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.