Farewell to Kent Island

Kent Island dock at sunset (photo by Raquel Perdigao)

Kent Island dock at sunset (photo by Raquel Perdigao)

After a few days of cleaning up our study sites, (which involved hauling forty buckets full of snails out of the mud and carting artificial guillemot burrows made out of PVC halfway across the island) we said farewell to Kent Island, the place that had taught us so much during our eight week stay. Mark Murray has seen many groups of students come and go in his 26 years as caretaker, and remarked that being on the island is a transformative experience. The majority of students who do summer research never return, but the lessons that they learn about science and about their own capabilities last them their lifetimes.

All of the scientists who took me out into the field with them set out to do projects that they had proposed long before coming to the island, and I watched their questions and methods progress as they learned about their study species and the environment. They adapted to inaccessible study sites, bad weather, elusive (or absent) study species, and inconclusive data. In the face of difficulty, relying on your own resourcefulness is important, but so is tapping into the knowledge of the community. Everyone took advantage of Mark’s engineering marvels, the biology expertise of the faculty scientists, and each other’s wisdom and generous help. I never could have written my blog without the research and editing advice of my peers, who kept me faithful to the science that is at the core of my project.

I also never could have written my blog without my readers, who kept me motivated to keep discovering new things about Kent Island. I have tried to convey my experience of the complex beauty of the island, its wildlife, and its people through stories about science. Kent Island taught me the immense power of observation, the first step to asking better questions. In the words of Tinbergen, research does not often end in conclusions, but in “sharper formulation of the problems.” I hope that you have enjoyed my writing, and that you continue to be curious about the science behind the world around you, because, as I discovered this summer, the rewards are many.

The rewards of science: banding baby Tree Swallows, the rewards of  photo by Raquel Perdigao

The rewards of science: banding baby Tree Swallows
(photo by Raquel Perdigao)

Christine Walder’s Triumphant Return

Christine Walder, who is continuing a project on the effects of rockweed harvesting from last summer, recently returned from a hiatus at the Bowdoin Coastal Studies Center, where she set up study sites to add a comparative component to her research. She used the same methods at the Coastal Studies Center as on Kent Island, so that she can see if there is geographic variation in ecosystemic reactions to rockweed harvesting. The Coastal Studies Center is considerably farther south than Kent Island, and is at the edge of rockweed’s range. Christine noticed that the rockweed at the CSC was shorter and higher density than on Kent Island, and supported a lower diversity of seaweeds. The animal diversity is very similar in both places, with the exception of the Asian Shore Crab, an invasive species introduced to New England by aquaculture boats. Christine set up twenty paired rockweed plots, each with an experimental plot in which she cut the rockweed to 16,’’ the harvest limit, and with an uncut control plot. These methods are the same ones that she uses on Kent Island, so that she can compare the two study sites to see if there is geographic variation in ecosystem responses to rockweed harvesting. Unlike Kent Island, where she is surrounded by her study sites and can walk to them in minutes, at Bowdoin she had to bike an hour to the Coastal Studies Center or drive for twenty minutes. When I asked her what it was like to be on campus after working on Kent Island for two weeks, she replied, “Lonely. Most other undergraduate scientists were working in labs, conducting someone else’s research, but on Kent Island you’re doing your own fieldwork and answering your own questions.” One of the best things about Kent Island is the freedom to pursue what interests you, though that comes with the caveat of having to figure things out on your own, and dealing with frustrations when projects go wrong.

I missed Christine, who is always up for a dip in the freezing ocean or a romp in the intertidal to look for nudibranchs, and was happy when she returned for our last two weeks on Kent Island to check up on her plots. From her own observation, she has found much fewer of the animals she surveys in her harvested plots than in the control plots, but not every difference is statistically significant, meaning there is a 95% chance that there is a difference. “My data’s not very sexy,” she lamented, pointing out that it showed trends but few significant differences between control and experimental plots. Her first look at her data doesn’t mean that the significant differences aren’t there, however. When she separates out her results by tidal height and substrate type, both of which have a large effect on ecology, the differences in species abundance between harvested and unharvested plots may become clearer. One important significant difference that she did see is a decrease in amphipods and isopods, small crustaceans that look like bugs, in her experimental plots. They are at the base of many food webs, including those of fish, crabs, and birds, and are therefore extremely ecologically important.

Ecology is complicated because everything is interdependent, and cause and effect can be difficult to untangle. Christine found an increase in large periwinkles in the beginning of the summer, most likely because of a sea lettuce bloom that the snails feasted on. The snail numbers have since declined as fucus, another algal type, has taken advantage of the increased light after the removal of the rockweed canopy. Season also matters, and she may have seen a decrease in anemones this year and not last year because she cut the rockweed a week earlier, which may have been during a critical time for juvenile settlement. While overall trends are similar, the extent to which they are significant varies from from year to year, such as a decrease in small periwinkles in her experimental plots that was greater this year than last year. It is clear from her data, however, that rockweed harvesting has lasting effects, not only on the biomass of the algae but also on the species that it supports. Most studies on Rockweed have been done within a small range, so Christine’s study is valuable because there are management implications if different places vary in their response to harvest.

Christine’s plots on Kent Island and at the Coastal Studies Center will be converted into long-term study sites, so that future scientists can further isolate the effects of rockweed harvesting. Setting up over forty plots, harvesting, drying and weighing the rockweed, and surveying the species in each plot was an enormous amount of work, and Christine uncomplainingly got up at four in the morning if the timing of low tide necessitated it. During her two summers on Kent Island, Christine has cut and hauled 3,000 pounds of wet rockweed, has counted over 18,000 snails, and once baked ten loaves of bread that we consumed in two days. In the fall, she will begin analyzing her data, paving the way for future rockweed researchers, who have a lot to live up to.


Whale Watching on the Island Bound

Humpback Whale Fluking (imagehttp://fundywhale.blogspot.ca/2009/08/traweling-for-bay-of-fundy-whales-from.html)

Humpback Whale Fluking

Saturday was yet another adventure on the Island Bound, this time to see whales feeding in the Bay of Fundy. With the addition of benches and railings, Russell’s boat was transformed from the lobster boat of a few weeks before. In the lobstering off-season, Russell runs a charter tour business, making excellent use of his knowledge of the Bay of Fundy and its wildlife. It was a luxury to be able to follow the whales with only our group and a guide knowledgeable about both marine and bird life.

As we departed from Kent Island in the afternoon, we passed the dead Humpback, named Harmonic, which had washed up on Sheep Island in November and had frozen over the winter and spring. As fascinating as seeing Harmonic had been, I was excited to add live humpback whales to my list. Our trip also became a birding tour, like all of our boat rides in the Bay of Fundy, as we spotted sea-birds foraging on the water. Especially exciting were the shearwaters, of which we saw three species, including my favorite, the Sooty Shearwater, named for its soot-colored plumage. They, like Petrels, are procellariiforms, an order of pelagic birds that breed on islands and spend the rest of their lives on the sea. Procellariiforms all have a distinctive tube-nose above their beaks that allows them to excrete excess salt from the sea water that they drink. The shearwaters’ long, thin wings allow them to coast on air currents, including the updraft created by waves. Russell threw bits of chum (chunks of dead fish) at them so that they would come close to the boat, but Herring Gulls came out of nowhere, as they always do when food appears, following the boat’s wake and diving down in mobs to squabble over the fish. The Shearwaters, unafraid, dove right in with the gulls, squeaking loudly and running on the water on spindly legs to take off once that they had eaten their fill.

Greater Shearwater landing on the water to forage for herring

Greater Shearwater landing on the water to forage for herring (photo by Jackson Bloch)

We also spotted Wilson’s Storm Petrels, tiny procellariiforms that skim the waves, cousins of the Leach’s Storm Petrels that Sarah and Liam study on Kent Island. The oddest bird we saw was a Northern Fulmar, a white bird that looked like a cross between a petrel and a gull, with a strange, blunt head. It was beautiful to watch in flight, as it beat its wings rapidly before gliding down over the waves in a graceful arc. Also on our list of sightings were the Northern Gannet, the Red-necked Phalarope, and the Jaeger, all of which gather in the Bay of Fundy in the summer to dive for fish or to feed on the marine invertebrates on the surface of the water.

This area is also the summertime feeding ground of Right Whales, Minke Whales, and Humpbacks. I had never been on a whale-watch before, but thankfully Janet and Damon Gannon are whale experts, and several of the other students were also experienced at spotting them. Every dark wave crest was a phantom whale until I finally saw the slick dorsal fin of a Minke Whale and knew what to look for. Minke Whales are the smallest of the baleen whales; small being a relative term because the one we saw was almost thirty feet long. They are extremely streamlined, and have distinctive white streaks on their flippers. We saw the Humpbacks, which I was most looking forward to, when we reached the middle of the Bay of Fundy, with Grand Manan on one end of the horizon and Nova Scotia on the other. I saw a puff of what looked like steam on the horizon, just as I heard Janet yell, “whale, 9 o’clock!” The whale’s dorsal fin, with the slight hump that gives the species its name, emerged out of the water and then sank back down. We observed this pattern two more times, and then the whale fluked, its huge tail unfolding and then slowly sinking as it dove into the depths in the quintessential camera moment. Damon explained that Humpbacks usually take three large breaths before diving down to feed. They eat a ton of small fish and krill a day, and usually dive for five minutes, though their maximum dive time is around forty minutes. Janet, who had recently been whale watching in New England, had been lucky enough to see a group of Humpbacks bubble-net feeding, an innovative cooperative hunting technique. The whales form a circle and blow a wall of bubbles that surrounds their prey as they spiral up to the surface, and then feed on the mass of trapped krill and fish.

The Humpback near our boat was especially impressive when it slapped its huge tail on the water, known as “lobtailing.” The exact reason for this behavior is unknown, but the slapping may remove parasites such as barnacles from the whales’ bodies, and it may be a defensive measure that mothers use to protect their calves from attacking orcas. Humpbacks are migratory, traveling vast distances up to 16,000 miles, and move to tropical waters in the winter to have their calves. They fast during the winter, relying on the thick layer of blubber that they build up during the summer. We were building up our own layer of blubber on the Island Bound, because Russell barbequed a feast of bacon, hamburgers, and rashers for our dinner.

After the whale had disappeared from view for a while, we saw another puff of water, and then one right next to it, two whales! Humpbacks travel in loose groups, and individuals have unique black and white patterns on their flukes that make them identifiable. These long-lived creatures are both exhilarating and calming to witness, because they move slowly but with so much grace. We heard them exhale water in huge breaths, and we stood spellbound as their tails slowly unfolded as they descended. Humpbacks rest on top of the water, never sleeping, because half their brain must be conscious for them to breathe. Their life-span is unknown, but one of the best studied whales, a female named Salt who was first recorded in 1976, had her thirteenth calf this year, which indicates that Humpbacks are still of reproductive age at over 40 years old.

Though they have a long life span, whales are at risk of entanglement in fishing gear and collisions with ships. I couldn’t imagine why a whale in a vast sea wouldn’t be able to escape a ship, until Damon pointed out that freight boats going thirty knots could hit a whale with little warning, especially because whales can only sprint over short distances, averaging a three mile perhour swimming pace. In Canada, the North Pacific population of humpbacks is protected under the Species at Risk Act (SARA), modeled on the American Endangered Species Act, and has a “threatened” status, while the North Atlantic population in the Bay of Fundy is not considered at risk. Humpbacks were nearly fished to extinction by the mid 20th century, when whaling had reduced the global population by over 90%. The International Whaling Commission banned commercial Humpback whaling in 1966, a moratorium that is still in force. Humpbacks were on the Endangered Species List as recently as 1988, but now their global population has stabilized to 80,000 whales, with over 18,000 in the North Atlantic, up from an estimated 6,000 before the ban was instituted. This success story is not the case of the North Atlantic Right Whale, which feeds on zooplankton on the waters near Grand Manan. Right Whales are particularly susceptible to ship strike and entanglement, because they are surface-feeders that stay close to the coastline. They are endangered under SARA and the ESA, with a declining population that is estimated at 322 individuals. Though we saw several Humpbacks, we could not add Right Whales to Kent Island’s annual record of marine mammals seen in the Bay of Fundy.

On our way back to Kent Island, having eaten our fill of bacon and basked in the glorious summer sunshine (while still shivering in the wind), we spotted a raft of gulls feeding on the water, and with them, a group of harbor porpoises. A school of herring had attracted these very different species to the same spot. Harbor porpoises, some of the smallest marine mammals, have rounded heads and triangular dorsal fins, and usually travel in groups of two to five. The northwest Atlantic harbor porpoise is currently under consideration for addition to SARA, because it frequently gets caught in gill nets and herring weirs. Sound devices that commercial fish farmers use to deter natural predators from their stocks also warn porpoises away from their habitat. Sound is simultaneously a method for their conservation, however; “pingers” attached to fishing nets serve as a warning device that has reduced porpoise entanglement, though their use is not universal. It was wonderful to see the porpoises up-close, to witness the agile beauty of a marine mammal that weighs less thanthe majority of the people on board the Island Bound.

As we approached Kent Island once more, I realized that there was nowhere I would rather be than on a boat in the Bay of Fundy with birders, marine scientists, and artists who were as appreciative of the experience as I was. One of my favorite things about Kent Island is being surrounded by people who are genuinely fascinated by the ecology of this place, where tiny zooplankton are as important as the whales that circle in the deep.



Field Guide to the Birds of North America, Third Edition, National Geographic, Washington, D.C., 1999.

The Sibley guide to birds. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000.


Baker, CS; Perry, A; Bannister, JL; Weinrich, MT; Abernethy, RB; Calambokidis, J; Lien, J; Lambertsen, RH; Ramírez, JU (September 1993). “Abundant mitochondrial DNA variation and world-wide population structure in humpback whales” (PDF). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 90 (17): 8239–8243.





S. D. Kraus, A. J. Read, A. Solow, K. Baldwin, T. Spradlin, E. Anderson, and J. Williamson (1997). Acoustic alarms reduce porpoise mortality. Nature 388:525





The Reluctant Land Surveyor: Measuring Shoreline Habitat with Ben West

The weather was miserable, the kind where it toys with you, lightening so that you think it will clear up until the sky suddenly darkens and it begins to pour. Despite the sub-optimal conditions, Ben and I ventured into the field anyway, because our time on Kent Island was waning, and his need for data outweighed our desire to stay dry. Our task was to measure features of the shoreline at random points spaced evenly around the island. These would be points of reference for Ben’s comparison of the different Black Guillemot habitats on the Three Islands.

Funnily enough, Ben’s father is a land surveyor, and while Ben never expected to partake in the family business, his project had other plans for him. Our equipment was simple, “land surveying tools from a hundred years ago, not the laser technology that my dad uses,” Ben told me. It consisted of two meter sticks, a spool of lead rope that looked like a giant spool of thread, a string, and a level. We lugged these heavy tools through the woods to the shore and around the perimeter of the Island for almost four hours, in the rain. Using the GPS to find the points around the island that he had marked a few days before was like geocaching, but measurement data was our reward. The points were equally spaced by latitude, which did not translate into equal distances along the shore, and the GPS meter estimates of our distances from the points were as the crow flies, not as the scientist scrabbles over rocks. There was also the added difficulty of the spring high tide, which meant that we had to make long detours around flooded grasses. The tide also worked to our advantage, however; one of Ben’s measurements was distance from the vegetation line to the high water mark, and the tide had just washed in seaweed that marked the high water line.

As we found points moving north around the perimeter of the Island, I realized the great variety of shore habitats. The rocky cliffs with dramatic drop-offs where we started became flattened into sand and stones, with marshy vegetation close to the Basin, eventually transforming into the cobble and boulders of West Beach. Guillemots burrow in boulders, driftwood that washes up on the flatter parts of the shore, and in dirt burrows, which is the least common type of habitat on Kent Island. The habitat factors that we surveyed, such as the width and slope of the shore, the type of surface that composes it, and the proximity of gull nests, all affect Guillemot ecology. From my own observation in the field, it seems that habitat does affect the composition of the Guillemot population. Driftwood pile burrows are like condos complexes for Guillemots, whereas the rock burrows are single-room houses, and statistical tests will likely show other factors that affect population density.

Ben’s Guillemot study is unique because it is focused specifically on habitat type, whereas previous Kent Island studies have included census information but have been more concerned with behavior. Ben said that the Guillemot distribution has changed significantly over the past fifty years, and their colonies have spread all along the Eastern and Western shores where they used to be concentrated on the South end of the Island, a trend that may be related to changes in the shoreline over time. After evaluating the habitat that Guillemots select, Ben hypothesized that if a predator got to Kent Island, which is free of carnivorous mammals, it would wipe out the Guillemot nests. The Guillemots on Grand Manan face predators, but are protected by steep, rocky cliffs, whereas I can attest that Guillemot eggs here are not effectively hidden and often look as if they were forgotten under a rock.

When I asked Ben if he would work with Guillemots again, he replied, “I couldn’t do a life’s work on Guillemots. They’re not the ideal study species.” It is a tour de force to find their nests. Unlike the Yellow Warblers, which Jackson found by observing the females nest-building, the Black Guillemots stay offshore, and finding their nests involved looking through every rock pile. Despite this challenge, Ben, like everyone here, has learned much about fieldwork through trial and error. Conducting fieldwork on an offshore island with limited time and resources requires what Ben termed, “building your way out of problems.” For example, measuring the roughness of the shore was cumbersome until we placed a stick in the spool of lead rope so that the rope would spin off the spool, an innovation that vastly increased our efficiency.

Before we leave Kent Island in what I am shocked to say is only a week, there is still much work to be done. Ben will have to survey the shoreline on Sheep and Hay Islands and the rest of Kent Island, and will conduct final nest checks on all of his burrows, because Guillemot chicks (which he claims are cuter then Petrel chicks, a hotly contested statement) are beginning to hatch. Data analysis using statistical tools and mapping programs will come later, as for now, all of the scientists are sprinting to collect their data before the Herring Gulls screech their farewell.

Kent’s Island, Outpost of Science

While reading the first few reports from the Bowdoin scientific station from the 1930s, I found many similarities to my experience of living and conducting research on Kent Island this summer. While countless developments have been made in science since the “Bowdoin Pioneers” began research here in 1934, the island itself and much of the community culture has remained constant. When Bill Gross and three other Bowdoin undergraduates were dropped off by Commander Donald MacMillan on his voyage to the Arctic, however, Kent Island was new and unexplored. In Gross’s 1935 report, “Kent’s Island, Outpost of Science,” he describes his magical first summer of camping on the Island. He writes:

“For three months, we reveled in the great bird rookeries, in the teeming life of the lagoons offshore, in the beauty of the region, and in our discovery of a land that the naturalist had apparently overlooked.”

After that first successful summer of field research, Alfred Gross, a biology professor at Bowdoin, realized the potential of the Island as a research station. Sterling J. Rockefeller gave the Island to Bowdoin at Allan Moses’ behest, and in 1935 the second expedition of students set out to establish the science station. This time it consisted of ten undergraduates and Ernest Joy, a local expert on bird ecology who was to be the year round warden.

The focus of their research was ornithology, and the young scientists immediately set to work. They studied and banded 10,000 Herring Gulls, which had a larger breeding colony on the Island then than they do now, and even kept one Black-backed gull as a pet, naming him “Ernest” in honor of the warden. Bill Gross, who became the Field Director, also researched Black Guillemots and Leach’s Storm Petrels (the locals knew them as “Mother Carey’s Chickens”), both of which are still study species that I have gotten to know very well this summer. The scientists flushed the Guillemots to their burrows by approaching the birds by boat, to see the rocks that they flew to from the water. As Ben West did early this summer, they also built Guillemot habitats, though out of rock instead of PVC piping, to provide nest sites that were sheltered from flooding. Their projects also included photographing Eider courtship displays from a bird blind on the shore, and Bill Gross recounts forgetting to check on the tide until the blind was flooded. Some of their experiments are questionable, and reflect their youth, such as the study of Leach’s Storm Petrels in which the scientists found out how many Petrels a gull could eat in twenty minutes. The record was five.

Photograph from "Kent's Island, Outpost of Science," showing an experiment that ended in a Herring Gull eating five Petrels.

Photograph from “Kent’s Island, Outpost of Science,” of a Herring Gull with four Petrels in its mouth.

These first researchers also visited Machias Seal Island, which was a much less tightly restricted bird sanctuary than it is now, from Gross’s account of dropping by the Island and poking around Razorbill nests. On their way, they stopped by Gannet Rock, which we also passed on our journey to Machias Seal, where the friendly lighthouse keeper gave them directions to navigate the treacherous Fundy waters. I can’t imagine what life must have been like on such a desolate rock, on which the abandoned lighthouse still stands. Once they reached the island, the students saw Puffins, commonly known as “Sea Parrots”  because of their distinctive beaks, and Razorbills, as we did during our trip. Gross discovered that the Razorbills were well named when the birds bit him viciously for encroaching on their nests.

Bowdoin established a sub-base on Machias Seal Island the next summer, and two undergraduates studied the life history of puffins, which was little known, and banded Arctic Terns, Puffins and Petrels. The two science stations, twelve miles apart by sea, maintained communication with each other and with the outside world via radio. Back on Kent Island, researchers surveyed the island, collecting its flora and fauna.

Bill Gross writes, “These preliminary surveys gave every indication that volumes of potential nature lore can well await the naturalist on this fascinating island.”  His prediction was apt; eighty years later, scientists are still learning new things about natural life on Kent Island, be it birds, plant life, or intertidal ecology, and the record of existing research enriches the experience for newcomers. Fieldwork on the Island has stayed fairly constant over the years, with the exception of the use of more advanced technology. The first researchers used many of the techniques that I have described in my posts, such as grubbing the Petrel burrows or building blinds to observe birds unseen, and observation remains the beating heart of science on the Island.

As well as providing a summary of his research endeavors, “Kent’s Island, Outpost of Science” also provides a window into daily life at the field station in the 1930s, which is shockingly similar to life here today. Part of the consistency comes from the weather and the huge Bay of Fundy tides: the researchers, like us, had to time their arrivals and departures carefully to avoid stranding their boats, and they too experienced windy, fog-bound days to which good company, a book, and a furnace fire are the only antidotes. The station was equipped with electric lights, a refrigerator, a gas stove, and telephones and radio transmitters that they used to communicate with the outside world. Gross contrasts the fully-outfitted science station to his first summer of camping, lamenting, “the Island’s isolation was no more.” Standards of isolation have certainly lowered, because even though Kent Island still has radio, internet, and limited cell phone service, it is the most isolated place that I have ever lived. The sense of tradition that comes with life at the station makes it less remote, however, and brings the community together during evenings to sing, to look at old photographs, or to watch the clear island light change through the window.


W.A.O. Gross. “Kent’s Island, Outpost of Science. “ Natural History. American Museum of Natural History. Vol XXXVII, No 4. (New York: 1936)P 195-210.

W.A.O. Gross, Kent Island Annual Report, 1936.

Other Great Kent Island Blogs

I’m not the only blogger on Kent Island this summer! In addition to Jackson Bloch, whose photographs I have used many times for my posts, Bowdoin students Hannah Baggs and Drew Villeneuve are keeping blogs of their experiences on Kent Island this summer. Their blogs provide valuable perspectives on research and life on the Island, as well as more beautiful photographs of its wonders.


Hannah Baggs is a fellow Artist in Residence who is creating educational resources for Maine classrooms, filming the diverse Kent Island ecology to illustrate concepts better than a biology textbook ever could. She is also following and interviewing scientists here to show kids how science works in the real world, and to encourage them to pursue it.


Hannah (Photo by Tracey Faber)

(Photo by Tracey Faber)


Drew Villeneuve , whose research I have written about, is studying fouling communities in the intertidal zone on Kent Island, and has some great photographs of our adventures as well as of wildlife.


Kent Islanders on Canada Day (photo by Drew Villeneuve)

Kent Islanders on Canada Day
(photo by Drew Villeneuve)

Machias Seal Island


photo by Jackson Bloch

“If you see a bird with a black belly and a white face, start screaming,” Brad told me as we neared Machias Seal Island on Russell’s lobster boat. I replied that I was unlikely to be able to distinguish between the distant black and white dots that periodically appeared in the sky, even with my binoculars. The birders on board had heard rumors that a Tufted puffin was in the area. Ben, who has been eagerly anticipating this trip all year, excitedly told me that the Tufted Puffin has a black belly, unlike the Atlantic puffins that we sometimes see from Kent Island, which have white bellies. The Tufted puffin is native to the Pacific, and rarely appears in the Bay of Fundy; in fact, one hasn’t been seen on the Atlantic since the 1830s. Brad, a Nova Scotian graduate student completing his masters on Savannah Sparrows, taught me how to identify different Alcids. This family of sea birds includes Puffins, Razorbills, Common murres, and Black Guillemots, all of which spend their lives at sea but breed on rocky ledges in the summer and dive for fish. Machias Seal Island has the largest breeding colony of Alcids in the Gulf of Maine, and is a coveted birder haven, in part because access to the bird sanctuary is so limited.


Mark at the helm of the skiff, while Brad and Jackson revel in the bird life

The day that we had reserved our permits to go onto the island for the allotted three hours was also the day that Hurricane Arthur struck. Our misfortune turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because we got a much closer look at the birds circling the island from the water than would have been possible on land. It was an unusually sunny, perfectly calm, flat day, and with Russell and Mark’s expert boatsmanship, we avoided crashing into the nearby rocks in our two skiffs. I was immediately struck by the sheer number of birds everywhere: thousands of puffins and razorbills and hundreds of common murres zoomed above us, floated and dove in the water, and stood in dense clusters on the rocks.The Alcids were only feet away from the boat in every direction, which afforded me a look at their elegant and versatile physiology. Alcids have stubby wings that they beat very quickly to fly, and which they use as paddles to dive and swim. They were like synchronized swimmers, floating in rafts on the water and diving down, one after another, until they suddenly re-emerged somewhere else.

I had only ever seen puffins in a zoo, and up close, they were smaller than I had expected, and their masked faces were more gray than pure white. The way they splayed their orange feet in flight was not only adorable but also aerodynamic, because the birds can reach speeds of up to 50 mph. Puffins are also remarkable for their life histories. Atlantic puffins, though less long-lived than Petrels, can reach thirty years of age, and only begin breeding when they are six. The birds spend their winter on the cold northern seas, and come to breeding colonies on islands to lay a single egg in their rocky burrows. For six weeks after the chick hatches, adults will forage on the water and return to the burrow with bill loads of up to 30 small fish. Puffin chicks eat their entire weight in fish daily, and must fast for a week to be able to squeeze out of the burrow when they leave their parents. Atlantic puffins were heavily exploited for eggs and meat in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but the population is no longer endangered, as evidenced by the thriving colony on Machias Seal.

Puffin landing near a group of Razorbills

Puffin landing near a group of Razorbills photo by Jackson Bloch

Common Murres and Razorbills, birds that I hadn’t heard of before this summer, were mixed in with the puffins in the water and sky and on land. While they lack the puffin’s distinctive white face-mask and orange and black beak, these Alcids are streamlined and elegant in black and white. Ben pointed out a brindled Common Murre, which was dark brown instead of black and had a white tear stain and circle around its eye, a color morph that up to a quarter of Murres show. Looking to the rocky shore of Machias Seal, we could see Ben’s study species, the Black Guillemot, distinguished from other Alcids by its white wing-patches, as well as Common Eiders that were almost invisible in the rockweed. There was a conspicuous lack of Herring Gulls, which dominate Kent Island, because the scientists on Machias Seal puncture their eggs to prevent gulls from overpopulating and preying upon the other birds.

We headed down to the Southern side of the small island, to a ledge in front of a bird blind where it was rumored that the Tufted Puffin liked to be. Russell spotted it in about thirty seconds, and instantly the birders had out their binoculars and high-speed cameras. The Tufted Puffin was larger than the Atlantic puffins around it, and stood slightly apart on the rock. The bird was resplendent in its black body feathers and the breeding plumage that gives the Tufted Puffin its name: long, straw-colored feathers on either side of its head. When it flew directly over our boat and I saw the rare bird up close, I could only thank the weather-gods for providing the storm that prevented us from going onshore.

Tufted Puffin taking off of the rocks, among a colony of Common Murres

Tufted Puffin taking off of the rocks, among a colony of Common Murres

As we headed back to the Island Bound, satisfied with our time among the Alcids, we spotted some Arctic Terns, whose long wings and acrobatic flight reminded me of the Tree Swallows. Russell and Damon remarked that Terns, which feed on herring, hadn’t been seen in this area for the past few years. Since the herring population of the Bay of Fundy has shriveled, it has been replaced by less oily, calorically-rich southern species such as butterfish. Climate change has also made the herring seek cooler, deeper water that makes them inaccessible to surface-diving birds Terns, though Alcids can dive deep enough to catch them. This change in the fishery has also impacted the economic importance of the waters around Machias Seal Island, which is one of the two remaining landed territories disputed between the U.S. and Canada. These waters are known as the “grey zone” because both countries lay claim to the rich lobstering grounds that have replaced groundfish as their major fisheries. Lobstermen from Maine and Canada both fish in the grey zone in the summer, and quarrel over fishing rights and territories. While the lobstering season is usually closed in the summer in Canada, the Canadian government realized that it was missing out on profits that Americans were gaining, and extended the season exclusively in this 227 square mile area.

Lighthouse on Machias Seal Island

Lighthouse on Machias Seal Island

The British established a lighthouse on Machias Seal Island in 1832, and the Canadian Coast Guard continues to staff it, flying out two people by helicopter for 28 day shifts to operate the automated light, as a way of staking a claim to the land. Machias Seal is equidistant from Maine and New Brunswick, and we saw a tour boat from Culter, Maine deposit middle-aged birders in matching floppy hats as we motored away, exhausted from seeing so much.

Listen to the Atlantic puffin’s call, which sounds like a chainsaw:http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/atlantic_puffin/sounds


Terres, John K. The Audobon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds. New York: Knopf: 1980.

Lowther, P. E., A. W. Diamond, S. W. Kress, G. J. Robertson, and K. Russell. 2002. Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica). In The Birds of North America, No. 709 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.