Eleanor Gnam '24's senior project centers on discerning how different methods of counting... Eleanor Gnam '24's senior project centers on discerning how different methods of counting storm petrels on Great Duck Island have led to wildly different population estimates, ranging from 800 to 27,000 pairs, over the past 50 years. Her findings will contribute to recommendations for consistent methods to estimate populations, which will help researchers gauge the health of colonies.
Credit: Michael Hudson

Time was short on this trip to Great Duck, 10 miles south of Mount Desert. The goal was to button up the college’s field station for the winter and have one last quick look for some of the world’s most mysterious seabirds—not ducks, despite the island’s name, but Leach’s storm petrels, diminutive and dusky cousins of the albatross.

Few people have ever seen these starling-size seabirds, which have gunmetal plumage, white rumps, and hooked black bills topped with odd tubular nostrils. They live far out to sea and come ashore only to breed on remote northern islands, where they nest in shallow underground burrows that can wind and twist for up to six feet, excavated by the males in spruce forests and meadows. Parents travel to and from their burrows only at night, filling the air with eerie chuckles that sound like goblins doing helium.

Making storm-petrels stranger still: their distinctive aroma, which has been described as pleasantly musty. It’s a result of the oily plankton soup that adults make in their stomachs to feed chicks, combined with the musk of their nurseries’ earthen interiors. “Like rich, sun-warmed soil,” says COA senior Eleanor Gnam, who has studied petrels on Great Duck for the last two summers. “Or like very old library stacks.”

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