Summer With The Seabirds Of Maine

Hi everyone and welcome to the Gownaris Lab blog post! We are spending our summer working with the US Fish and Wildlife Services (USFWS) on Petit Manan Island in the Gulf of Maine. We’ll tell you all about the work we’re doing here on the island, but first let’s start with some introductions!


My name is Kaiulani and I am a rising senior. I am majoring in Environmental Studies and completing fieldwork this summer for my honor’s thesis. Protecting the earth and its inhabitants has always been important to me. I found an interest in ecology and in the future I would like to explore working with marine systems as well as conservation. I am so glad that Tasha brought me into her work with seabirds. I am grateful for this opportunity to spend time on not only a beautiful island, but living in a seabird colony!

Kaili measuring the wing chord of a tiny tern chick.

My name is Jehan Mody and I am a rising junior. I have majors in Environmental Studies and Biology and I will be doing my ES capstone with our research mentor, Tasha! I have been fond of animals and the natural world from a young age and hope to carry this passion into my career in the future. This passion is also why I am working with the beautiful seabirds on Petit Manan Island, protecting the seabirds’ breeding grounds and helping them to maintain healthy populations.

Jehan measuring the head length of an adult tern.

My name is Tasha Gownaris and I’m a marine ecologist and an assistant professor in the Environmental Studies department. Though I started my career working on invertebrates and fish, I fell in love with seabirds as a graduate student and haven’t looked back. This summer has been my first opportunity to bring Gettysburg College students into the field with me, and it has been such a pleasure working and living with Kaili and Jehan, in addition to the other two PMI crew members (Hallie and Nick). My research in the Gulf of Maine focuses on how seabirds adapt their foraging behavior in response to climate change – this region is warming faster than 99.5% of the ocean.

Tasha holding an adult Arctic tern.

So what exactly is the work that we’re doing here, and how does the USFWS fit in?

A tern protecting its nest.

The Gulf of Maine has an array of gorgeous islands that are home to a diversity of bird species. For some birds, these islands are a stepping stone for migrations farther north, but for some it is their final destination—thirteen species of seabird breed here over the summer. To give these birds a better chance of surviving and successfully reproducing, the USFWS manages and hires technicians to live on the islands over the summer. These lucky crew members are responsible for maintaining suitable conditions for the birds to breed in, keeping predators away, and collecting lots of data to monitor how the populations have been doing and how we can better conserve them. This summer, we are a part of the team on Petit Manan Island and are carrying out the management responsibilities of the USFWS while simultaneously collecting data for our own research projects.

A group of terns in front of the Petit Manan Lighthouse.

But what is our life like on the island and what does all this look like on a day-to-day basis?

For starters, this is Kaiulani and Jehan’s first field season and it has been an incredible experience for them to live among a seabird colony. It was an amazing feeling to arrive here and to see all of the magnificent birds, listen to their calls surrounding us, and hear the ocean’s waves crashing on the rocky shore. On the island, we live in a house with one other member of our team, Nick, and our supervisor, Hallie. Nick and Hallie both have a ton of experience working with birds in the field, and Hallie has spent a previous season on Petit Manan Island. We are learning so much from them each and every day!

As field conditions go, you could say that our house is luxurious. We have solar power, a kitchen and dining table, a workspace, and bedrooms with actual beds and mattresses. Our bathroom is a little outhouse next to the house, with quite the view. We even have a newly installed shower with heated water! Most of our time is spent outside doing work in the field, but we like to play card games, have dinners together, and work on entering piles of hard-earned data while we’re inside. 

A tiny tern chick.

We start our day bright and early at 5am and meet downstairs to brush our teeth, eat some breakfast and discuss plans for the day. Following that, we conduct provisioning stints from 6-9am on our two tern species, common terns and Arctic terns. Provisioning involves sitting in a blind and observing and recording what food the adults are bringing back, which chicks are being fed more, and the frequency at which feedings occur. It’s fun and intense and almost has a competitive edge too as we have to try to identify the prey items before they get gulped down by hungry little chicks. Kaiulani will be using our provisioning data for her research project, which she’ll talk about later. 

Kaili on a provisioning watch.

After this, we take a short break and head out for our next stint, which is typically resighting. During resighting, we sit in a blind with a sighting scope and scan the area for birds that have been banded. Mostly we are focusing on Arctic terns and Atlantic puffins, but we will note bands for other species if we see them. We note down the band IDs of the birds we find and enter them into a database. These data allow USFWS and other researchers to track individual seabirds over time and to estimate their survival rates. Resighting takes a lot of patience and good eyesight, but it is also quite a relaxing and calming experience; you get to spend some time by yourself listening to and observing the birds or catching up on podcasts and music.

The view from a resighting blind.

However, we had one very interesting day of resighting that wasn’t quite as calm. Kaiulani was sitting in a blind, doing her thing, when she noticed an odd looking puffin. She came back to the house with a picture of it saying “Hey I have a weird bird, can someone ID it?” and everyone went berserk. Kaiulani had just spotted a Tufted puffin, a pacific puffin species, recording just the third observation ever of this species on the east coast and the second observation in the state of Maine. We all ran out to see it and were in complete awe and shock. It hung around for just one night, so all of the tourist boats that came full with people eager to see it the next morning were left disappointed. 

A tufted puffin, in Maine!
Atlantic puffins resting at puffin point

After resighting, we reconvene at the house for a quick lunch before heading back out to do our Arctic tern and common tern productivity checks. We’ve established a few plots on the island where birds are nesting and we go in every day to check how the eggs are doing and when chicks are hatching, band chicks after they’ve hatched, and measure their mass and wing chord length to calculate growth. Finding chicks in the plot is a real scavenger hunt since they hide in the vegetation and start to move around more as they grow. Their poop trails give us some hints as to where to find them and we have started to learn their favorite hiding spots. Once we do get a hold of them it usually comes with a side of poop; however, they are extremely adorable and that makes up for it all! We gather all our chicks in what we call our KFC $5 fill up bucket (below) before we process them. As a part of Tasha’s work and Jehan’s thesis, we also take blood and eggshell samples from some chicks, which we will conduct isotope analyses on. Our field season is starting to pick up since we will now start adding on productivity checks for alcids, including black guillemots and Atlantic puffins.

After our time outside, we process samples, prepare for the next day of work, and relax in the house. At 5pm, Jehan does tower count, where he goes to the top of the island’s lighthouse and surveys the shoreline and surrounding water to records counts for all the alcid species (Atlantic puffins, black Guillemots, razorbills, common murres, and common eiders). We also wash all our bird bags and put them out to dry, replenish all our kits for the next day, and finish up other small chores. By this time we’re usually in for the night and start getting ready to cook dinner. We like to sit down and eat dinner together and spend some time decompressing and chatting. We clean up for the night and are usually upstairs by 9pm to get some much needed shut eye.

What’s the plan with this data we’re collecting?

We are collecting a lot of data this summer, so there will be a lot to process when we return to Gettysburg!

Kaiulani’s Environmental Studies Capstone – My thesis will focus on the diet flexibility of Common and Arctic terns and how they cope with changes in their food supply. With an almost daily collection at a set time everyday, the provisioning data will exist at a fine temporal scale. Sea surface temperature data will also be collected from a satellite that provides daily reports on the changes of the waters around Petit Manan Island, including the foraging areas of the terns. These areas are home to hake and herring, cold water species that are preferred diet items of the terns. When the fish move farther and deeper to follow the cooler water, the terns have two options. They can spend more time foraging by following the fish that provide more nutrients, or switch to nutrient poor diet items like invertebrates. By watching these changes daily along with taking growth measurements of the chicks, I can see if the diet flexibility of the adults affects their reproductive success. My project consists of three hypotheses: the amount of preferred diet items will decrease in tern diet as sea surface temperatures rise, intraspecific variation will increase with an increase in sea surface temperatures, and finally, the individuals that maintain a provisioning diet of preferred food items will have a higher chick survival rate. We have been provisioning for a week now and we are already observing a wide variety of fish and insects, but happily seeing lots of hake and herring and some fast-growing chicks!

Jehan’s Environmental Studies Capstone – Since I am a rising junior, I still have some time to finalize what my thesis will focus on. I am using my experience in the field and the data we are collecting to formulate a study. Entering the season, I was interested in observing how individuals react to rising sea surface temperatures in their foraging behavior by looking at their stable isotope signatures. Isotope δ13C in blood serves as an indicator of foraging habitat and δ15N serves as an indicator of the trophic level of the diet. We are also collecting eggshell, prey fish, and insect/other invertebrate samples that can all be used for isotope analysis too. I have become interested in working with the eggshell data, which tells us about the diet of mom terns when they produced the eggs, and seeing whether the isotope signatures of these shells is related to chick diet, growth, or survival.

As you saw in our group photo, we get pooped on a lot! Even with daily hits on the head from the terns and the warning screams from these small but mighty birds, we are having an amazing time and learning new things every day. We hope you enjoyed learning about our summer thus far and looking at all the seabird pictures, we’ll definitely have more to add to our poster in the fall!