Turn of the Seasons

One of the most interesting aspects of seasonal biology jobs is watching the world around you change as the months pass. I arrived in Maine in late May and will be here until the end of October: a sizable sample of the annual cycle, only leaving out the cold winter months and the very beginning of spring. Many of the migrant birds I saw headed north at the tail end of spring migration have now reappeared, traveling in the opposite direction. Even in the short time I spent stationed on Eastern Egg Rock (May 29-June 11), I watched the breeding season kick into high gear for our local seabirds. Many of them were still courting and furnishing their nests when I first landed on the island, though most individuals were incubating their eggs. Around the halfway point of my stay I observed the season’s first food delivery by an adult puffin to its nest, a sure sign that the bird’s chick had already hatched. Feedings like this increased in regularity during the following week as more and more pufflings entered the world. Although I began narrating boat tours to the island shortly after returning to the mainland, I didn’t set foot on Egg again for over a month. When I returned on July 13 to introduce some Project Puffin benefactors to the research crew, I was surprised to discover countless tern chicks in place of eggs.

Sterna hirundo

Common Tern with chicks

Thanks to the timing differences between each pair’s arrival, courtship length, and egg lay date, virtually every stage of development was represented in the ranks of these youngsters. Some had grown to nearly adult size and were preparing to take their first flight, jumping in place while flapping newly-feathered wings. In contrast, we also found nests where the downy chicks had only just dried off from hatching out of the egg. Beneath our feet, the puffins and other burrow-nesters were undergoing the same rapid growth. We confirmed this unseen mass transformation when we extracted a young Black Guillemot from its nest: the bird was covered in fluff but showed the first signs of proper flight feathers beginning to sprout. Now, I can see evidence of the turning seasons even from the cruise boats. Young Common, Arctic, and Roseate Terns have flown closer and closer to our ships as they chase one another around the island. It’s all fun and games for them right now, as they circle overhead and plunge into the sea, but they are exercising their “training wings” for marathon flights to the Southern Hemisphere. Before the end of August they and the other birds will all be gone, winging their way to their respective wintering grounds.

There are many more sights to see as the calendar pages fly away and autumn approaches. Razorbills and murres, which visited our fair island more frequently in early summer, still grace us with their appearance from time to time. The striking Northern Gannets have arrived in force, with many post-breeding adults from Canadian nesting colonies joining the shiftless young birds which spent the summer cruising the Gulf’s waters. Harbor Porpoises continue to be a consistent presence as we traverse the bays, and we see plenty of Harbor Seals with their pups. The occasional Ocean Sunfish is always an appreciated find, with its bizarre appearance and sedate, approachable attitude. Today a Minke Whale appeared quite close to our ship while we were headed back to port, providing good views. It wasn’t quite as exciting as the breaching individual we observed earlier in the season, but any day with a whale sighting is a good day. It also helped soften the disappointment I felt when my coworker encountered a Fin Whale mother-and-calf pair last week, without me onboard. I’m greatly looking forward to the remaining tours before the season comes to a close, and I hope to continue exploring the waters here after the scheduled trips end.

A final thought: I saw a young Black Guillemot floating off Eastern Egg last night, sporting neat salt-and-pepper plumage and flight-capable wings. I can’t help but wonder if it was the same individual I took from its burrow a few weeks ago as a chick. Nice to think that it might be.

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About timhealz

A recent graduate (Cornell '14) and lifelong explorer cataloging my thoughts and travels.
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6 Responses to Turn of the Seasons

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