despite the death of thousands of the birds Credit: Anna Gowthorpe/PA Wire

The puffin population of the North Sea coast has remained constant despite the death of thousands of the birds Credit: Anna Gowthorpe/PA Wire

But a count of the birds, funded by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), found that their numbers were similar to levels recorded in 2009.

The Isle of May National Nature Reserve, on the edge of the Firth of Forth is home to the largest colony of puffins in the North Sea area and is a UK hub of research into puffins.

Researcher Mike Harris, from the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, said: “This March’s wreck has clearly had a serious effect on the puffins on the Isle of May but, perhaps surprisingly, numbers are very similar to the last count which took place in 2009.

“Our general impression over the last few years was that the population was increasing slowly and this may explain why we have not seen a decline following the recent wreck.”

source: itv.com

Conservationists to count breeding birds after ‘puffin wreck’ winter

Rangers aim to discover whether numbers have plummeted after a year of extreme weather in which 3,500 birds washed up dead.

Puffins on the Farne Islands as the 2013 National Trust puffin census gets underway. Photograph: Anna Gowthorpe/PA

Puffins on the Farne Islands as the 2013 National Trust puffin census gets underway. Photograph: Anna Gowthorpe/PA

Nipped fingers and handfuls of guano will be the order of the day forwildlife rangers on the Farne Islands as they embark on an epic census on Friday to discover whether puffin numbers have plummeted after a year of extreme weather.

The 10 National Trust rangers living on the islands must dangle their bare fingers down 60,000 puffin burrows in the next two months to determine whether breeding pairs have fallen after the worst puffin “wreck” for 66 years.

The wreck in March, which saw 3,500 birds wash up dead along the north-east coast of Britain, was caused by icy easterly winds. It followed a summer when the puffins on the archipelago off Northumberland were flooded out of their underground homes, with more than 40% failing to breed.

“We’re very concerned,” said David Steel, head ranger on the Farne Islands. “We were very optimistic until last summer [2012] when we had a very wet summer and breeding success was poor. Then in March [2013] we’ve had this other extreme weather that actually killed quite a lot of puffins.”

In March, 3,500 dead puffins washed up along the north-east coast of Britain. Photograph: Mark Newell/Centre for Ecology & Hydrology

In March, 3,500 dead puffins washed up along the north-east coast of Britain. Photograph: Mark Newell/Centre for Ecology & Hydrology

The census occurs every five years and since it began in 1939, puffin numbers on the Farnes have soared from 3,000 breeding pairs to 36,835 pairs in 2008. But that figure was a 30% fall from the high of 2003, raising fears that the extreme weather and warmer seas brought about by climate change may be affecting the puffins.

The birds spend winter floating on the North Sea, and feed by diving for sand eels. But in stormy weather the water becomes too turbid to detect their prey. Warmer sea temperatures may also be driving the sand eels further north.

But puffins are resilient, long-lived birds – the oldest Farne resident is 32 years old – and Steel said that last year may not be as disastrous as it first appears. The “wreck” killed the old, sick and young but wardens have reported good numbers returning for the breeding season.

Puffins have flourished on the Farnes thanks to the National Trust’s careful management of the 40,000 visitors who take boat trips to the islands each year – and the absence of ground predators. There are no foxes or rats, although wardens are monitoring this carefully after a ship ran aground on the islands in March.

Counting puffins is undertaken by carefully reaching into each burrow with a bare hand. Photograph: Anna Gowthorpe/PA

Counting puffins is undertaken by carefully reaching into each burrow with a bare hand. Photograph: Anna Gowthorpe/PA

Counting puffins is undertaken by carefully reaching into each burrow with a bare hand so that rangers can gently detect the presence of monogamous pairs and whether they are sitting on an egg.

“I’ve got a really enthusiastic team here and for the first couple of weeks they are going to love doing the census,” said Steel, a veteran of three puffin counts. “But after a while, they may be sick of it. The amount of bites and scars they are going to have will be interesting.”

source: guardian.co.uk

Hundreds of dead puffins have washed up on east coast beaches

Puffin wreck: The birds are thought to have become exhausted and been unable to find enough food to survive.

Puffin wreck: The birds are thought to have become exhausted and been unable to find enough food to survive.

Hundreds of puffins washed up on the east coast of the UK are likely to have died of starvation as a result of the recent severe weather.

RSPB Scotland said it has taken numerous calls from members of the public about the birds, found on beaches stretching from Aberdeen and Angus down to Northumberland.

It is the worst puffin “wreck” — the death of a large number of seabirds in a single incident — in almost 50 years, the conservation charity said.

Many razorbills and guillemots have also perished, prompting fears about the upcoming seabird breeding season.

Dr Barnaby Smith, from the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology which is part of the Natural Environment Research Council, said the birds may have been using up all their resources just fighting against the unseasonably cold temperatures and strong easterly winds.

This means they would have become exhausted and unable to find enough food to survive.

A RSPB Scotland spokeswoman said: “This may be the worst puffin wreck we have seen for almost half a century.

“Despite their small stature puffins are fairly hardy birds, adept at coping with the harsh conditions of life at sea. To hear that so many have been discovered dead is unusual and worrying.

“We are in close contact with experts from the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology to learn more about what is happening but it appears that the prolonged and unprecedented weather is making life extremely difficult for this species.

“We are fast approaching the start of the seabird breeding season where tens of thousands of seabirds return to their colonies to raise their young. The recent events could have an impact on the success of this year’s puffin breeding season, a species already suffering population declines.

“RSPB Scotland, with the help of volunteers, will be closely monitoring the fortunes of this species and many other seabirds throughout the summer months.”

Professor Mike Harris, also from the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, has been keeping an online blog detailing the events.

“There is currently a major wreck under way which is the largest in the North Sea for at least 60 years.

“This was first noticed at the end of last week by people who regularly check the beaches of north-east England for dead birds. Then over the weekend reports started to come in of dead and dying puffins in beaches all the way north to Aberdeenshire.

“Most birds were emaciated and had obviously died of starvation.

“To date, I have heard of maybe 400 dead puffins and there will undoubtedly be many more, perhaps thousands, and this compares with just a handful over a whole typical winter. This will certainly be the largest wreck of puffins in the North Sea for over 60 years.”

source: news.stv.tv