VIDEO

Group takes rare visit to count seabird colony eggs on outcropping in Frenchman Bay

Posted May 22, 2012, at 3:37 p.m.
Last modified May 22, 2012, at 6:37 p.m.
Scott Swann, lecturer at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, uses calipers to measure a gull egg found Tuesday, May 22, 2012, on Egg Rock off Mount Desert Island. Swann was part of a group from the college that conducted an egg census of seabirds on the small island. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which owns the island, allows COA on the island to count seabird eggs once every five years.
Bill Trotter
Scott Swann, lecturer at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, uses calipers to measure a gull egg found Tuesday, May 22, 2012, on Egg Rock off Mount Desert Island. Swann was part of a group from the college that conducted an egg census of seabirds on the small island. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which owns the island, allows COA on the island to count seabird eggs once every five years.
A group of students and staff from College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor waits on the shore of Egg Rock for more students to arrive at the small island on Tuesday, May 22, 2012. Students and staff from the college traveled to Egg Rock on Tuesday morning to count seabird eggs for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
A group of students and staff from College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor waits on the shore of Egg Rock for more students to arrive at the small island on Tuesday, May 22, 2012. Students and staff from the college traveled to Egg Rock on Tuesday morning to count seabird eggs for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

EGG ROCK, Maine — Mount Desert Island, where millions of people visit Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park each summer, dominates the view from this rocky outcropping in Frenchman Bay but it might as well be a world away.

The birds that nest here like it that way, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wants to make sure the birds continue to like it. In sharp contrast to MDI, people set foot on Egg Rock only once every five years to count the eggs that gulls and other birds lay and hatch in the island. The only other people allowed on Egg Rock are Coast Guard personnel who maintain the aids to navigation on the tiny island, which consist of a blinking red light at night and a warning horn when the fog sets in.

Tuesday was one of those rare days when people set foot on Egg Rock as a group of about 16 people from College of the Atlantic, including students and naturalists, traveled on the COA vessel Osprey to the island. Seals swam and surfaced nearby and birds floated on the still water or swooped overhead while a dory made several trips carrying people from the moored boat to shore.

Braving the raindrops, they spread out into a line and walked side-by-side across Egg Rock’s rugged terrain, counting eggs in nests they found in rocky crevices or in the grass. At each nest with one or more eggs, they stuck a tongue-depressor type stick into the edge of the nest, with a splotch of red paint on the top end, to mark it as counted.

They called numbers out to Matt Drennan, a COA instructor, when they came across a nest with eggs in it. Some nests had one egg, others two and still some others three. Drennan wrote the numbers down in columns in a small notebook to keep track of what they found.

“It’s a way to monitor [bird] populations,” said Drennan, who along with Scott Swann teaches ornithology to the students who participated in Tuesday’s census effort. “Populations have been fluctuating a fair bit in the past decade or so.”

A decline in fish abundance along the coast, the closing of open garbage dumps and a resurgence in bald eagles in Maine all have contributed to those changes, Drennan said. Some islands have fewer nesting seabirds than they used to, he said, while some have had population shifts. At one point in the 1980s, Egg Rock had far more terns on it than it does now, if it has any, he said.

“Principally, we’re looking at gulls at a place like Egg Rock, herring gulls, and to a much lesser extent, great black-backed gulls,” Drennan said. “There are some hundreds of herring gulls there and maybe a dozen or so great black-backed gulls.”

There also are a few eider duck nests on the island, he said, but not many.

Drennan said that, when U.S. Fish and Wildlife authorizes COA to conduct an egg count on Egg Rock, it makes sense to take out the ornithology class. Having a dozen or so people involved helps the count go quickly, which lessens the disturbance of the birds, he said, and it provides the students with a valuable field research opportunity.

“It’s an excellent experience for the college students to be able to actually get ashore at a seabird colony and to see how that basic field work happens,” Drennan said. “I would love to do it every year.”

Mother Nature interfered in Tuesday’s count, however, cutting it short as the rain intensified into a downpour. Swann said the concern of counting eggs in the rain is that as the group walks across the island, the adult birds leave their nests to get away from the perceived threat. If the exposed eggs get too wet and cool, they could fail to hatch.

So the group, dripping with rain, returned to the boat hoping they could return later in the week to complete a bird survey that is done only twice a decade.

Hannah Miller, a COA student in the ornithology class, said Tuesday after the trip that she’s more interested in botany than ornithology, but she still enjoys the class. Every time the class meets, which is twice a week, they venture outside to see birds, usually by van, she said.

“It’s something I’ve always wanted to get into,” she said.

The class usually takes them into Acadia National Park, Miller said, but twice before this term they have gone out on the Osprey to see seabirds — once to Petit Manan and once around Frenchman Bay. Tuesday’s trip to Egg Rock was the first time this term that the class has gone ashore onto an island to see a seabird colony up close.

“I’ve never seen a gull’s nest before, so that was pretty cool,” Miller said. “I’ve never seen a [bird] colony before. I loved it.”

Follow BDN reporter Bill Trotter on Twitter at @billtrotter.

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