- By: Colin Woodard
Photo Credit: USFWS
It isn’t easy to get an Arctic tern to nest where you’d like it to, but Stephen Kress has gone to great lengths to do so.
For two decades he and fellow scientists have spent weeks on end camped out on some of Maine’s most godforsaken islands — windswept, nearly treeless outcroppings piled with bird guano and battered by storms — scaring off gulls, burning underbrush, or herding away sheep. They’ve decorated likely nesting grounds with decoy terns, piped soundtracks of happy tern colonies through networks of speakers, and pruned away encroaching raspberry bushes.
“It’s sort of like advertising,” explains Kress, director of the National Audubon’s Seabird Restoration Program, who works on islands belonging to the Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge. “Colonial birds don’t like to be the first ones to nest on an island, so you have to make them think others are there.”
At the end of a ten-thousand-mile flight from Antarctica, you wouldn’t think the eight-ounce birds would be so picky, but they are. Arctic terns prefer to nest on offshore islands (to avoid mammalian predators) with few trees (where owls, hawks, and other tern-eaters might lurk) and close access to food (herring, sand lance, and juvenile hake). But most of all, they want to nest with lots of other terns, challenging Kress and his colleagues with a variation of the chicken and the egg problem.
Fortunately, the decoys attract the birds, tricking a few common or Arctic terns into sticking around long enough for their own presence to attract more birds. (Last year, one tern spent the entire summer courting a decoy on Eastern Brothers Island off Jonesport, showering it with attention and feeding it fish.) A soundtrack reassures them it’s okay to stay, but it has to be played 24/7 until the colony reaches the critical mass of two hundred birds or so. “Until then, if the sound player goes out, the birds abandon the site,” Kress says.
Then something magical can happen. Other elusive birds start showing up to nest beneath the terns’ robust air defense halo. Colorful Atlantic puffins dig burrows in the ground. Guillemots and razorbills — the Northern Hemisphere’s answer to penguins — lay eggs on craggy cliffs. Flotillas of eider ducklings troll the shallow waters behind their mothers, who led them to these gull-less sanctuaries. Endangered roseate terns embed their nests amid their cousins, increasing the chances the timid species will be around for the twenty-second century.
“It’s like a living museum,” says Kress, who likens the process to a cascading ecological collapse, only in reverse. “You start by bringing back one species, and you wind up bringing back the whole community.”
It’s an ecological turnaround that might be called miraculous if it weren’t so hard fought: rolling back two centuries’ worth of avian slaughter to meet the demands of hatmakers, bait dealers, and target shooters. And much of it is taking place under the auspices of the Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge, a federal entity few Mainers have ever heard about.
The refuge, part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, currently encompasses fifty of Maine’s 4,600 islands, and some 4,000 mainland acres of coastal Hancock and Washington counties. The islands stretch from the Isles of Shoals on the New Hampshire border to Machias Seal Island, which is so close to New Brunswick that Canada has claimed and occupied it. Between them are islands that are breeding sites for nine-tenths of the Atlantic puffins and razorbills in the United States and more than 94 percent of Maine’s Arctic terns.
Started in 1974 with a single ten-acre island the U.S. Coast Guard no longer wanted — Petit Manan off Milbridge — the refuge has been steadily accreting seabird islands as they — and funding — become available. Since then the Coast Guard and navy have handed over nine more islands, while others have been donated by or purchased from land trusts, private individuals, and conservation groups. All are permanently protected and managed for the needs of wildlife, although most are open to the public outside nesting season.
The refuge may get a lot larger. Another eighty-four islands are on its official wish list, those it would like to acquire over the next dozen years if they were to come onto the market. Some of the biggest ones almost certainly won’t: Damariscove is contentedly owned by the Boothbay Region Land Trust, Seguin (off Georgetown) by a dedicated community nonprofit, and Appledore (off Kittery) is home to a research station run by Cornell and the University of New Hampshire. “We never felt we could capture all the islands, but if there were a willing seller we feel those are the most important” for the birds, explains the refuge’s deputy manager, Brian Benedict.
The birds have needed plenty of help. Maine’s terns were virtually exterminated from their nesting grounds between 1886 and 1896 when their feathers or whole stuffed bodies became a fashionable accessory for women’s hats. Affluent sportsmen enjoyed shooting seabirds for fun and tallied their kills in their club’s scorebooks; in three days in 1897, a single member of a Chatham, Long Island, club shot 1,715, most of them sandpipers and plovers. Impoverished Mainers earned extra income or calories by plundering tern and puffin colonies of their eggs.
Early twentieth century laws arrested the slaughter, but not the proliferation of open trash dumps and fishing industry wastes that fueled an explosion of herring and greater black-backed seagulls, these birds took over the nesting islands, feeding on the eggs and chicks of their rivals. By the early 1970s, only 5,300 pairs of terns remained, while Matinicus Rock sheltered the entire U.S. puffin population.
Ironically, bringing the birds back has required a near-continuous human presence on the refuge’s six actively
managed islands before and during nesting season. “The problem really is the gulls,” says Kress, who reintroduced puffins to Eastern Egg Rock in the 1980s, importing colonists from Newfoundland in a specially constructed suitcase. “The solution we found was elegant in its simplicity: as long as we have our interns on the islands, the gulls stay away.”
Interns and field scientists shoo gulls off Petit Manan, Matinicus Rock, and other managed nesting islands (gulls are welcome to set up shop on the refuge’s other forty-four islands). But they also keep an eye out for other predators: herons, minks, and the dogs of human trespassers. Refuge biologist Linda Welch still remembers the spring day in 2000 when her team spotted a mink swimming ashore on Ship Island, five miles off Brooklin. “We had two hundred pairs of common terns on site, but the entire colony abandoned it within a few days,” she says. The next year the staff and terns tried again, but the mink returned. “Unlike a lot of predators that kill to eat, they run around and kill as many as possible.”
Thus the need for more colonies on more islands. “Right now we have too many eggs in too few baskets,” says Benedict. “An oil spill, a local food shortage, or an extreme thunderstorm can quickly disrupt a colony.” In 2004, herring supplies failed around Machias Seal Island, where the Canadian Coast Guard maintains the last manned light station in the Gulf of Maine. A generation of puffin chicks starved, while the entire 3,500-pair tern colony abandoned the island and have yet to return. Half of them relocated to Matinicus Rock, where refuge scientists spend the summer in the old lightkeeper’s house. Nobody knows what became of the rest.
It’s no coincidence that the largest and oldest tern, puffin, and razorbill colonies are on islands with lighthouses. Isolated with their immediate families on Petit Manan, Matinicus Rock, or Machias Seal for years on end, many lightkeepers came to enjoy the seabird’s company and kept hunters and seagulls away. “They were the only islands where people actively managed against gulls,” says Welch. After the Coast Guard automated the lighthouses in the 1970s, the tern colonies vanished within the decade. When refuge staff returned to Petit Manan in the 1980s and removed the gull’s nests, she says, the terns returned within a week. “We know that without active management the same process would happen again.”
Now the lighthouses themselves need help. Light stations on managed islands — Petit Manan, Machias Seal, Matinicus Rock, and Pond Island (in the mouth of the Kennebec) — are maintained as shelters for the refuge’s scientists and summer interns. But on unstaffed islands there’s nobody to maintain the nineteenth-century towers and little money in the budget to hire anyone else. “We’re trying to reach out and get local groups interested in adopting an island and keep up the structures,” says Benedict, who says four are most critical: the 1822 granite tower at Libby Island, the 1897 brick tower on Two Bush Island (in the Mussel Ridge Channel), and the wooden lightkeeper’s houses at Franklin Island (Muscongus Bay) and Egg Rock (near Bar Harbor), both of which are on the National Register of Historic Places.
With restricted funding and manpower, the refuge already relies on outside groups for technical, fundraising, and public education services. The refuge’s Milbridge- and Rockport-based staff of eight is also responsible for the 11,270-acre Sunkhaze Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in far-off Milford, which had its entire staff eliminated in 2006. (A local nonprofit, Friends of the Sunkhaze Meadows NWR, has taken up the slack.)
But given the state of the national refuge system, they count themselves lucky. A decade of inadequate budgets has left the network with a $3.5 billion maintenance and operations backlog and forced the elimination of 10 percent of its career employees. More than a third of the refuges now have no staff or visitor access, according to Noah Kahn of Defenders of Wildlife in Washington, D.C., which estimates that the refuge system needs a minimum annual budget of $765 million to properly administer its holdings. (The current budget is $380
million.) “If you care about wildlife conservation in this country, the refuge system needs proper funding,” he says.
Land acquisition budgets have been squeezed even longer. The primary source for creating and expanding parks and refuges — the Land and Water Conservation Fund — is funded not by taxpayers, but by royalties from oil drilling in federal waters. Although it is authorized at nine hundred million dollars per year, it has only been fully funded once since it was created in 1964. In 2008 it stood at just $154 million and President George W. Bush’s 2009 budget request was just fifty million dollars.
That’s made it difficult for Maine’s refuges to purchase critical properties as they become available “The land acquisition budgets have really shrunk at a time when we are seeing land up for sale for the last time really that we can compete for it,” says Maine Coastal Islands refuge manager Beth Goettel. “We always hope for better days.”
Most of the refuge’s recent acquisitions wouldn’t have been possible without the help of third parties like Maine Coast Heritage Trust, the Topsham-based conservation group. The trust purchases coastal lands and islands to preserve their cultural, historical, recreational, or ecological values, often by later passing them on to land trusts, conservation groups, or the state and national parks system. “We see the refuge as our go-to partner when it comes to seabird restoration,” says David MacDonald, the trust’s director for land protection. “From a practical standpoint, it’s helpful for us to have a partner that occasionally has some funds to bring to bear, allowing us to recycle the money whenever possible.”
In 2007, the trust transferred Jordan’s Delight, a twenty-seven-acre island off Milbridge, after removing the three-thousand-square foot “boathouse” a previous owner had built atop its nesting cliffs. Five more islands have been purchased on the refuge’s behalf. “[The trust’s] ability to raise funds and nimbly do pre-acquisitions for us is essential,” says Goettel, whose funds are processed slowly, even when available. “We would definitely be behind the game without them.”
Some islands pose special challenges to refuge staff. Seal Island, twenty-three miles out to sea in the approaches to Penobscot Bay, is home to one of Maine’s most successful managed colonies, with thousands of terns and 230 puffins. But it’s also strewn with unexploded shells, bombs, and rockets, as it was once used by the navy for target practice. Machias Seal Island, ten miles off Cutler, was claimed by Great Britain after the American Revolution and is still occupied by Canadian Coast Guard personnel. “They expect us to sign a [Canadian] entry permit and we won’t,” says Benedict, “so it’s a dance every time we go out there.”
Meanwhile, refuge staff are preparing to ready the islands for another field season, repairing blinds, mowing underbrush, and opening camps. “We’re pretty much the stronghold for many of these species in the Lower 48 states,” says Welch, who’s working to establish a new colony on Eastern Brothers. “But if we were to walk away from these islands, there’s a really good chance these populations would be lost.”
All of the islands within the Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge are closed to the public from April 1 to August 31, but several private tour boat operators offer excursions to Petit Manan and Machias Seal islands to see the seabirds nesting on them.
Norton of Jonesport (207-497-2560, www.machiassealisland.com) offers daily trips to Machias Seal Island from its dock in Jonesport, with passengers able to spend up to two hours on the island.
Bold Coast Charter Company (207-259-4484, www.boldcoast.com) sails once a day from Cutler to Machias Seal Island, stopping on the island when weather and permit regulations allow.
Bar Harbor Whale Watch Company (207-288-2386, www.barharborwhales.com) offers up to two trips daily from the town pier in Bar Harbor past Petit Manan Island.
The four mainland sites, located in Hancock and Washington counties, of the refuge encompass more than four thousand acres in total and are open to day-use visitors with walking trails and parking areas. The mainland sites are:
Petit Manan Point
(2,166 acres), Steuben
(607 acres), Gouldsboro
(1,028 acres), Milbridge
Corea Heath (431 acres), Gouldsboro
For more information about the Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge, contact the Milbridge office, 207-546-2124; the Rockport office, 207-236-6970; or visit www.fws.gov/northeast/mainecoastal