Alone on a Maine island: Interns spend summers helping vulnerable birds survive

Posted July 18, 2012, at 5:46 p.m.
David Bridges, 20, of Augusta, held a guillemot chick that he &quotgrubbed" from its rock tunnel home on Tuesday, July 17, 2012 on Metinic Island. Half of the 300-acre island is a bird refuge where Bridges and another intern for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service monitor and protect seabird populations.
David Bridges, 20, of Augusta, held a guillemot chick that he "grubbed" from its rock tunnel home on Tuesday, July 17, 2012 on Metinic Island. Half of the 300-acre island is a bird refuge where Bridges and another intern for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service monitor and protect seabird populations. Buy Photo
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's summer intern house stands in the fog on Metinic on Tuesday, July 17, 2012.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's summer intern house stands in the fog on Metinic on Tuesday, July 17, 2012. Buy Photo
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Michael Langlois rowed trash bags of thistle from Metinic to a nearby boat. He then brought the bags to an incinerator back on the mainland. Thistle has sharp thorns and is spreading on Metinic Island on tern nesting territory. Terns lay their eggs in the soft grassland on the island -- the thistle makes for poor nesting ground.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Michael Langlois rowed trash bags of thistle from Metinic to a nearby boat. He then brought the bags to an incinerator back on the mainland. Thistle has sharp thorns and is spreading on Metinic Island on tern nesting territory. Terns lay their eggs in the soft grassland on the island -- the thistle makes for poor nesting ground. Buy Photo
David Bridges, 20, of Augusta, and Katie Chenard, 22, of Rochester, N.Y., both work to &quotgrub" guillemot chicks from their rock tunnel homes on Tuesday, July 17, 2012 on Metinic Island. Half of the 300-acre island is a bird refuge where Bridges and Chenard monitor and protect seabird populations. The two are interns for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The interns weight the chicks and monitor what they eat.
David Bridges, 20, of Augusta, and Katie Chenard, 22, of Rochester, N.Y., both work to "grub" guillemot chicks from their rock tunnel homes on Tuesday, July 17, 2012 on Metinic Island. Half of the 300-acre island is a bird refuge where Bridges and Chenard monitor and protect seabird populations. The two are interns for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The interns weight the chicks and monitor what they eat. Buy Photo
Two birder &quotblinds" stand abandoned in the fog on Metinic. Usually at this time of year the blinds would be surrounded with cawing terns and the grassy land would have eggs and chicks scattered all around. But the island is quiet because the terns abandoned the nesting ground after a bad storm this summer, which allowed their predators to move in quickly.
Two birder "blinds" stand abandoned in the fog on Metinic. Usually at this time of year the blinds would be surrounded with cawing terns and the grassy land would have eggs and chicks scattered all around. But the island is quiet because the terns abandoned the nesting ground after a bad storm this summer, which allowed their predators to move in quickly. Buy Photo
Katie Chenard, 22, an intern for U.S. Fish and WIldlife Service on Metinic led biologists around her summer home on Tuesday, July 18, 2012. The 300-acre island is a seabird restoration island. Interns on the island monitor and protect seabirds including terns and guillemots.
Katie Chenard, 22, an intern for U.S. Fish and WIldlife Service on Metinic led biologists around her summer home on Tuesday, July 18, 2012. The 300-acre island is a seabird restoration island. Interns on the island monitor and protect seabirds including terns and guillemots. Buy Photo

METINIC ISLAND, Maine — Brian Benedict and Michael Langlois boarded their boat Tuesday despite the warnings — after all, they must feed the interns. They help the interns and the interns help migratory seabirds on the island.

“They’re talking about serious storms — hail, high winds. There may be tornado warnings. It’d be better if we didn’t go out, but I think it will just be foggy,” Benedict said, his hand on the throttle, leaving a wake in Rockland Harbor.

Benedict and Langlois both work for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and are responsible for bringing food and supplies to interns on some of the Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge islands. The wildlife service puts interns on the islands to protect migratory seabirds that nest on Metinic, Matinicus Rock, Pond, Seal, Ship, Brothers and Petit Manan islands. From April through August the interns and biologists are almost the only ones allowed on the refuge islands.

When Benedict and Langlois anchor off Metinic, two interns walk through the grassy plain down to the pebbly shore to greet them — with 40 garbage bags of thistle.

“Working hard I see,” Benedict said.

Thistle is prickly and quickly took root in tern nesting land on Metinic. The birds, which like to lay eggs in soft, tall grass, won’t nest in thistle. So the interns have scrapes all over their hands from ripping up the weed.

On Metinic, interns Katie Chenard and David Bridges — both from the University of Maine — live in a small two-story home. The gray shingled home set on tawny fields near a pebbly coast looks like Andrew Wyeth painted it. Inside, it’s pretty bare-bones — a kitchen table, a desk, a coach, a poster to help identify birds. No bathroom — the outhouse is nearby.

But as rustic as Metinic is, Chenard and Bridges have it pretty good.

“On Brothers and Ship [islands], the interns have a glorified shed: 12 by 14 [feet],” said Stephanie Martin of Friends of Maine Seabird Islands, a nonprofit group that helps support the on-island internship program. “Seal and Pond [islands] and Matinicus Rock are tents.”

Half of Metinic is owned by the refuge and the other half is home to summer residences. All of the other islands staffed with interns are uninhabited by humans.

“There are lots of birds,” Martin said.

Those birds need the humans, she said.

On Metinic, when they’re not pulling weeds to enhance nesting grounds, Chenard and Bridges catch snakes that eat seabird eggs. They shoot predator gulls that would attack and kill adult terns. They stab gull eggs to reduce predator populations. The interns also count the birds, the eggs, the chicks and monitor what they eat.

“If we didn’t have interns out here the seabirds wouldn’t have a safe place to breed — if we didn’t have interns these birds wouldn’t exist,” said Langlois, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist.

As it is, the 1,400-bird tern population fled Metinic because of predation. Now the interns have to focus elsewhere on the island.

This is the time of year when guillemot eggs — white with black freckles — are hatching and the first small, black seabird chicks are fattening up. On Tuesday, Bridges found a nest marker and got on his belly, throwing a hand deep under a rock. He gently prods around for a chick and if he catches it, he weighs it and writes down any observations.

This is why Bridges came to the island. He is a sophomore biology student at UMaine and wants to be a biologist when he graduates, or maybe after grad school.

“I want to do something like this for the rest of my life. How many people get to do this? It’s an intense experience,” he said.

Langlois goes through about 180 applications to choose 10 interns each year.

“In school maybe they get a little hands-on experience, but this is real field work. They are doing work for a purpose and we use the data,” Langlois said.

Langlois answers questions the interns might have and makes sure all the interns collect and record the data the same way, but aside from that, the young people are largely on their own.

“This is about protecting birds and raising young scientists,” Martin said.

The interns get paid about $3,400 for the summer, although ones with supervisor positions get a bit more.

If there was more money in the budget, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would have interns on more of the 57 protected islands in the refuge. The federal agency must pick which islands need the most protection.

Several of the choices were islands with lighthouses because the migratory seabirds already thrived there with some human help.

“A lot of the lighthouse islands, those islands had far fewer [predator] gulls on them, historically. … Gulls love sitting on roofs, so lighthouse keepers would deter the gulls, so the terns thrived until the lighthouses became automated,” Martin said.

Once all the chicks have fledged in a few weeks, the interns also will leave the island.

It will take some time to adjust, they said.

“Once you get off-island, you’re not used to society. I went to Portland to hang out with friends and it was so overwhelming. I had a hard time walking on sidewalks or crossing the street,” Chenard said.

“And ice cream. There are so many things to choose from,” Bridges added.

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