Thursday, November 18, 2010

Update From The Field: Goblins, Tubenoses and Chicks

New England Aquarium Senior Penguin Biologist Caitlin Hume is working with Project Puffin on Matinicus Rock, a tiny island 20 miles off the coast of Maine. The project teams conduct puffin population censuses, feeding studies and band chicks in order to recognize them when they return to the island as adults.

During my time on Matinicus Rock I was lucky to be on the island during one of the three Leach's storm petrel burrow checks of the season. The storm petrels had already become a fast favorite of mine due to the purring and goblin like cackling noises that they make as they leave their burrows for the night.

You won't see much in this video, it was taken in the dark of the night after all. But listen carefully!

Storm petrels are the smallest of all the seabirds, only about 8 inches long from bill to tail. They are nocturnal during the summer breeding months, only leaving their burrows at night to hunt for fish.

Adult Leach's storm petrel

They dig burrows deep underground where they lay a single egg, and the Project Puffin researchers go into those burrows three times a season to check on the contents. Earlier in the season island supervisors, Nathan and Caroline, had marked burrows with numbered popsicle sticks in a plot about 30 feet by 15 feet on the west side of the island.

Getting to the burrows is yet another challenge of the island. Hundreds of storm petrel burrows are crowded into the few areas of sod on the island, so just getting to a burrow you are trying to check involves stepping very lightly and distributing your weight to avoid collapsing any of the number of burrows in the ground below. Once you have sufficiently straddled all the neighboring burrows and located the burrow you are going to check, you stick your hand into the narrow, tunnel like burrow and contort your body to follow the curves in the tunnel until your whole arm is underground all the way up to your shoulder!

Checking a storm petrel burrow
Photo credit: David Vonk/Caroline Poli

You know you've reached the main chamber when you feel the small twigs and grasses used for nesting material. If there is an adult in the chamber you will feel their soft feathers or a little nip of disapproval, and if you are really lucky you will find one of the most ridiculously cute chicks in all of the bird world!

Leach's storm petrel chick

After two days work, we had checked over a hundred storm petrel burrows. Unbanded adults and chicks big enough to wear a band were banded so that they can be recognized when they return to the islands in the years to come. Equal parts uncomfortable and exhilarating, storm petrel grubbing was definitely one of the overall highlights of my stay on the island!

More updates from Matinicus Rock ahead, with puffins - I promise!

Facebook Comments


Post a Comment