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.

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