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.

Sources:

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.

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