Friday, December 25, 2009

Nesting Shearwaters

Dr. Rob Ronconi has returned from just over three months on two nesting islands for shearwaters and other pelagic seabirds in the South Atlantic (Tristan da Cunha island group including Gough and Inaccessible Islands). Pelagic seabirds are those that live on the ocean except when nesting. The greater shearwaters that come to the Bay of Fundy each year are some of the birds that make these islands their home.

This rare opportunity allowed Rob to experience many species of seabirds including albatrosses, petrels and shearwaters while helping with research programs, including removing alien plant and mammal species that have been introduced.

While there he also put on more satellite transmitters (22 in total). You can track these birds on the website ( There is also a more detailed account of the project on this webpage. I'm looking forward to Rob's stories - I'm sure there will be many about the work he was doing.

Lobster Egg Collection

Drs. Heather Koopman and Andrew Westgate and their two dogs and one cat arrived at the research station for two weeks in December, Dec. 7-21. This is the second December they have been on Grand Manan, having experienced most months on the island with the exception of the coldest winter months.

Heather has been monitoring lobster egg production and viability in female lobsters of all sizes. This means she has to go out on lobster boats and when a berried female (a female carrying eggs on the underside of her tail) comes up in a trap, Heather measures and collects a few eggs for lab analysis of lipids or fats. The amount of lipid in an egg gives an indication of the fitness of the female, more lipid also means the egg has a better chance at survival because of more stored energy available to it during development. The berried female is carefully returned to the water with a notch on her tail, indicating if she is caught again, after releasing her eggs, that she was a berried female and will be released. The notch stays in the tail for several moults before growing back in. The reproductive cycle in lobsters is long - two years.

Heather put in some long days, often leaving the wharf at 4 AM and one day, not getting back until midnight. These are hours that lobster fishing often put in, 14+ hour days are not unusual. While there are more berried females in June in the traps, the December samples are important to the overall trends. She was pleasantly surprised by a large blue lobster, a rare colour in lobsters.

For a comical look at inshore lobster fishing (and also what a berried female lobster looks like), check out or and look for the segment "Rick and Lobster Fishing".

Christmas Bird Count

On December 20 I again participated in the Christmas Bird Count for Grand Manan Island. I have a relatively easy route that takes in the shoreline from south of Seal Cove to Southern Head. The woods were very quiet but the shoreline was busy with one flock of common eiders numbering above 500 birds. There may have been more but unfortunately a raging snow storm started mid day, preventing much observation in the afternoon.

There has been an abundance of small herring or brit around the island this year and Seal Cove Sound and Southern Head were certainly showing signs by the bird activity. In fact I saw two different birds each bring a small herring to the surface. Another good indicator were three harbour porpoises working back and forth in an area just off Southern Head.

I saw 24 different species of birds, totalling more than 1200 individuals with only 3 species being "land birds", ravens, black-capped chickadees and a peregrine falcon. The rest were on or above the ocean, including five species of alcids (dovekies, black guillemots, razorbills, common murres and thick-billed murres). The only alcid missing were puffins and if I had been able to spend more time at Southern Head, would no doubt have seen a puffin as well. I also had five species of gulls (herring, greater black-backed, black-legged kittiwakes, Bonapartes and Iceland), common loons, red-breasted mergansers, red-necked grebes, buffleheads, long-tailed ducks, mallards, American black duck, common eiders, black and surf scoters and northern gannet.

During count week, there were also 44 Canada geese migrating south and a sharp-shinned hawk in my neighbourhood.

The Christmas Bird Count has become an important indicator of population trends and is an amazing organizational feat. Even if you aren't an experienced birder, it is a great way to try to improve your birding skills, particularly if you can be paired with someone with more experience.

Herring Gulls to the Chesapeake

In July (2009), three nesting herring gulls on Kent Island, just south of Grand Manan Island and the field station for Bowdoin College (Maine), were fitted with satellite transmitters. One gull headed to the Chesapeake immediately after a failed nesting attempt while the other two remained in the area, one spending many months in Maine and the other in Nova Scotia. In December these two gulls started migrating and are now also in the Chesapeake area. You can follow the movements of these birds on the website ( The tags, if they stay on, will operate from two to three years and should provide valuable insight into a species of birds we often take for granted.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Dead fin whale

Here are some photos of a dead fin whale from Lameque, NB

Saturday, July 18, 2009

House begins to fill up

For the last month, the research station has been relatively quiet with the museum and gift shop open. This week we have had five people arrive and begin work on various projects. On July 15 zooplankton samples were collected from the Grand Manan Basin with bongo nets, a pair of nets towed from our research vessel, Phocoena, attached side-by-side resembling bongo drums. Three right whales were seen on this trip but were not relocated later in the day.

Much of the work this week is sorting and organizing equipment. Tonight (July 18) two people will be going to Kent Island and the Bowdoin Scientific Station, to see if a project analyzing food brought back to chicks by Leach's storm petrels is viable. Leach's storm petrels are small seabirds that nest in burrows and feed on zooplankton and marine oils on the ocean surface. The goal of the project is to analyze what the petrels are eating and assess any toxins present in the food.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Spring Research

We have four of our researchers here at the moment. Heather Koopman and Andrew Westgate (and Arran, Skye and Nevis) are on Grand Manan for a couple of weeks to sample lobster eggs from berried females, arriving May 21. Berried females are individuals who are brooding their eggs externally on the underside of their tail. Heather is looking at energy content of the eggs and comparing this to the various sizes of the females to determine if there are particular size ranges where energy stores are better than others. Heather goes out lobster fishing with local fishermen to measure the size of the females and to collect small samples of eggs from different sized females. Heather is also sampling at different times of the year, her last sampling period was in December.

Heather and Andrew are offshore today in our research boat, "Phocoena", collecting zooplankton as part of monitoring zooplankton in the Grand Manan Basin. This monitoring was re-initiated in 2006 after a long lapse when Zach Swaim began his Master's thesis looking at lipids or fats in right whale faeces and comparing these to what is found in their favourite prey, calanoid copepods, a small zooplankton that can occur in huge concentrations, attracting filter feeders such as right whales, herring and basking sharks. Zach's research discovered that right whales can metabolize or break down waxes found in the copepods. Most mammals are not capable of this although the mechanism in right whale digestion that breaks down waxes into a usable energy source is not known at this time.

Heather's Masters student Caitlin McKinstry, began a study of basking sharks last summer, successfully attaching a data logger to one basking shark which recorded dive patterns. She will be returning this summer to try to tag additional sharks and will be interested in looking at zooplankton concentrations as well. An interesting study of satellite tracked basking sharks was recently aired on CBC radio:

"The basking shark is the world's second largest fish, and during summers, it lives a peaceful life sifting plankton from temperate ocean waters. It leads a mysterious double life, however, as during the winter, it simply disappears. Dr. Greg Skomal, a marine biologist with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries in Oak Bluffs on Martha's Vineyard, used special tags to track the sharks' movements during the winter. He discovered that these huge animals were sneaking off for southern vacations, travelling thousands of kilometers to tropical waters in which they'd never been seen before. He suspects these trips are to the secret nursery where the basking sharks bear and raise their young."

Rob Ronconi and Sarah Wong arrived on Monday, May 25 and immediately headed for Kent Island and the Bowdoin Research Station. Rob is working on a comparative study in habitat use of greater shearwaters and herring gulls to confirm feeding "hot spots" in the Bay of Fundy for seabirds. He hopes to attach solar powered satellite tags to three herrring gulls that may operate for more than a year. Herring gulls are nesting this time of year and it is easier to catch the gulls on their nesting islands than at sea.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Research in May

It won't be long before we have some of our researchers return for two projects. While most people will be arriving in July, Dr. Rob Ronconi and Sarah Wong will be arriving the last week of May to go to Kent Island for the week to begin a study of herring gulls. Herring gulls are very difficult to catch at sea but Rob and Sarah will be trying to obtain samples (small bits of feather and blood) from herring gulls that are beginning to nest on Kent Island. The birds will be temporarily restrained, the samples taken and released as quickly as possible to minimize the stress to the birds and disturbance to nesting. This project is part of Rob's continuing study of diet in seabirds. Satellite telemetry tags will also be attached to some of the gulls to determine what areas they are utilizing in the Bay and will be compared to areas used by sooty and greater shearwaters. These feeding "hot spots" are important to define as a recognition of potential areas that need protection from such damaging events such as oil spills. In all likelihood these are also important areas for marine mammals.

Kent Island is the field station for Bowdoin College in Bowdoin, ME. The island was purchased by Stirling Rockefeller and donated to the college. Their main focus is nesting seabirds (Leach's Storm Petrels, Common Eiders, etc.) but also study fog and nesting land birds. Bowdoin College also now owns two other islands in the Three Island group. Sheep Island has a small nesting colony of common terns that we helped for a number of years until circumstances prevented us from continuing. The colony was very busy last year and we hope that it will continue.

Dr. Heather Koopman and Dr. Andrew Westgate will also be arriving the last week of May for about a week. Heather has a project looking at lipid (fat) content in lobster eggs and she goes out lobster fishing with some of the local lobster fishermen to obtain the necessary samples for analysis. The more fat in an egg, the better chance of survival of the egg.

We will be opening our Gaskin Museum of Marine Life toward the end of May, beginning of June.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Satellite tag returned

Since 2006, one of our researchers, Rob Ronconi, has been heading up a research project tracking greater and sooty shearwaters. The migrations these bird undertake is phenomenal but not out of character for a number of widely roaming seabirds.

The small satellite transmitters are placed on the bird's back and are expected to fall off eventually when the bird moults. We, therefore, need to consider them disposable. However, this fall, one of satellite transmitters ended up in a small port in Brazil. It was on a bird that had been named Lavarello, a family name from Tristan da Cunha where greater shearwaters nest. We are not fully aware of all of the circumstances but it is suspected that the shearwater was caught in fishing gear and the transmitter was brought back to port by the fisherman, still transmitting its signal.

The tag has been located and we are hoping to have it shipped back to us. For a look at the tracks the birds took, go to The tracks for 2008, 2007 and 2006 are available. For the latter years you will need to look in the archives. The tracks from 2006 and 2008 were very different with some of the greater shearwaters travelling from the Bay of Fundy to South Africa and back to Tristan da Cunha. The two sooty shearwater tracks follow the coast of Europe and Africa in 2008. In 2007, the sooty shearwater tags did not work for long so data were limited for that year but unlike greater shearwaters, sooty shearwaters seem to fly to Europe before heading south, while greaters head across to Africa, back to South America and then back across the South Atlantic. There are many variations of this flight path, probably related to weather systems.

Rob plans to continue work this summer, including herring gulls. While herring gulls are not long migrators, their movements in the Bay of Fundy can be used to track surface feeding aggregations.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Winter activities

The GMWSRS operates year round but our facility in North Head, Grand Manan is seasonally used. I live on Grand Manan full time but my office is in my house. In most years, the Gaskin Museum of Marine Life opens around the beginning of June and closes on Thanksgiving in October. Our researchers are often not here until July and stay into September and occasionally October. The house is not insulated and only portable electric heaters provide any heat so it is not the warmest place in the winter.
Last year, the regular field season ran from July to mid-Sept., however, Dr. Koopman (Heather) and Dr. Westgate (Andrew), Skye, Arran and Nevis (their two dogs and a cat) spent ten days in the house in December while Heather was collecting lobster egg samples for lipid (fat) analysis in a pilot project she started to assess the fitness of female lobsters as measured by the amount of fat they deposit in their eggs. The egg cycle in lobsters is a two-year process with eggs carried internally for about a year and then externally on the tail for another year. The more fat in each egg, the more resources the larvae have during their development.
The earliest the house has been used by researchers was in 2001 when Dr. Ronconi (Rob) and Sarah Wong arrived to conduct nesting seabird surveys on the outer islands in the Grand Manan archipelago in April. They were greeted by a snow storm! Fortunately the snow didn't last.
While the house is small, it has a great kitchen where incredible meals are prepared. The bedrooms are also small and you can expect to be sharing. The living room and another room have been taken over as our public space where our museum and gift shop are located. The water supply has always been difficult, at first a dug well and now a drilled well, but is manageable if everyone is careful with their water use. Grand Manan does not have a municipal water supply and everyone relies on their own well for water.
We are located directly across from the ferry ticket office and are often the last stop for many visitors to the island. Many people lament that they would have stayed longer in our museum but had left it to the last before catching the ferry off the island.
Our researchers volunteer their time during the field season. To do this, they are either employed elsewhere or are graduate students. We also offer a couple of positions for interns or research assistants. We feel it is important to offer opportunities to up and coming marine biologists who may not have had the chance to work in the field. We provide as much training as necessary and take applications each year until the middle of March.
We are looking forward to an exciting summer with a number of continuing projects but at the moment everyone all our staff are elsewhere and busy with data analysis, teaching, etc., with the exception of myself. I am finishing a stewardship project where myself and two others have been going to local schools, fishing groups and other local community groups to present material about disentangling whales from fishing gear. I am also in charge of the right whale adoption program and send out packages to those wanting to support our work by symbolically adopting one or more right whales. You can check out our adoption website for more information: I am also in charge of stocking our gift shop and have found some great new items for the summer.
Having lived on Grand Manan for many years now, it is interesting to see how many seabirds, seals and whales are here year round but of course the biggest challenge is the weather during the winter and observations are often limited to shore or from the ferry.