How the pandemic pushed puffin research back years

August 4, 2020
How the pandemic pushed puffin research back years

Machias Seal Island is tiny speck of land isolated out in the Bay of Fundy. 

But despite being more than 15 kilometres away from any mainland, the pandemic has found a way to derail more than 25 years of research on Atlantic puffins and a variety of other seabirds. 

Host to the most important puffin colony south of Newfoundland, Machias Seal Island also happens to be a piece of land that both Canada and the U.S. claim as their own. 

That complication, coupled with COVID-19, has scientists scrambling to salvage what they can in order to maintain data sets that date back to 1994.

“It’s actually a really big hit to our research program,” said Heather Major, an associate professor at the University of New Brunswick who runs the seabird research program on the disputed island. 

Heather Major, an associate professor at the University of New Brunswick, heads the research project on Machias Seal Island that has been studying seabirds for the last 26 years. (Submitted by Heather Major)

Normally, each summer researchers from UNB set up camp on the island to monitor, count and place leg bands on six species of seabirds. Those include razorbill, Leach’s storm petrel, Arctic tern, common tern, common murre, and the iconic Atlantic puffins. 

The research keeps track of how each population is faring from year to year, as well as keeping tally on birth rates and successful hatches. Banding the birds also allows researchers to note how many are returning year after year, giving valuable survival metrics and providing an overall view of the health of a population. 

But this year COVID-19 restrictions kept most of that from happening. 

Research on puffins and other seabirds has taken place uninterrupted on Machias Seal Island for the last 26 years. (Joe McDonald/CBC)

The eight-hectare island hosts two full-time Canadian lighthouse keepers. Precautions had to be put in place to ensure researchers did not bring the coronavirus to them.

According to Major, because the island is designated “an important bird area,” and because of its unique status as “contested,” it’s managed by the federal government instead of the Province of New Brunswick. Several levels of restrictions had to be lifted, and several levels of federal government had to be satisfied before scientists could set foot on Machias Seal. 

The first of those hurdles was restrictions preventing access to important bird areas by Environment and Climate Change Canada. Those were lifted in early June, according to Major.

But because researchers and equipment have to travel to the island by boat, it led to another delay. 

“Then there was a Transport Canada directive that passenger vessels couldn’t take people out on the water,” said Major. “That got lifted on July 1.”

Researchers needed the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to give special permission to land on the island, said Major.  

“All of it makes perfect sense,” said Major. “But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t frustrating.”

Then poor weather conditions pushed the team back even further. 

They landed on the island July 4. It was too late to witness the birds’ arrival, breeding and hatching season.

Machaus Seal Island remains the last area between Canada and the United States where both countries claim sovereignty, but to this day it remains contested. It’s currently manned year round by two Canadian lighthouse keepers. (Shane Fowler/CBC)

Bad luck also didn’t help. Early in the season the lighthouse keepers relayed back to researchers that the birds had landed early this year. 

“The birds are all early this year, so they’re already all leaving the island,” said Major. “Great for them, because they’re doing really, really well this year, but we don’t have a lot of the measures to compare how well they’re doing this year to previous years.

“So, we won’t actually know how much better they’re doing this year than they have in the past.

“I’ve had a lot of conversations with people who say, ‘Well, why don’t you just stay out longer.’ And it doesn’t actually work that way. Because the birds are only there for a certain number of weeks and if you’re not there on those weeks, you just lose the year.”

The Atlantic puffins on Machias Seal island are part of the largest breeding population south of Newfoundland. (Shane Fowler/CBC)

Major predicts this year’s research loss will be felt in the project’s data set for at least the next three years. 

“Three years of data that is going to be of lesser quality than other years,” said Major. 

The UNB researchers have been scrambling to band as many birds as possible as they leave the island, as well as get in as many observation hours as possible in order to lessen the gap between previous research years, but the long delays in getting to the island mean the damage has already been done. 

But as bad that’s been for the research team, another setback could prove to be even worse. 

Tern concerns

Both Arctic terns and common terns had been using Machias Seal Island as a breeding ground for at least 150 years. 

But in 2006 the population almost completely disappeared. Where once thousands of birds came year after year, only a few dozen showed up. No one knew why. And no one knew where they went. 

Since then researchers have been working to make the island more attractive to the population. Their simple presence on the island often deters hungry herring gulls from feasting on tern eggs and chicks. The team also works to keep the predatory seabirds from nesting on the island and breeding. 

Since 2017 those efforts seemed to be paying off.

“Every year we go out there’s more terns nesting on the island and they keep doing better and better,” said Major. 

But last year a series of brutal rainstorms hit the island during the terns nesting period and wiped out all but about 10 per cent of new hatchlings. 

Two Canadian lighthouse keepers man the Machias Seal lighthouse throughout the year. In the summer months they are normally joined by UNB researchers and thousands of seabirds. (Shane Fowler/CBC)

“Terns are one of these species that if anything bad happens they abandon really easily,” said Major. “Some birds, like puffins or razorbills, are much more strongly attached to their nesting colony and they’ll continue to come back even if bad things happen. But terns aren’t like that.” 

Getting to the island late this year meant researchers couldn’t tell if any terns had returned to nest, and they couldn’t prevent predators from preying on them if they had returned. 

Their observations so far don’t look good. 

“We do actually now have gull chicks that are running around, and are big, are eating all kinds of seabirds,” said Major.  

But according to Major the lighthouse keepers did spot terns before her team arrived.

“They told us that the terns came back and were back for a couple of weeks and then they all left,” said Major. “The crew we have on the island right now has not seen any evidence of tern nesting this year, so that’s really unfortunate news.” 

Arctic terns, like this one seen on Machias Seal Island in 2017, had been returning to the island after their large-scale disappearance around 2006. Several setbacks now bring their rebound into question. (Submitted by Heather Major)

Despite this year’s research being somewhat of a wash, and the future of the tern population once again in question on Machias Seal Island, the puffins seem to be OK.

Every two years researchers do a population census. Luckily, the last one was completed a year ago, skipping tumultuous 2020. And thanks to the data collected at the very start of the project, scientists can compare numbers and state that the puffin population on the little island is stable. 

“In 2019, we had about 8,500 pairs nesting on the island,” said Major. “Which is actually just about the exactly the same as the number that was nesting there 25 years ago.” 

The puffin population is stable on Machias Seal Island. (Joe McDonald/CBC)

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