Sunlight reflecting off the ocean illuminates the undersides of clouds hovering near Great Duck Island. At such moments, students on the island would abandon their work to admire the sky.Sunlight reflecting off the ocean illuminates the undersides of clouds hovering near Great Duck Island. At such moments, students on the island would abandon their work to admire the sky. Credit: Photo by Nina Duggan ’18There’s an almost eerie quiet to an offshore island. Walk just a few steps inland from gull cries and wave surges and you can hear the flight of insects within the silence. Spend time and the island begins to reveal itself: which bird nests where, what rocks are stable, how field merges into forest. Eventually, it almost seems possible to sense with the eye of a gull or guillemot. So it is with COA’s “ducklings,” the students who spend the seabird breeding season on the narrow, mile-long Great Duck Island some eighteen miles south of campus. Here the nocturnal Leach’s storm petrel and plump black guillemot flock to breed each summer—more here than to any other known  locale in the eastern US. Herring and black-backed gulls along with eiders also nest on the island, joined recently by the Atlantic puffin.

In 1998, COA acquired twelve acres of Great Duck, sharing the rest of the island with the Nature Conservancy, the State of Maine, and a summer resident. Each summer, guided by biology faculty member John Anderson, students at the island’s Alice Eno Field Research Station begin the day with a climb to the lighthouse tower to count and record every visible living creature. Later the thirty-five representative herring and black-backed gull nests selected at the beginning of the season are monitored. Once the chicks have hatched from these nests they are weighed and measured daily: “chick check.” Tiny metal and plastic bands are placed around the legs of these chicks—and as many other birds as possible—to better observe their individual destinies.

The day ends with a communal dinner and the nightly log. Every week a careful sweep of the island is made to count all nests. Beyond recording daily findings, most students do their own field research. Some begin the summer with a well-planned project; others wait to survey the island upon arrival, finding their subject in the questions that arise. “They come up with a project themselves. We’re giving them the chance to experience graduate school early on,” says John.

Through observation, field research, and archival searches, students are amassing a thorough ecology of this one small island—zoological, botanical, geologic, human, and historical. And dramatic changes have been observed—an increase in eagles, major movements of gulls, the introduction of puffins.

At 0600 on June 8, 2015, this year’s crew—Brenna Castro-Thews ’18, Nina Duggan ’18, Nadia Harerimana ’18, Rachel Karesh ’15, Meaghan Lyon ’16, Audra McTague ’19, and Ite Sullivan ’18—boarded COA’s M/V Osprey and departed into a misty sunrise for Great Duck Island. Over the weeks, as the students watched petrel, gull, guillemot, and puffin emerge from egg to nestling to fledgling, as they observed eagles foraging the very chicks they had cradled in their hands, they came to a new understanding of place, themselves, each other, and the greater cycle of life.

The following excerpts, taken from the group log during each of the seven weeks of the 2015 Great Duck Island season, reveal the students’ remarkable commitment to the human ecology of an island.—Donna Gold

June 12, 2015 Friday

The day dawned cold and a little windy. John woke us up at 0640 as usual. Nina saw savanna sparrow chicks. Audra worked on her project, mapping her nests and recording the eggs and chicks. Brenna found something amazing: herring gulls dove on her much more than black-backed gulls as she was sitting next to the nests. After dinner Ite, Brenna, and Rachel went out in the drizzle and a petrel flew into them. They held it and were very happy.

Meaghan Lyon ’16 holds a black guillemot chick during "chick check."Meaghan Lyon ’16 holds a black guillemot chick during "chick check." Credit: Photo by Nina Duggan ’18June 18, Thursday ISLAND COUNT DAY!

The day dawned slightly overcast and warm with lovely mirages to the east. After a basic tower count we set off round the island. Audra [who was looking at herring and black-backed gull vocalizations] finally got a recording of the gulls’ nest switch call. [Both male and female gulls take turns feeding and tending their young. As one returns from offshore, it announces its arrival to the other.] Rachel [who was using game cameras to determine the petrel’s pattern of return to their deep, inland burrows] set up three game cams around Atlantis [near the boathouse, see map] to try to see petrels and found a burrow with three adults in it. Meaghan [who was researching her senior project on guillemot nest site selection and survival] found eight guillemot nests between Atlantis and the boat house. Ite learned to tie various knots and looked at algae. Nadia saw two fights between herring gulls. Audra banded her first chick by herself! Brenna and Nina went on a plant phenology walk and brought back lots of samples as well as photographs.

NB: Roses up to the north end of the island are flowering. Irises are also flowering, as are the ones in our eastern meadow! But eastern meadow is only just flowering while those at north end are fully open.

June 19, Friday ALCID DAY—Nineteen razorbills seen by John at tower count this morning

The day dawned drizzly and dark. The ducklings slowly trickled downstairs for breakfast. John made us French toast with homemade bread. Yum! After breakfast everyone sat around writing notes and going through journals. Brenna started to identify plants and Nina [who was looking at the interaction between gulls and eiders] went through eider photos. The cloudy weather blew over and blue sky and sunshine started peeking out at around 1100. Nina and John spent time in the tower. At 1247 an adult peregrine falcon took an adult guillemot right out of the air just left of the boat shed. It eventually dropped it somewhere around Puffin Point after being pursued through the colony by gulls. The harbor seal kept porpoising up, seen last at 1419.

June 24, Wednesday

Patience’s chick [a late-nesting gull whose nest was next to the lighthouse tower steps] is moving within its wet shell about to be a freshly hatched chick. The adults are becoming slightly more aggressive now and it’ll be interesting to see where their territory/range expands to. Nina had been searching for common eider from the tower all morning: seventeen common eider adults and nine chicks. In the afternoon she did not find any common eider, but she did find wren chicks and a mountain ash. From 1300 to 1500 Rachel and Audra banded gulls on the east berm totaling forty-one chicks: thirty-six herring gulls and five great black-backed gulls. Meaghan trailed along searching for black guillemot nests and brought her total island nest count to fifty-one nests! Rachel checked on her petrel cameras after the banding fest. By the end of the most beautiful day thus far Patience’s chick successfully hatched from its shell, fluffy and chirping for Mum.

June 30, Tuesday

The day dawned with a beautiful fog surrounding our tower. It lifted by 0740 and we were all ready to play in the warm sunshine. Meaghan sat in the tower from 0800 to 1030 watching the feeding rate of the black guillemot along the west berm. Most chicks were found alive and well, but there was one dead. “Late Gull” has three chicks, John’s favorite black-backed chick is fat and sassy, and everyone is happily surprised by the lack of dead chicks after our rainy day. An adult bald eagle came from the north, diving down on a group of five common eider chicks and one adult female. The eiders all dove simultaneously just escaping the grasp of the eagle. The eagle then attempted it a second time, but the eiders escaped into the depths of the ocean yet again. John is full of songs today by a variety of artists and time periods. A great black-backed gull stalked the chick under the tree by the path but had no success. Meaghan saw the chick later in the evening with the parent! Black guillemots and gulls were copulating on the rocks which seems late in the season, but they may be re-laying. [When eggs are lost to weather or predation, birds sometimes attempt replacement clutches.] A crow was seen carrying a chick (herring gull) from the east colony in the afternoon. Also an eagle (mature bald) came into the colony twice, once in the morning and once in the evening, but nothing was taken.

N.B. The Indian pipes are coming up!

Two gulls—a black-backed (left) and herring (far right) pursue a bald eagle that had come in close to the lighthouse to attack the gull colony.Two gulls—a black-backed (left) and herring (far right) pursue a bald eagle that had come in close to the lighthouse to attack the gull colony. Credit: Photo by Nina Duggan ’18July 2, Thursday EAGLE HELL DAY

Meaghan checked on her chick check nests at Point Colony and found three wet chicks! Rachel collected her SD chips but only got pictures of rabbits. John, Ite, and Brenna discussed the Civil War during tower watch. Between 1452 and 1828 we had eight separate eagle attacks! One eagle got an adult herring gull on one of the later attacks. John made us enchiladas and beans and rice for dinner and we talked about suicide bombers. Eagle attacked again after dinner!

July 9, Tuesday PUFFINS ON POINT (Nesting)

Meaghan spotted two great blue herons as well as two juvenile and one adult bald eagles. We got our first confirmed sighting of a puffin with a fish in its beak, which means chicks!

July 15, Wednesday

The day did not dawn. Everything was damp and layered in thick fog. The air began to warm by 1200 and the fog cleared a bit, but the water was still not visible. Meaghan spent time painting, Audra wrote and studied constellations, and all the while the gulls remained relatively quiet, uninterrupted by eagles.

July 18, Saturday

The day dawned with cool, damp air and we felt rain driplets during tower count. The air remained cold and the wind was strong out of the southwest, which occasionally brought in some rain. Tower watch was cold but doable.  We saw several flying chicks, razorbills, Atlantic puffins, double-crested cormorants, and the usual. Point Colony smelled like death (rotting chicks). Meaghan found dead chicks in nest eight and nine. She also found four new nests and there are most likely more because there were over 136 individuals on the water from Blondie Bay to north of the point. Rachel went petreling and found a chick in a burrow along the road and it was tiny tiny! The adult was in the nest too. Around 1426 a juvenile eagle went into the west field and grabbed a chick. It was a large chick with flight feathers. We saw it being eaten up the field along the path to Blondie Bay. It was a day for walking and adventuring in the forest and updating data. Nina made a beautiful and delicious curry and dahl for dinner and we shared stories of our past.

July 23, Thursday ISLAND COUNT—(Rachel, Meaghan, and John’s season comes to an end. ITT starts soon.)

The day dawned finally clear! The days of fog are over. During island count Meaghan saw a black guillemot go into an unmarked crevice along the slough, which is so weird. Those rocks roll/are very unstable and have very limited spaces for nests, but the individual was carrying a fish (ground gunnel). Just before noon, Nina, Meaghan, and John saw two mature bald eagles fly over the east berm and slowly rise above the tower. Then … they latched their talons together and dove for the colony spiraling downward as the colony rose like a cloud in protest. No more babies they called with traumatic alert calls. The eagles stopped and flew on but did it one more time before heading north along the west berm. It was interesting that the herring gulls did not rise in protest until after a dive was made. Nina went to Blondie Bay and saw a mass of hummingbirds on the fireweed on the path. Eagles (juvenile) were hanging out there too, soaring high above the woods. The sunset was beautiful and cool as we enjoyed one of our final nights on the magical Great Duck Island.


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