Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Project Puffin 7: Razorbill feeding study

Earlier this summer, aquarists Austin Brayton and Jackie Anderson camped on a remote island in Maine to assist with Project Puffin, an Audubon Society project designed to restore populations of these clownish little seabirds. In this post, Austin introduces us to other seabirds (besides puffins)  also studied with Project Puffin on Seal Island.

June 24, 2014 
Matinicus Rock, Razorbill feeding study

Today I got to do my razorbill feeding study. The razorbills on this island all nest in the same vicinity, on the furthest point away from our living quarters. They are also really flighty, and are very easily scared off and away from their nests by any human activity near them. Anytime we have to do any work in their colony, we limit our time there to just 2 hours, that way they are not away from their nests for too long.

Our feeding studies however, where we watch them and note what food items they are returning with and how large each food item is, last for 3 hours. Our solution to this problem is to creep into the colony under the cover of darkness and be situated in the blind before the birds get up and start moving about and fishing. This morning myself and island supervisor Frank Mayer left the lighthouse at 3:35 am to set up in our respective blinds. It was really awesome to see it gradually get light out and see the birds beginning to become active and finally flying in and landing on the rocks with bill loads of fish. Sometimes they had four or five fish at a time!

Aspen Ellis measures the wing cord on a large razorbill chick

A smaller razorbill chick hitches a ride to the measuring station in Jackie's shirt

For this study, we were watching them with binoculars to identify what species of fish they were returning with and estimating the size of the fish based on how long it was relative to the birds beak, for example 1.5 bill lengths. For this study I was really glad to have my aquarium expertise behind me, as I was able to tell the difference between herring, hake, sand lance and Pollack through binoculars as it flew by me in a birds beak (although it does look slightly different swimming around in my tanks).

One problem that I did have is I got so excited when I saw my first Razorbill return with food that I dropped my pencil and it rolled out of the blind. I pawed around trying to reach it through the floor of the blind, but it rolled off the rock and out of reach. I could not risk scaring the birds off to get it so I dug through my backpack and the only writing utensil I could find was a blue sharpie that I had used the day before for marking tern chicks. I had to laugh at myself writing feeding data down with a large marker in a tiny notebook in the wee hours of the morning. At 8 am, the rest of the team joined us in the colony for a razorbill and puffin productivity study. We are starting to see more and more chicks and we are taking weights and measurements on chicks that are easily reachable.

Tern chick in the middle begging its parents for food just after my feeding study

I even caught this awesome video of a razorbill chick in the process of hatching. The hatching process takes them a long time to complete and we watched for less than 2 minutes before leaving so that the parents could come back.


In the afternoon I went out to the common tern colony, to do a feeding study on the terns in my study plot.


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